This Christmas season, students from Alachua’s Bhaktivedanta Academy (BANA) participated in “Outreach Week” from December 16th to 20th. A tradition stretching back decades, and since 2008 in its current form, it’s designed to give students a positive experience of sharing Krishna consciousness.
“We carefully craft the experience, making it age appropriate,” says principal Visvambhar Aguilera. “For example, our youngest students visit a devotee’s home on the temple property where the school is. When they reach lower elementary, they visit devotees’ houses outside the property.”
He continues: “In third grade, we start taking them out into the broader community for book distribution, pairing them with senior devotees who have a passion for sankirtan but who know how to do it in an appropriate, kid-friendly way. We make sure they do only what they’re comfortable with and capable of doing. And it’s always in supervision with at least one of our teachers as well. We start by distributing books at devotee-run businesses where we know they’ll be greeted warmly and will have a positive experience, then move on to other businesses.”
Kicking off Outreach Week on Monday December 16th, upper elementary BANA students in fourth and fifth grade – accompanied by senior book distributor mother Ragatmika and school secretary Gopi Prema – distributed Prabhupada’s books at businesses in downtown Alachua. As with the other grades, they also gave out prasadam cakes and sang “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
On Tuesday, middle school students in seventh and eighth grade distributed books and cakes at the devotee-run jewelry store Govind and Sons in Gainesville, as well as at neighboring businesses in the Thornebrook Village shopping center like Gainesville Health and Fitness and Chopstix Bistro.
On Wednesday, third grade students in lower elementary participated in a special tradition when they visited Betty Dampier, owner of Dampier Septic Tank, Inc in Gainesville. Students from Bhaktivedanta Academy, and before it, previous devotee schools in Alachua, have visited Betty for over twenty-five years. Now in her late eighties and retired, she still comes in specifically to meet the students because she enjoys seeing them so much.
On this occasion, the children sang “Govindam” and “Parama Karuna” in Sanskrit, as well as “Lover of the Lord,” an English song by Mangalananda Das about Srila Prabhupada’s qualities. Betty then purchased prasadam cakes for all twenty-something of her employees, and spent time chatting with the students.
“She calls herself a “woman of God” and believes that we both believe in the same God, but just call Him different names,” says Gopi Prema. “She asked the students to promise that after she passes away, they will continue to visit her daughter, who will take over the business. She wants to make sure that the tradition continues even when she’s no longer around.”
Next, on Thursday, BANA’s youngest students from Pre-K to Kindergarten visited with Mother Yadunandana, a senior devotee who has cared for Lord Jagannath for over forty years. Children brought fruits from home to offer to her giant Deities, who preside over local Florida Rathayatras, and sang songs in both Sanskrit and English such as “Jagannatha Swami” and “Krishna, Krishna Let’s Go Play.” Meanwhile Mother Yadu told the kids stories about Lord Jagannatha and gave them delicious maha cookies.
The oldest students – 9th and 10th grade high schoolers – also went out on Thursday, distributing books and cakes at a shopping plaza in Gainesville; while on Friday fifth and sixth graders visited businesses in another nearby town, High Springs.
Students distributed a total of 60 books and 120 cakes. All the donations they collected were given to the New Raman Reti Hare Krishna temple.
“As we went store to store, many business owners said that our visit was the highlight of their day,” says Gopi Prema. “For their part, the students were also feeling so happy that they didn’t want to stop the service. Some said, ‘We are giving God to them,’ and felt that they were doing something important.”
Principal Visvambhar Aguilera adds, “Growing up in ISKCON, I did not necessarily have very positive experiences with sankirtan or outreach. We want to create a different experience, where our students have really positive memories about it. And based upon their enthusiasm to go out every year, I think we’re doing it the right way.”
In another gesture of Christmas spirit, students and their families also dropped off food items with a long shelf life, such as rice, flour, and cans of beans or fruit, in a food collection box outside Bhaktivedanta Academy throughout the week. Radha Selvester, coordinator for the local Hare Krishna Social Services program, then distributed the food amongst devotee families in need.
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies