Monja Wolf has set up schools in parts of India, ensuring that these kids no longer have to sit outdoors. Image Credit: Amelia Johnson/Monyati Initiatives

Biting her lip in concentration, Khushi Shukla types on a laptop, her tiny fingers flying over the keys. She's learning to touch-type, but what she really likes to do on the computer is draw and paint. Her teacher showed her how to do it once in class and the fact that she can create amazing images simply by moving the mouse amuses her. She doesn't pause for a moment because she is not sure whether the electricity will be available for long; she wants to make the most of the time allotted to her.

The laptop has opened up the world to the seven-year-old who, until recently, didn't have a chair or a table to study at in her classroom. She, just like the 300 or so students in the Pandit Brahmaganga School, Hariharpur, a village in the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, northern India, had to sit on old rags or jute sacks. The windows were broken, so during the summer days when the temperature could rise to 45C, the children had to endure the hot, dry winds that blew in from the surrounding open fields.

The winters were just as uncomfortable. With the mercury dipping to as low as 3C, the 80-plus children in her grade-3 class huddled together for warmth. Most hated going to school and the drop-out rate was high.

Khushi was no different - but today she skips to school early, eager to arrive at her new classroom with its smart benches, desks and laptops. The floor is clean and the walls havea fresh coat of paint.

The amazing changes that have happened in this little school are all thanks to Abu Dhabi-based Monja Wolf who set up her charity, Monyati Initiatives, in 2009. Since then, apart from raising funds to refurbish the school in India, the former model's charity has also been helping make a difference in the lives of poor people in countries such as Pakistan, Brazil, Ethiopia and Sudan.

"The changes have been life-transforming for our students,'' says Santosh Tiwari, a philanthropist who initially set up the school in his home village. "Today, thanks to the Monyati charity, the children get a decent level of quality education, complete with computers to make them employable in the future." 

Making over lives

It was a chance meeting Santosh had with Monja, a German who settled in the UAE after quitting modelling for Valentino and Armani, that led to his school getting a much-needed facelift and basic equipment.

"The School Project in Varanasi is very close to my heart,'' says Monja, 30, overjoyed that her initiative has been instrumental in helping children get better quality education.

She first realised she needed to do something more than modelling about ten years ago when she was in Rajasthan, India on a fashion shoot and saw a bedraggled woman carrying a half-naked baby and asking strangers for help.

"Here I was modelling a hugely expensive dress and there, a stone's throw away, in stark contrast was a poverty-stricken woman struggling for survival. I found it shocking. A burning need to be in some way accountable, to make some small difference, was sown in me then,'' she says. "I was 20 at the time and after seeing poverty up close, I felt I should be using my life to do things that were more useful than furthering my own career.''

However, she wasn't sure where to start and was looking for the push into charity, which would come a few years later. 

Monyati is born

In 2006, after quitting the professional modelling scene, she joined a real-estate company in Abu Dhabi. But three years into the job, she wanted to do something more socially responsible. "I remembered visiting an orphanage in Nepal years ago and, on a whim, called them and asked if I could help in some way,'' says Monja. The organisation asked if she could arrange for them to get ten heaters to help combat the bitter cold. "I had to generate Dh10,000 for the heaters, so I contacted my friends in the fashion world and asked if they could help,'' she says. And they did. Monja then went to Nepal along with two volunteer friends to deliver the heaters. "That,'' she says, "was really the starting point of Monyati.''

Having proved to herself that she could raise funds for a cause, she hasn't looked back. She set up the charity in Abu Dhabi - Monyati in Arabic means ‘a wish close to the heart' - determined to help the needy all over the world. "Personally I embrace the concept of social entrepreneurship and social business which focuses on sustainability, employment and empowerment and we try to apply the same to our initiatives,'' she says.

Monja relied on her vast network of friends in the modelling world to help raise funds for various charity projects, but recognising that Monyati Initiatives would not be able to survive solely on donations, last year she set up Ma'at. A social enterprise, Ma'at markets fair-trade products produced by vocational centres in developing countries. Its aim is to create employment with fair market-wage while also protecting and nurturing traditional work skills. "The profits are ploughed back into Monyati Initiatives,'' she says.

Ma'at has sponsors like the Landmark Group and Etihad Airways and is joining forces with upmarket fashion outlets in the UAE to launch is own products. To date, it has raised close to Dh2 million for charity projects in several countries in Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

Monja believes that to enable empowerment, "we first must engage with communities, listen to them... nurture a dialogue with them.'' It was just such a dialogue she had with Santosh during his visit to Dubai in late 2009 that led to them working together to improve facilities in the school in Varanasi, India.

"I had set up a school in my village as there was no place for kids to get even a primary education,'' Santosh, who works in real estate in Mumbai, explains. Santosh had used his savings to build the basic school with seven classrooms, but it lacked even the most basic infrastructure like proper classrooms, benches or toilets. "Thanks to the extreme weather conditions and poor condition of the school, it was difficult to keep the underprivileged children motivated to learn," he says.

Eager to help, Monja contacted a few corporate houses such as the Landmark Group and friends in the fashion world and raised around Dh22,000. "Thanks to the funds they provided, we built five new classrooms, renovated some existing classrooms and purchased furniture. Now the children are able to study in relative comfort,'' Santosh says. Monyati Initiatives also donated 16 used laptops in excellent condition to the school. 

One challenge at a time

In addition to the school project Monyati is involved in diverse global ventures. "We have set up a women-only vocational sewing centre in Pakistan, constructed low-cost houses in the slums of Sao Paulo, Brazil, built a well in the Amhara region of Ethiopia... All funds we receive go to various initiatives and not a penny is lost on administration fees," Monja says. Another high-profile venture was involvement in a $400,000 (Dh2.7 million) commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative to put up affordable housing in Haiti, in which Monyati partnered with a US-based real-estate developer in 2010. "Sometimes the immensity of our global challenges is intimidating and can make us feel helpless. However I believe we can achieve change step by step with one small tangible commitment at a time," she says.

"I still remember reaching the village in Uttar Pradesh, getting down to painting the classrooms... It was so much fun.

"Seeing the sheer joy on the faces of the children when they trooped into their new refurbished school was enough to keep us going,'' Monja adds. "The first thought that came to mind was Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's words "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.''

Life-changing experience

Mazdak Rafaty, a business consultant based in Dubai, volunteered along with 12 other Monyati members to help with the school project. He is a firm believer that the giver ultimately becomes the receiver, and that the satisfaction and education each project brings is perhaps its best reward. He says: "I was amazed to see how eager the children were to learn, how motivated they were, how high they had set their goals... you don't see the same hunger for knowledge even among the most affluent kids in the developed world."

Making a difference

Who: Monja Wolf
What: Monyati Initiatives
Where: Abu Dhabi
How: Working together with charity and community organisations to empower them and make a major difference to their local communities. Monyati recently helped refurbish a school in an Indian village.