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A marathon effort for school, clinic

By Our Special Correspondent

CHENNAI, FEB. 27. Last July, braving a heatwave, all 510 students of the Ludwig-Thoma Gymnasium, a school at Prien, in Bavarian Germany, took part in a fund-raising marathon. It was for construction of a building for a school and a clinic at Taramangalam in Salem district.

The deal was simple: for every km a student ran, his or her parents promised to pay one euro. Some promised more.

The man who came up with this idea of raising funds far, far away from the place of the project, was Gerhard Fischer, diplomat, anti-leprosy campaigner and 1997 Gandhi Peace Prize winner.

"I am often called upon to speak in that school on many subjects," says Mr.Fischer, who just completed the last leg of this year's visit to the centres he supports in India. The school was just across a lake from his native Ubersee and he enjoyed going there - his grandchildren, 11-year-old Julia and 12-year-old Philip, study there.

Last June, he spoke about the need for funds for the Taramangalam centre. The students, teachers and the head of the school were enthusiastic about helping. Thus was born the idea of marathon.

"Sometimes a few things happen that overwhelm you completely," the 82-year-old activist said. His grandson ran nearly 17 km, while his little grand daughter covered nine km. So did most other students. But he called off the run by 11 a.m.: the temperature touched 37 degrees C and he did not want to risk any student getting a sunstroke.

The students ran a total of 2,400 km and the collection was 12,300 euros. "Suddenly, I had the money for putting up the entire centre with facilities the people there wanted," says Mr.Fischer.

Projects in full swing

At Taramangalam, four projects are in full swing — a school and boarding, a medical centre, rehabilitation units for the leprosy and polio-affected and a night school for youngsters working all day in the weaving industry or on fields.

Next year, one chosen student will have a chance to visit the centre to find out how the money was spent there. The people having learnt about the great effort by a `small' school in a little village, Mr.Fischer says, requested him to visit other institutions in Bavaria. They too want to help, staging something similar!

Mr.Fischer says though the incidence of fresh cases of polio and leprosy has declined drastically, continuing vigil is essential. "I attribute this to improvement in living conditions over the very many years," says Mr.Fischer, who for the past 19 years has spent about six months a year in India visiting nearly 20 centres he supports. "This improvement has not been in leaps and bounds but in small steps. The important thing is that the incidence of these diseases is low now."

He suggests medical practitioners in state-run primary health centres be taught to look out for symptoms of the diseases and maintain a watch over immunisation routines.

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