One woman’s mission to help children in India with tea
By H.M. Cauley
Katrell Christie seems like an unlikely philanthropist. She isn’t independently well off; she has no deep pockets to finance her charitable urges. She isn’t an A-list Junior Leaguer whose photo is apt to appear in the society news. But what this petite blonde does have is a passion for changing the world, one cup of tea at a time.
Drop into a soft armchair or a comfy booth at Christie’s Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party, order a ceramic pot of the Learning Tea Darjeeling tea, and you’re immediately part of her plan to provide clothing, shoes, supplies and support to some of the poorest children in India. For almost a year, Christie has been selling 3.5-ounce bags of the fragrant loose tea and funneling all of the funds back to a school and an orphanage she visited in India’s Darjeeling area last summer.
Even the story of how Christie got to such a remote and impoverished section of the world has an unlikeliness to it. She was approached by a local Rotarian chapter that wanted her to be part of a program in India, which encouraged women artisans to develop their own businesses. Christie accepted and decided to stay for two months to work on her own service project. She set up contacts over the phone and made flight arrangements before learning that the Rotarian program was scrapped for lack of money. But after planning the trip for more than a year, she decided to go anyway.
Christie did spend time working with women in the Rotarian program, but being in the tea business, she couldn’t wait to get to Darjeeling, one of the country’s leading tea-producing regions.
“I had planned to go there the minute I got off the plane, but the city was closed,” she recalls. “It took almost a month for me to work my way back there. By then, all contacts I had made were gone. So I went by myself, even though I had no contacts and didn’t know anybody.”
What Christie did know was that an orphanage she’d heard about had a number of girls who were in danger of being tossed out when they turned 18. “I knew girls were treated very poorly over there, but I didn’t know the extent until I got there,” she says. “If there’s no dowry or family, they’re not going to get married, and they usually end up in people-trafficking or brothels.”
Undaunted by not knowing the language or the area, Christie wandered for four days, asking for information through a combination of charades and fractured Hindi. She finally met a man who spoke a little English and agreed to take her to an orphanage and a school. What Christie saw on the way stunned and shocked her.
“There are things there you, an American, are not prepared to see at all,” she says. “There are people sleeping in the streets, dying and starving to death before your eyes. It’s hard to wrap your mind around what’s going on over there.”
Conditions for the 54 girls in the Buddhist orphanage were only slightly better than the street. The girls lived with no running water or electricity and slept on mats on the floor. At the school, children 3 to 7 years old walked miles to school, where they didn’t have a toilet or food for lunch.
Christie immediately got to work. She took the school students shoe shopping, and for just $30, replaced the kids’ sandals with sturdy shoes that stood up to the cold and weather. She then cut a deal with the orphanage director to keep three teens in the home while she paid $500 each for them to attend college. “These are girls from the lowest caste, so going to school is a big deal for them,” she says.
By the time Christie got back to Atlanta last fall, she had arranged to sell a fair-trade plantation’s Darjeeling tea in her shop, with all of the $12 cost going toward tuition costs. The brightly wrapped packets in the Learning Tea line remind buyers that they’re getting more than tea: One purchase covers the costs of 10 pairs of shoes, 20 notebooks, seven school bags or two uniforms. She’s also been talking to two other plantations to set up similar programs, with the money going back to poor girls in the community.
The colorful tea packets and their message were created by students from Melissa Kuperminc’s graphic design class at the Portfolio Center in Buckhead. Kuperminc, her husband Gabriel and her kids live within walking distance of Dr. Bombay’s and have been big fans even before Christie kicked off the tea project.
“Her shop is an extension of my office and living room,” says Kuperminc with a laugh. “I am a huge coffee and tea fan, and I’m so thrilled with the Darjeeling project. It’s an amazing project that’s really helping girls who would never had gotten to college.”
Kuperminc also has participated in Christie’s book exchange by donating and purchasing books from the shelves around the shop. The 50-cent charge supports Noah’s Ark, an animal rehabilitation center in Locust Grove.
“The books are fabulous and add to the atmosphere in the store,” says Kuperminc. “Everybody in the neighborhood takes books there. All of Katrell’s projects are hugely supported by the neighborhood.”
In early June, Christie heads back to India to follow up on promises to bring supplies and uniforms, as well as support. This time she won’t be alone: She’ll have independent Atlanta filmmaker Phoebe Brown and a crew in tow. Brown, head of the award-winning Unblinking Eye production company, has known Christie for eight years, and consulted with her on spreading the word about the tea project last year.
“I really thought she needed to make a full documentary about what she’s doing and the issues involved,” says Brown. “It was an issue that also interested me, and I’ve done other films about women’s issues. I can’t wait to go.”
Brown, Christie and the crew will spend a month together, tracking the progress of the soon-to-be college girls and the students at the local school. But Brown expects it will take a few years to complete the film.
“I see this as a three- or five-year process—that’s the nature of documentary filmmaking,” says Brown. “We’ll want to follow Katrell and at least one of the girls from the orphanage, which will probably mean going back a few more times. Immediately, we can use footage to raise money about the issues of education for girls in India, but I’d really love to look at the struggle of getting one of the girls into and through college. And that will take some time.”
Meanwhile, Christie is charging ahead with plans for her next trip and garnering as much support as possible. Her enthusiasm has spread beyond the store, to one supporter who has volunteered 10 laptops for the project. In mid-May, she sold reps from the Whole Foods Market in Buckhead on the idea of selling the Learning Tea’s Darjeeling, to raise even more money.
While Christie encourages and inspires buyers in her shop, she doesn’t consider herself a big-time philanthropist.
“Look,” she says honestly. “I didn’t make this goal of trying to save the whole world. I’m very specific about it. It’s a tangible goal I can make happen. And after what I saw in India, I believe there’s a reason I got to that orphanage.
Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party is located at 1645 McLendon Ave. 404-474-1402. www.drbombays.com.