Katrell Christie was living a great life, running a thriving tea house in Atlanta, when she took an impromptu trip to India. The trip would transform her life and give impoverished orphan girls a chance for a college education.
As founder of Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party, the free-spirited former art buyer and roller-derby queen (alias Takillya Sunrise) was enjoying the entrepreneurial challenges of creating a homey, whimsical tearoom and forging close customer relationships. In fact, it was a customer — a Rotary Club Ambassador Scholarship student at Georgia Tech — who urged Christie to accompany her to India to work on a project helping needy women launch a handicraft jewelry business that would bring money to their community.
As Christie recalls, “She kept asking me for a long time, and for a long time I said, ‘no way.’ I had a small business … it’s hard to leave when you’re responsible for everything.”
A few weeks later, though, on a particularly stressful day, Christie’s customer asked again, and this time she said yes. So in the summer of 2009, Christie found herself in Hyderabad, India, completely unprepared for what she would see.
“For 30 minutes from the airport to my hotel there wasn’t a minute that I couldn’t see people sleeping on the streets, with dogs and cows, on tarps, with families and babies, with nothing,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared for the amount of poverty and suffering, and yet also the amount of happiness and peace that people have.”
What started as a vacation getaway quickly became much, much more. It was the beginning of her nonprofit, The Learning Tea — and the discovery of her life’s passion.
At first, Christie regretted her decision to forgo a chillaxing break on some balmy beach. But she was soon drawn into the troubling yet remarkable world that is India.
One day, while stringing pearls with women from the jewelry-making project, Christie noticed blood dripping from a young woman’s arm onto the white-tile floor. She learned the girl’s alcoholic father was abusing her and immediately jumped into action to help her escape. But when it came time to go, the young woman backed out, fearful her family would never accept her back and her father would begin abusing her younger siblings.
“It was shocking to me,” Christie says. “But now I know you can’t really save anyone or change their life. They have to decide on their own.”
Discouraged, she headed to Darjeeling in search of an experience to lift her spirits and allow her to give back. She decided to buy school supplies and uniforms for girls at a crowded Buddhist orphanage. There she met three girls — bright, motivated young women — who were about to be “aged-out” when they turned 16 (i.e., forced to leave the orphanage because government funds were ending). With no place to go and few job prospects, they were terrified about their futures.
“I realized they’d probably get trafficked,” says Christie. “Or somebody would turn them into prostitutes, or they’d be working in a glue factory, or walking the streets begging, or they might just die and nobody would care.” Right then and there, she promised to do whatever it took to give them a decent home and send them to college.
Christie returned to Atlanta and began raising money through her tearoom. She held fundraisers and even placed a fish bowl on the counter for impulse donations. Within six months she returned to Darjeeling with enough money to rent a small apartment for the girls, buy furniture, provide food, and enroll them in school.
Since those early days in 2010, Christie has accepted several girls (she calls them scholars) into The Learning Tea program, limiting it to 12 at a time to retain a family feel. As word has spread, destitute-but-determined girls now come from all over India.
All are guaranteed a safe place to live, a university education and the freedom to dream of something better. One of the original three girls who couldn’t imagine a hopeful future is now pursuing her master’s degree to become a history teacher.
“They’re just hungry for an education,” Christie says. “They know it’s the way out of the vicious cycle that women face in India.”
Many are up against obstacles that would seem minor in the West. One girl, for instance, whose parents both died of tuberculosis, arrived after failing two grades. She was discouraged but absolutely determined to succeed. Christie quickly surmised that she desperately needed glasses. “Since then, she’s gotten straight As and was just offered a zoology scholarship,” says Christie. "It’s crazy what little people need to be the best version of themselves.”
Christie visits her scholars frequently in India, raising funds through Dr. Bombay’s via special dinners, used book sales and online donations. She also just published a memoir about her life-changing journey called "Tiger Heart," the name given to her by the girls.
“I’m getting more out of this than they are,” she says. “Every day I wake up with a passion. I think the secret to life is finding joy in doing for others. It has a ripple effect. You’re investing in people and changing their lives, but it’s also a gift you’re giving yourself.”