In 1988, Punjab had its most disastrous floods when all the rivers in Punjab overflowed killing and displacing thousands of people. CARE Foundation, founded by Seema Aziz, was established in 1988 in response to the plight of flood victims in Pakistan’s Sheikhupura district. Initially focused on rebuilding homes, the organisation identified a critical need - the absence of a school in the area. Recognising that education is the key to empowering individuals and communities, the foundation decided to construct a school which marked the beginning of a mission to provide education and support to Pakistan’s underserved communities.
“CARE Foundation’s birth was a process. After rebuilding 80 homes in a year, I thought to myself, ‘The flood might come again, who will come to help this community then?’ That is when I realised that the only difference between me and the people from the flood-hit community was one of education and awareness. I asked the community members why their children do not go to school, and they said that there is no school in the area. I asked them, ‘What if I made one’? The excitement on people’s faces was the defining moment that made me decide that I must build a school. I could not let go and go back to my life. January 17th, 1991, we opened the doors to our first school in Iqbal Town, Sheikhupura. I still remember the sight of the 250 students who were standing outside, waiting in the cold, barely clothed but eager to learn. One school turned into several more. Three years later, the foundation opened a second school on Sheikhupura Road. We went on to pioneer the concept of public-private partnerships. Our children are no less capable than students attending private schools around the country. This whole journey since the first day has been great fun,” states Seema Aziz.
The foundation adopted government schools for which it began its pilot project in 1998 when the Metropolitan Corporation of Lahore invited the foundation to adopt ten struggling government-run schools. Despite limited resources, the foundation accepted the challenge and adopted these government schools. To transform these schools, the foundation implemented comprehensive measures such as providing trained staff and teachers, addressing infrastructure gaps such as providing furniture, constructing additional classrooms, and computer labs. Through these efforts, the matriculation passing percentage soared from 15 per cent to an impressive 85 per cent, within just one year.
Today, the foundation stands at the forefront of education in Pakistan, managing over 888 schools, educating over 300,000 students, employing over 6,000 teachers, awarding 1,000 colleges and higher education scholarships, operating more than 180 access to English language centers, boasting an alumni network of over 130,000 graduates, and maintaining a teacher training centre in Lahore, where the teachers receive regular training on topics such as lesson planning, pedagogy, and student psychology.
The foundation offers a variety of unique programmes, such as a scholarship programme that provides funds for higher education to promising students. The scholarship recipients have graduated from universities including Kinnaird College for Women, and King Edward Medical University, amongst others. Today, the foundation alumni are working as doctors, engineers, etc., and pursuing PhDs in foreign countries.
Another notable initiative of the foundation is its STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) programme, which teaches STEM subjects through stimulating projects, introducing students to subjects like aerodynamics, electronic circuits, botany, robotics, etc. Such hands-on learning experiences have resulted in exponential growth of students, resulting in them participating in international competitions. For instance, in 2021, CARE Foundation’s students secured 2nd position in the 40th International Beijing Youth Science Competition.
It is 8:13 am, and students are lining up for the morning assembly at the Government Girls School in Chungi Amer Sidhu, Lahore. The hustle and bustle, the energy and pace feel no less than that in Times Square. As the clock turns to 8:14 am, the feet quiet down, and everyone settles in, ready to start the assembly at 8:15 am. In just 5 minutes, the enthusiasm peaks after all the exchange of energy during the morning assembly. This is what a normal day in one of the schools run by the foundation looks like.
“There was a time when reading English was a challenge for me. Now I read English books at home,” says 12-year-old Rabia Maqsood, a 6th grade student at the Government Girls School in Chungi Amer Sidhu, Lahore, and has been a student at this school since before the foundation adopted it in 2016.
Rabia vividly recalls the pre-adopted era by the foundation when the school lacked discipline and physical infrastructure, a time when students like Rabia feared teachers enough to not ask them questions. “When I first came here, the school was practically empty.
Students would play at the school whenever they wanted to. After the foundation adopted the school, the number of students started to increase. Sports and exercise classes were introduced, and the school got new teachers who instead of resorting to physical measures, gave extra attention to students who needed it,” recounts Rabia.
