Fiji native helping improve children’s education through NOC

narendraFiji native helping improve children’s education through NOC

Narendra Sharma,
Fiji

When Narendra P. Sharma left his native Fiji Islands in 1964 to come to America, he was embarking on the first of three distinctive phases of his adult life: higher education.

His first stop was Hawaii, where he began his college career as part of the East-West program that was started under President Kennedy and carried forward by President Johnson, and is similar to the Fulbright scholarships program.

Hawaii was also where he met his wife, Martha.

The second phase of his life was a 32-year career with the World Bank in the Washington D.C. office of the organization.

Upon leaving that agency, he moved to Hilton Head Island and launched into the third phase as founding chairman of Neighborhood Outreach Connection (NOC) which reaches into poorer neighborhoods and endeavors to improve children’s education.

A third generation Fijiian – both his parents were born in Fiji and his grandparents moved to Fiji from northern India – Sharma earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii, two master’s degrees from Rutgers University in New Jersey and Duke University in North Carolina, and a doctorate in economic development from Virginia Tech University.

Upon completing his education in 1973, Sharma joined the World Bank, where he focused on development in Asia, Africa and Central and South America and traveled more than 200 days a year.  

“My travels gave me an understanding of different cultures and how people think differently,” he said. “By the time I came out of the World Bank I was interested in two issues, the environment – the degradation of our pristine forests, the degradation of natural resources – and poverty.”

When Sharma left the World Bank in 2005, he and his wife purchased their present home in Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head Island.

“We are close to the beach, which I like,” Sharma said. “It reminds me of Fiji and my childhood. It reminds me a lot of that when I go for my morning jog and when I take my evening walks. The beach is very private so it really gives you peace of mind and I find that very relaxing.”

Soon after moving to Hilton Head Island, Sharma began laying the foundation for the Neighborhood Outreach Connection, to which he now devotes about 50 hours a week, all as an unpaid volunteer.  The organization operates with a handful of part-time employees: a part-time office manager and part-time program heads, plus volunteers.

“One thing I learned in my job at the World Bank is you have to listen to people very carefully,” he said “For example, in The Oaks neighborhood we went there with preconceived ideas, thinking that we should start off with education. So we went there to build a relationship with the people and found out their first priority was a playground for the children.

“By responding to that and doing what they wanted was the first step in establishing trust and a relationship. That’s the secret. If you build good relationships and trust with people you can jointly solve problems together.

“When we built the playground we didn’t bring in a contractor from outside. We supplied the materials and the equipment and the community built it. That way they have ownership in the project.”

Education, however, is NOC’s flagship, according to Sharma.

“And our primary focus is at the lower end of education – early childhood and elementary school education – kids in first grade through fifth grade,” he said. “If we can invest in preschool, early childhood and (early grades) education, we can avoid a lot of problems that come downstream in middle school and high school.”

To this end, NOC pays teachers from Beaufort County schools to come to its learning centers in local neighborhoods to conduct after-school and summer programs.

Sharma said there currently 250 children enrolled in its four centers – two on Hilton Head Island and two in Bluffton.

He said school standardized tests show the children in these programs have made significant progress in math and reading.

Sharma said when they go into a neighborhood – NOC currently operates in eight neighborhoods in Hilton Head and two in Bluffton – they seek the most motivated children for its education programs, thereby limiting the number accepted.

“This is not a program like a lot of other programs where everybody can get in,” he said. “We try to limit it to people who are hungry to get ahead, hungry to learn, hungry to educate themselves. We want parents to get involved. We tell them our doors are open to those who really want to get ahead in life.”

Sharma said while the organization doesn’t deal with crime directly, he’s pleased with what he’s seen at The Oaks, where NOC has been operating for five or six years.

Crime reports to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office have come down,” he said. “So the effect we’ve made is huge. That’s what gets us going.