About SISP

December, 2008

1. What is SISP?

SISP is a small Indian Non-Governmental Organization (a charity) operating in the southern state of Kerala in India. SISP aims to raise the quality of life of the poorest of the poor. We work to provide free education, social care and other benefits to the most socially disadvantaged people from Vizhinjam, a fishing village in Kerala, south India, and the surrounding area, regardless of sex, caste, politics or religion. SISP is registered as a charity, number T-523/97. 

2. SISP's Origins

SISP was established in December 1996 by Paul Van Gelder and Werner Fynaerts from Mechelen in Belgium, with the local help of Peter Paul John.

The impetus for setting it up came during Paul and Werner's stay in Kerala when they encountered ten young children who had to work to survive and therefore couldn't go to school.

For this reason they decided to start an educational project in the Kovalam/Vizhinjam area, funded from the turnover of their guesthouse in Belgium. It encouraged child labourers into school by paying their families a small replacement income.

SISP has evolved with time.  The school has expanded and several social initiatives have been developed.

3. SISP Now - Key Facts - December 2008

  • In July 2008, we opened our very own purpose-built centre which houses our school, workshops and office.

  • 80 young people in the 5-21 age range are educated at our school.

  • 50 students attend our evening tuition classes.

  • 40 people are employed (both full-time and part-time) by SISP's projects.

  • 6 Literacy training women's groups currently operate in predominantly Muslim areas.

  • 35 self-help micro credit women's groups are coordinated by SISP, each comprising about twenty women.

  • 105 families living far below the poverty line are assisted with funding and food.

4. SISP's Funding

We are entirely funded by private donations.  We were originally financed by Paul and Werner and subsequently by generous donations from family, friends, private individuals, support groups and businesses. All have contributed to make SISP what it is today.

5. Where 'Sebastian' Comes From

'Sebastian' happened to be the name of Paul and Werner's guesthouse in Belgium! Sebastian is a symbol figure for tolerance and cooperation between different religious and cultural communities.

6. Religion and Politics

We are secular and non-partisan - that is, we have no religious or political affinities.

7. SISP's Aims

Our general ethos is that we address the needs of the very poorest of people. These people have few opportunities in Indian society and this is especially the case in the area around Vizhinjam in Kerala.

location map



Fishing boats near Vizhinjam, Kerala


8. SISP's Projects

8.1 Education - SISP's School

We are convinced that a good education is key to improving the life opportunities for our children. Although education is nominally 'free' and accessible to all in India, many do not have the requisite meagre financial resources, or have difficulty attending state school. We try to remedy this situation by offering truly free education.

To convince the very poorest parents to send their children to school instead of working, they are paid a school allowance as a replacement income of Rs10 a day - about the cost of a quarter of a bar of chocolate in the West.

When a child drops out of the education system they will rapidly fall behind. Academically it becomes hard for them to readjust if they try to return.  We provide a nurturing environment, recognizing their very real problems, but always with the hope that we might return them to mainstream school.

When students have reached an adequate level of education (assessed by our teachers and staff), and if they are sufficiently motivated, they can take the exam for re-admission to state school.  If they attain it we continue to pay any replacement income, their school costs, and transport them to and from school.

It is vital that the education we offer is varied and complete, therefore our pupils follow both traditional subjects (English, Mathematics, Malayalam, Hindi, History, etc.) as well as courses in creativity, sports, games and dancing.

Our children often come to school hungry so we provide a sandwich and sweet tea before they start, otherwise they can't concentrate on their lessons.  We then provide them with a filling, balanced and nutritious lunch at 1 o'clock.

At the end of the school day there is an opportunity for those who go to state school to attend our centre for extra tuition, help with homework or help with school-related tasks.  Again, before tuition starts, the children are offered sweet tea and a sandwich.

In 2003 we started a successful scheme for some of our oldest students whereby we offer education in the mornings followed by paid work in our craft workshops in the afternoons.  This gives them an education and also a little money in their pockets.

Students receive medical treatment for cuts and grazes.  Cuts on feet are quite common as many of our children cannot afford sandals. Consequently we run a small before-school clinic (which some of our children use as an excuse to receive a little love).

If we are lucky, from time to time we receive donations of clothes from our supporters.  These are eagerly and proudly worn by our children, even more so if they are of modern Western design! At the end of the year, if we have the resources, we will try to buy a piece of clothing, footwear or something useful as a present.

