When at law school Clary Castrission decided to set up a charity, but he didn't realise where the path would lead him and how his legal background would come in handy, reports Sarah Sharples
A trip to India in 2005, inspired Clary Castrission to start a journey that has consumed his life but ignited a passion for helping Third World communities.
Back then, as a third-year law student at the University of Technology, Sydney, Clary, along with his girlfriend at the time, Karen Avery, spent some time with a grassroots non-government organisation (NGO) they visited in Bangalore. The organisation, Lovedale Foundation, was supporting 12 children, with a vision to help the granite quarry community in Bangalore.
Heading back to Sydney, Clary says the plan was to try and raise $80, 000.
"We thought the nature of so-called international goodwill is that you just put your hand out and ask for money and people just give you hundreds of thousands of dollars, which was not the case. But that's probably the best thing about it; because we started out naïve it didn't scare us away," he says.
Four years later and virtually having worked full-time on the project, Clary and Avery's aspiration has grown into the creation of the 40k Home Foundation. Currently, the foundation is building an eco-shelter in Bangalore, India. It will house 50 of the most severely underprivileged children in India, who are affected by HIV, AIDS, alcoholism, domestic abuse and gender inequality, and are sent by the Commissioner of Police.
But the main purpose of the facility is to serve as a learning centre - for the children of granite quarry workers during the day and adults at night, says Clary.
"When these kids grow up in a quarry they have big learning difficulties because they've had nothing for the first how-ever-many years of their life that they've been in there. They just sit there idly while their parents work so you can't just put them in a school," he says.
"So we're creating education programs around this and we've also worked with another NGO over there that has developed software with IBM that really stimulates the mind [and] gets them up to speed.
"Then, once they're ready, they graduate from our program [and] we send them to a mainstream school. So 100 kids will come through every day for that service and then at night-time we'll run services for the adults - workshops, family planning, particularly, and also human rights issues and financial planning."
Clary, who completed his law degree with honours, says he has no plan to practise law commercially but his legal background has been important in establishing the charity.
"Because India is based on a common law background - being a former English colony - the law really helped with the land purchase because we understood the dangers with old system title - particularly in India where there is poor administration of it and a lot of corruption when it comes to land," he says.
"We thought that a project like this would take a year or two, but when you start operating in India you realise that everything has to be triple-checked and we've got mechanisms over there that have driven our partner, our architect and our builder absolutely mad.
"It's because we've raised public money and if we squander that through dodgy deals or through bribes or through anything, then our credibility is shot."
Clary says he also has to deal with international law and human rights issues in terms of the indebted granite quarry workers they are helping.
"There's politicians who issue these dodgy contracts, the contractors then go out to the poorest parts of India and recruit people, give them a $700 upfront loan for them to work for them for seven years as indebted labourers. So essentially these guys are paying $700 for seven years of work, six days a week - and we're talking hard labour," he says.
Currently, two law students are undertaking research into the granite quarry situation, including focusing on international and domestic Indian law, to enable the charity to point to specific clauses and sections to demonstrate that the indebted practice is illegal.
"We're [also] putting together a research initiative where we're going to be sending people over to take a really comprehensive survey of one of these quarries ... The [legal] research guys are going to go in and just find out everything - where [workers are] from, their age, the health problems, the gender - all this kind of thing," he says.
"Then we're also going to look into the economics of the quarry - from when that stone is broken off the wall to when it's laid - not just in India but around the world. We want to find out how it works so we can try and look at economic solutions rather than legal ones."
Freehills has also helped the foundation both economically and legally since its establishment and has given $150,000 worth of pro bono assistance in the past three years, says Clary.
"It's not like they send graduates to address our case [either]. Every time I go in I meet with one of the partners, Lesley Sutton, and she prepares written advice within a few days afterwards so it's a very proactive pro bono service there. They actually really mean it - they're going to help a non-profit - even though we're not paying for it," he says.
"They treat us like all their big corporate clients, which is fantastic, and even this year they've come on as a cash sponsor as well and they're giving us a minimum $50,000 this year. So to see law firms really interacting like that is really refreshing."
Back in Bangalore, digging and construction of the new eco-shelter began in February, but Clary does not plan to stop there.
"We're going to take on more projects, we're going to continue to be interested in advocacy through different genres, [including] music and films and we really want to move it towards having a very scientific approach to these problems - going in there like a doctor does, to run diagnostics and come up with or apply methods that go to the heart of the problem," he says.
"I've always felt that with something like this it's so easy to point fingers at other people, and say 'It's the government's fault' or say 'It's the west's fault or evil corporations' fault' - but you can achieve so much if you just go out there and start something - even if you're naïve as all hell.
"Because, ultimately, I think particularly for law students, they're smart enough to realise that the naivety will soon dissipate and you will start ... to come out with some bigger solutions."