By Evanne Montoya
It's morning at Asha Kiran, and the halls of the Indian school are open for the usual morning activity. Whitworth alumna Deborah Lyons watches as 12-year-old Shakti "drives" the rest of his class to their room. He pretends they are in a rickshaw, and, of course, makes all the accompanying sound effects. As they get to their room he shepherds the younger students in; he's an unorthodox leader, perhaps, but effective. Shakti, who has cerebral palsy, captured Lyons' heart during her two year-long trips to India.
Asha Kiran, which means "a ray of hope" in Hindi, is a school that was founded by Rita James in 1993. James was born in New Delhi and came from a Hindu background but became a Christian as a young adult. The school took place in James' home until they raised money to construct a building for it in 2004. The school is in Horamavu, India, and caters to children with autism, hearing impairment, learning, physical or mental disabilities, as well as to first generation learners.
Lyons' father and James' husband, Prem, both worked for Interdev, an organization that facilitates partnership in missions. James met Lyons when she and Prem came to London for an Interdev meeting, and invited Lyons to live with her and her husband and work at Asha Kiran.
"I was just finishing high school at that point, and I [thought], 'This sounds like way more fun than starting [college],'" she said.
Lyons had never thought about traveling to India before the opportunity was presented to her, so wasn't sure what to expect upon arriving.
"I was surprised that it felt like home even though it was such a different place," she said. "It was very alive… the city was very hectic but at the same time it wasn't overwhelming." Lyons added that Indranagar Methodist Church and youth group she joined there were welcoming.
Still, the transition wasn't effortless. Lyons found it stressful to be away from home and the familiarity of her family.
"At the beginning it was hard to adjust to being there and the rhythm of life," she said.
She found that the Christian community she was a part of in Bangalore was more involved in their youths' lives and more watchful than the one she had left in the U.K..
"I was not limited, but felt a responsibility not to do anything that would cause [Rita and Prem] to be ashamed of me," she said.
Lyons was surprised by the way the Jameses treated her as if she was a part of the family.
"Rita and Prem don't have any kids of their own, but they've adopted so many people just by loving them," Lyons said. "They took me in as their daughter, and that was such a blessing."
Lyons' spent a year at the school before coming to Whitworth in 2000. She graduated in 2004 with a degree in English and no clear idea of where she was heading.
"I thought about teaching, but I was pretty scared about it so I put it on the back burners for a couple of years," Lyons said. But after a year as a student's aide at Spokane Lutheran School, Lyons returned to Asha Kiran for the year, drawn by her connection to the school and its students.
Lyons began by helping students in the nursery class. They were learning how to write and read. Later, she tutored a partially deaf child in pronunciation. She also worked with older students on science projects and taught them skills such as handling money and mailing letters.
"It was rewarding getting to know them and their characters, and watching them take small steps," she said. "[My experience] has given me a soft spot for disadvantaged children; in the future I hope to go back to working with kids."
Lyons gained self-confidence and learned to handle being responsible for others through her time at Asha Kiran, she said.
In addition, she said, "It was precious to have friends from a different country and to learn from them." Lyons especially learned from those at the church.
"They were living their faith," she said. Instead of just going to church, the people were helping those of other faiths, such as Islam and Hinduism, in practical ways, she said. Lyons added that she treasured that lesson and still strives to live it out in her life.
As of 2010, Lyons lives in Reedly, Calif., with her husband, James. After receiving her masters in Comparative Literature at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Lyons got a job teaching English at Reedly Community College. Although the school is a secular workplace, Lyons finds she can incorporate her faith through her interaction with her students.
She also tries to use what she has learned from professors at Whitworth.
"Now that I'm in a role as a teacher, I'm constantly thinking back to teachers I had that modeled good teaching to me; I try to emulate them in my teaching," she said. Lyons said she tries to get to know students individually and show her passion for what she is teaching to the students.
Personal touches from her professors, such as singing old hymns in the chapel with theology professor Gerald Sittser or acting out scenes from Shakespear outside with English professor Pamela Parker enhanced what Lyons learned and built community within the class, she said.
"I carry those experiences with me," she said. "I am slowly trying to grow past just surviving each lesson to making it something of value for my students."
Although Lyons' current focus is teaching American students, her time teaching at Asha Kiran is not confined to the past.
"I want to take my husband [to the school] to meet the kids," she said. "I definitely have missed it."
Lyons would like to start a school like Asha Kiran in Africa, though she doesn't yet know what the next step towards that dream would be.
"I think, especially in countries that are disadvantaged, the kids who are struggling often get sidelined because there's not capacity to help them in the classroom or there are not resources to help their parents learn how to handle them," she said. "There's a huge need in a place like South Africa for a school that caters to children who are mentally or physically challenged."
Although the future remains unclear to Lyons, some of her passions that grew at Asha Kiran continue to be important to her.
"I still don't know what I want to do with my life, but I certainly hope to be involved cross-culturally, and hopefully work with kids with special needs again," she said. "[The students I worked with] had such joy in life even though they had a lot of struggle."
Just as those children demonstrated joy in spite of difficulties, Lyons has been, and will continue to be, a "ray of hope" to those around her.