A community webmonger gives Vishnupriya Bhandaram his life mantra — bananas, ice-cream and a dollop of learning
Eighty-year-old Tom Holloway either cycles or walks to his destinations. He feels that running ceiling fans is a waste of energy. We’ll bet that he can give a mighty complex to those much younger to him. Tom dislikes turning on ceiling fans because he quite simply thinks it’s a waste of energy. In his cosy apartment in Banjara Hills, he points to the bananas on the table and says, “Around 4 o’ clock every day, the neighbourhood basti kids come for bananas, ice-cream and computer training.”
Tom Holloways is first and foremost an educator. He runs Holloways.org, a website dedicated to gathering funds, making documentaries and setting up websites for charities. Through it, Tom encourages volunteers to come from the UK to help out with the schools he is managing in the city. He also describes himself as a “community webmonger” — he sets up and maintains various community websites. He set up the Commitments England website in 1986 and introduced the “chat back format”, which provides an e-mail facility for up to 100 schools in the UK and abroad for children with special needs. Tom has also set up a similar project, Commitments India, which enables poor and disadvantaged communities to manage their own interests.
Tom worked in IBM for over 25 years as a consultant systems engineer before he decided to retire and think about what he wanted to do with his future. “I took early retirement in order to investigate my interests on how to use technology to help the dispossessed,” he says. He set foot in India to meet a friend but he had been mulling over a decision. “At that point, I felt ready to bring in a change in my life,” he says. Tom went back to the UK to inform his family of his decision to move to India and “be the change he wanted to see”. He repeats these lines by Gandhi with great zeal. “This decision came at the time when my children had all grown up and they didn’t need me anymore” he smiles. “I can’t say it was a blinding flash on the road to Damascus, but within a couple of weeks of arriving in India I knew that this was what I was looking for.”
Tom follows no religion and calls himself a “humanist atheist”. He says that his actions come from a pure heart and a realisation of the importance of doing good. “I don’t have a mother or a father figure in heaven looking over my shoulder. I do what I do because I am a humanist,” he says. Tom believes that there is much to be done to help others. “Trickle-down economics does not work,” he shrugs.
He looks after three schools in the city: the M.S. Foundation School in Yellamabanda, IDPL school in Balanagar and St. Clares Primary School in Banjara Hills. How does he finance all this? He points to his IBM pension. “Everything I do is out of my own pocket,” he smiles. He concentrates on using technology to help those at an economic disadvantage. “Currently at M.S. School, we are training teachers on how to use Skype to communicate with mentors in the UK,” he says. He started the M.S. Foundation in Yellamabanda with M.A. Kareem and N. Lavanya from the city. The school started with about 70 local students and now there are 220, most of them girls. “When you educate a boy, you are educating a wage earner and when you educate a girl, you are educating a family,” says Tom. He has mentored young women from the basti near his house. Ramola, Vennela and Sandhya learnt website designing from him and have gone on to find jobs in relevant fields.
The doorbell rings. It’s almost 4 o’ clock and in walks Radha, a 13-year-old computer whiz and Tom’s favourite student. Radha’s mother works as a domestic help. Tom took Radha under his wing and has clearly taught her well. She converses confidently in English and tells us that she loves mathematics! “I teach them skills that they will find useful in the future, like the creative use of the internet through websites and website maintenance,” says Tom.
Tom has lived in India for over seven years now; can he speak in the local languages? He smiles and says that his bad Telugu won’t help the kids, but his careful English will definitely help them learn and that’s more important.
Does he plan to adopt more schools? Tom says he has his hands full with the three. What’s his goal? “I have given myself permission to be happy because I know what I am doing is worthwhile. And, oh, to stay alive I suppose, and of course to teach and educate.”