SISP is one of the few mixed schools in the area. Our staff comprise one head teacher (Ms Kumari), six teachers for the traditional subjects, one creative arts professional/teacher, and one dance professional/teacher (all Indian).

A child helped by SISP

A child helped by SISP

A child helped by SISP

Children helped by SISP

A child helped by SISP


8.2 Employment - SISP's Craft Workshops

SISP has three workshops in the centre itself. They are SISP's offspring, known as "SEP" (Sebastian Employment Projects). SEP has been registered as "Small-Scale Industry" under an Indian government scheme and received a small start-up donation. The workshops are an opportunity for young people to learn new skills and express themselves in a positive environment, thereby helping them to build their self esteem and give them hope for the future. The items created by the workshops are sold to pay the young people a wage and purchase necessary materials.

  • Coconut Handicrafts Workshop  This eco-friendly workshop manufactures small ornaments, trinkets and jewelry, crafted from coconut shells.  It receives many orders from Belgium, Netherlands, England and Italy and is very successful.

  • Paper Arts Workshop This workshop was our first, formed in 1996.  We employed women from the poorest families and we now have several students in training. This is a highly ecological workshop that strongly supports the replacement of plastic bags used in the nearby tourist area of Kovalam with shopping bags made of recycled newsprint. In addition to this they also produce paper gift bags made from handmade paper and are taught sewing. The workers take it in turns to help in the kitchen and the coordinator of the Paper Arts workshop deputizes for absent teachers in emergencies in addition to running routine creativity classes. This workshop has good sales during the November-February tourist season.

  • Fashion (tailoring) Workshop This is the latest workshop to be started. Full-time workers, some trainees and some project students work in this group. They take sewing tasks from both inside and outside SISP as well as creating their own sewing and handicraft products.

Paperarts workshop

Tailoring workshop


8.3 Social Care

  • Women's Groups In traditional Indian society, little attention was given to the empowerment of women (consider that on average 50% of Indian women are illiterate). Alcoholism, prostitution and AIDS are serious problems and their growth is not taken seriously by the Indian government. Our projects boost the self-esteem of the women we help so that they may face the world positively with more strength and self-confidence.

    In 1997, SISP took on six social workers to help the Indian community, focusing especially on its women. Over time they have been able to set up a large number of women's groups. Projects include:

    • Literacy training. This is taught in the villages themselves (in Muslim areas women are not allowed to travel outside their communities). Each class has around a dozen members and is two or three afternoons a week, held in the home of one of the participating women. They learn to read the destination boards of buses and trains, newspaper articles, how to complete forms, etc.

    • The teaching of social awareness and help in improving the quality of life. SISP organizes courses on hygiene, education of children, contagious diseases, etc.

    • Micro-credit projects. We have a long tradition of offering micro credit loans and have established and coordinate many self-help micro credit groups in the municipalities around Vizhinjam. Women receive set-up funding from SISP to start a business, but first they must demonstrate that they are capable of the enterprise by saving regularly for a year. As well as establishing trades such as making clothes, running grocery stores, drying fish, etc, some buy goods wholesale and then sell them in the village at a small profit. They learn to save and to operate a current account.  Their savings can be drawn in times of need.

  • Helping Individuals State social assistance is non-existent for the poor. This means they are often deprived of medical care or decent food.  SISP assists families living far below the poverty line (with an income of less than 8 euros per month per person), including families supporting the severely disabled, chronically ill, elderly, schoolgirl mothers, etc. We estimate the level of poverty of the family by mutual agreement between our social workers and the individuals concerned, and this determines the type and level of support we will offer.  Rather than financial help, we will often provide medicine or food parcels directly. Occasionally funds may be provided for single mothers to start a small independent profession, for school support and so on.

    Each year we receive around 100 new applications. Unfortunately we have to reject a number because they are just outside our criteria or live outside the region demarcated by SISP.  A few dozen cases cease because of death or because someone in the family has found work and the family's income has risen.  We do our best to support the new and existing cases.

    Meanwhile, thanks to our humanitarian supporters, we have been able to buy and operate a bus.  As well as the routine transportation of children to school, this allows us to take urgent medical cases to hospital.  A social worker always accompanies the patient on the bus so that the hospital formalities are completed expediently.  This is often Paul Van Gelder himself, as he has found he is able to command more respect, ensuring that the patients receive the necessary care.

Social workers in action

Old lady

social work