By Isadora Pennington
Doctor Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party has been a cornerstone of the Candler Park commercial district on McLendon Avenue since 2005. Relatively unknown to tourists and non-locals, the cozy cafe is known for its wide variety of hand-selected teas sourced from all over the world. The shop also makes and sells baked goods along with ice cream for the kids, small sandwiches, and of course, coffee.
The decor is vintage,and fantastical, with parasols and origami birds hanging from the ceiling, old paintings on the walls, and shelves overflowing with used books. Long, communal style tables occupy one half of the space, a piano rests by the window, and there’s a private garden patio in the back of the building down a narrow hallway.
Katrell Christie, owner of Doctor Bombay’s, has pushed the shop to evolve through the years. “I dont know what it is about this place, but it is the mecca of love,“ laughed Katrell, remarking on the romantic nature of the shop.
From first dates to engagements, the environment has hosted a variety of momentous occasions in some of her customers’ lives. Katrell even met her husband in the cafe. Cafes are “the heart of small communities,” she said, “I see kids grow up over the ice cream cooler.”
But there’s more to this cafe than just pastries and drinks. It was on a trip to Hyderebad, India in 2009 that Katrell initially encountered young, orphaned women, their subpar living conditions, and lack of opportunities. Seeing these women’s struggles and hardships as they fought to attend school, get jobs, and have fulfilling lives struck a chord with Katrell.
“I thought it would be buying books,” she said. In reality, the girls needed much more than that.
At first she helped only three girls who were about to be kicked out of their orphanage. Without any safety net or family to fall back on, their future was in jeopardy. “Most likely they would have been trafficked or been out on the streets,” said Katrell. She made a promise to come back in six months, and the Learning Tea program was born.
In the months that followed, Katrell placed a fishbowl on the counter for donations toward the initiative. “Through change donations over the six months, I was able to rent them an apartment,” she said.
It was the first major step on a life-changing and consuming journey for her and the young women she now cares for. “It’s been an amazing project and it’s an amazing community that makes this project happen.”
The Learning Tea is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing housing, tuition, clothing, food, opportunities and a supportive family environment for young orphaned women in India, and Katrell has made the cafe a conduit for the organization.
For many years, the cafe has accepted book donations from the community. Now the proceeds from the book sales to customers also go toward the Learning Tea project.
The project has grown since those first three girls. Instead of an apartment, Katrell now rents a building at the top of a hill in a small town near Nepal. Her policy? “We pay for everything.” In addition to covering basic living expenses, rent, food, clothes, books, toiletries, and medical expenses, the program also funds computer classes and music classes for the girls.
“I call it a life scholarship,” she said. In order to keep the scholarship the girls must contribute 15 hours per week of volunteer work within their community.
The experience of being involved with the Learning Tea has been transformative, quite literally, for the girls who have gone through the program.
One young woman around the age of 18 had been crippled for more than two years due to malnutrition when she met Katrell. After becoming involved with the Learning Tea, the woman has recovered the ability to walk and has been accepted out of 1,500 applicants to train for Mt. Everest.
Another young woman whose parents died within a year of each other due to Tuberculosis is now applying to medical school intending to cure the disease. “I could tell you an amazing story about each one of these girls,” Katrell said.
It’s not just financial aid that has opened the doors for these girls, however, but also the emotional support provided by the program. “There’s a lot of love involved,” said Katrell, who sees herself as kind of a camp counsellor to the girls.
To succeed, she said, you don’t just need things and funds, but also active involvement with the girls on a familial level, by doing hair or nails, going to the park and being silly together.
“It’s one part funding, another part love,” she said.
The program employs a house mother who stands in during parent-teacher conferences at school, helps with homework and ensures that the girls are comprehensively cared for in Katrell’s absence.
While it’s a role Katrell did not anticipate undertaking when she initially went to visit the orphanage,
it is one that she has grown to love.
“At first, I didn’t think I would be in it this deep,” she said, “but I am. And I get just as much out of it as I give. It’s like having a family on the other side of the ocean.”
The Learning Tea does not rely on corporate sponsorships or donors, instead opting to fundraise through “A Taste of India” dinners hosted at the cafe on the last Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m., donations from partnering organizations in town and direct fundraising through the cafe.
For more information on the program, visit thelearningtea.com.