Meet Fizza, also known as ‘Fantastic Fizza’ in her school, a bright student and an avid football and basketball player, who once feared participating in the school’s morning assembly but has now participated in the assembly many times with the encouragement of her teachers and fellow students. “I want to be a painter when I am older.
I paint at home and I’m inspired by a fellow painter in class,” elucidates Fizza. Before the foundation’s adoption of the school, Fizza was amongst those students who did not enjoy learning. “Now I get good grades, have good teachers, and feel encouraged,” she comments proudly. Fizza’s testimony is an indication of the positive transformation facilitated by the foundation, turning classrooms into spaces where dreams are nurtured and students like Fizza can envision a future filled with academics and beyond.
Saima Shakeel, a resilient mother of five daughters and the wife of a person struggling with addiction, did not have the means to afford her daughters’ education. However, when CARE Foundation intervened, offering high-quality education without financial burden, Saima saw an opportunity to fulfill her long-standing dream of educating her girls. “I attended a government school myself, but the focus on education and character development in these schools is visibly different. One of my daughters, who studied here, is now pursuing FSc and aspires to become a doctor.” Since the foundation adopted this school, it has become a ray of hope for families like Saima’s, encouraging the community to recognise the importance of educating girls.
Drawing a meaningful comparison with other children in the community attending regular government schools, Saima observes a notable difference in progress. She proudly mentions, “My elder daughter was the first female on her paternal side to have received formal education. My husband distributed mithai when my daughter brought her Matric result home.” With the foundation’s adoption of the school, a newfound trust has blossomed within the community, empowering community members to confidently send their daughters to an all-girls school. Saima’s story underscores the transformative impact of the foundation, not just in providing education but in fostering a sense of pride, breaking barriers, and opening doors to brighter futures. When her elder daughter, along with her classmates, transitioned to other institutes for higher education, they were often asked, “Where have these bright and talented students come from”? Thus, Saima’s narrative is a testament to the extraordinary impact that the foundation has had on individuals and communities, creating ripples of positive change that extend beyond the classroom.
Abida Parveen, a woman who is unable to leave her home to work due to her husband’s restrictions, remains determined to educate her daughter, driven by the belief that education equips individuals with valuable skills for the future. Abida’s daughter is enrolled in the Chungi Amer Sidhu School by the foundation, while her son attends a regular school. Abida emphasises, “When my daughter studies, I also get to learn a lot, which helps me a lot in teaching my younger son. Educating my daughter in the school has not only taught her, we have also got to learn a lot through her. Observing the positive changes in my children’s growth and education, relatives now express a desire to enroll their kids in the same school too.” expresses Abida.
One can also gauge the foundation’s commitment to holistic education by its project called ‘Zero Period’ which is held outside of regular school hours. It assists students who need additional help, and a comprehensive curriculum that covers activities from drawing to science projects and social studies.
Saima Khan, principal of Government Girls School in Chungi Amer Sidhu and a former student of the foundation’s government girls’ school in Sitara Colony, tells this scribe that initially it took a lot of effort to convince parents to send their kids to school. “A strong team spirit has been instilled in the foundation’s employee which enables us to counsel and inspire parents to send their children to school. Today, people in our community are deeply touched by our commitment and work,” tells Saima.
As the foundation continues to breathe life into once-forgotten schools, it not only shapes the trajectory of individual lives but leaves a long-lasting positive mark on communities, painting a canvas of progress and hope. The foundation has provided students with the wealth of education and confidence that will carry them through life’s different phases and will give them reason to always believe in themselves. The foundation’s success in operating as a public-private partnership exemplifies not only the power of but also the need for organisations to collaborate and create effective, long-lasting partnerships, instead of working in isolation. CARE Foundation continues to bring grass-roots level changes by educating the Pakistani youth and transforming government schools, making a difference school by school.
Fatima Tariq is a storyteller and an amateur poet. A graduate of University of California, Berkeley and is currently based in Lahore.