By Jonathan Williams
For the AJC
When Candler Park resident and business owner Katrell Christie ventured to India last summer, she never knew what an impact it would have on her life.
The retired Atlanta Rollergirl spent two months traveling across the Indian countryside last July-September in search of tea to bring back to her teashop, Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party. But commerce was only part of her mission, and she planned on using her profits to give back to the Indian community. While the resilience of the lower castes was touching, she was particularly moved after visiting an elementary school lacking such basic amenities as running water and an all-girls orphanage where most graduates end up in the sex trade.
She documented her trip with photos and, upon returning to Atlanta, decided to focus her efforts on Darjeeling, a natural fit since that region is a vital part of the world’s tea production. With goals of helping the elementary school and orphanage graduates, the Learning Tea began to take root.
She brewed up a multifaceted launch last November with an art show at Dr. Bombay’s and neighboring businesses featuring her framed photos. From Buddhist statues to downtrodden villagers, the photos give Atlantans a glimpse into the wonders and woes she witnessed. With the tea and the photography, all profits go directly toward her cause.
“It’s really hard for people to understand what the conditions are like over there without seeing it,” Christie says. “There’s 54 girls in that orphanage. There are three girls graduating this year and when I go back this summer I will get them enrolled in a university there. These will be the first three girls from that village and that orphanage from their caste to get an education instead of going into prostitution. The next year, I’ll have two more girls coming up, so this is an ongoing project.”
Christie’s photography remains displayed at her shop and her latest show, “The Learning Tea: A Journey Through India,” is on display at the Genema Gallery in Buckhead through May 30, with an opening reception on April 9. As word about the Learning Tea has gotten out, it has branched across Atlanta.
With the assistance of Dollina Kharwanlang, a graduate student in women’s studies at Georgia State University whose mother was an Indian orphan, Christie has hosted private tea parties that allow her to raise funds and inform small groups about her cause. And Breadstock VI, an annual music festival hosted by Emory’s Bread Coffeehouse on April 16, will benefit the Learning Tea this year.
When Christie returns to India this July, she will be accompanied by local filmmakers Phoebe Brown and Charlene Fisk, who will be documenting her efforts to better the lives of the teenage orphans.
“I can’t save the world, but I can save three girls who will create an example for other women, and hopefully come back and mentor the girls that are in the orphanage now,” Christie says. “They resent getting older because they know that means they are out the door and on the streets.
“India is pretty crazy, but I love it. It’s very magical,” she continues. “I want the Indian community to know my heart is in this. I definitely want them to know I have their best interests in mind.”
And with the American dollar going such a long way in India, Christie would like to expand her efforts to other areas as well.
“I don’t want to lose the personal connection with this, but I would love to start this project in a couple of other places in India,” she says.
Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party