This article first appeared in the June 2023 edition of the Kentucky School Advocate
Dr. Chandra Varia sat next to a large window on the second floor of her Floyd County home. The space, accented with flowering plants and colorful artwork, serves as her prayer room. As a devout Jain, she spends about an hour here each day praying for the health and happiness of those around her and sometimes meditating on decisions she faces as a Floyd County school board member. Sitting in the room recently, Varia explained why she first decided to pursue a board seat more than two decades ago.
She recalled a pregnant 17-year-old high school student who visited her OBGYN practice. Varia handed the girl a long list of common questions for expectant mothers only to find that she could not read it.
“This was a high school senior,” Varia said. “I said, ‘How can you go to college if you cannot read in high school?’”
As a physician, Varia often served the region’s most vulnerable families, but it was this interaction that led her to inquire how she could do more to support local students.
“People told me that I could change the system if I became a school board member,” she recalled. At the time, however, there was no opening on the board.
Not long after, while traveling in her hometown of Jamnaga, India, Varia and her late husband, Mahendra, suffered life-threatening injuries in a car accident. While in a hospital bed on the other side of the world, she learned that the school board member for her district had unexpectedly resigned.
An application was quickly mailed to India so that Varia could submit her name to the commissioner of education who, at the time, filled board vacancies.
When she returned to Kentucky, still recovering from broken bones and cuts, her family physician recommended she undergo a brain exam.
She asked the doctor why.
“‘Because you want to become a school board member!’” she recalled him joking.
Varia was warned that board service was difficult and often thankless, and the role would only hurt her popularity.
“God has given me a second life, so I can do whatever I like,” she said.
Varia was appointed to the seat in 2001. A year and a half later, she was up for election and some believed that her chances of winning were slim.
“They told me that people not born in Floyd County would never get elected,” she said. “‘A woman against a man? They never get elected. And then you are not a Christian.’”
Her opponent took out a large ad in the local paper portraying her as an outsider and even raising questions about her faith.
But Varia was well-loved throughout the community, known to many simply as “Dr. Chandra.” She had delivered more than 3,400 babies in the area, many of them now Floyd County students or graduates. She and her husband were philanthropists and outspoken advocates for education and public health. They were civically engaged and active volunteers from one side of the county to the other.
On election day, Varia easily kept her seat.
When notified earlier this year of her selection as the Kentucky School Board Association’s (KSBA’s) 2023 Kentucky School Board Member of the Year, Varia was once again on the other side of the world, visiting family in India and seeing to her charitable work in and around her hometown.
A proud delegation of family members and district staff accepted the honor on her behalf in February during KSBA’s Annual Conference. In a video played for nearly 1,000 attendees, Varia acknowledged her role as bigger than representing just her constituents.
“I’ve always felt I’m not the school board member of only my district, but a school board member of Kentucky representing every child,” she said.
While brimming with gratitude for her award, Varia sees herself as one of many striving to ensure bright futures for Kentucky students.
“I have mixed feelings about the award, and sometimes guilty feelings,” she said. “There are so many board members in Kentucky who devote their time and do a lot of work. I’m a really good board member, but there are other board members. Why only me?”
KSBA established the annual award in 2021 to honor an outstanding school board member who advocates for his/her district, demonstrates high ethical standards and exhibits keen understanding of district governance and leadership.
“She was the type of board member who wanted to make sure she knew what she was voting for before she voted for it,” said Steve Trimble, a Kentucky Board of Education member who served as interim superintendent of Floyd County Schools. “She really understands what’s going on and, if she doesn’t, she digs and finds out what’s going on and makes the right decision based on all students.”
Floyd County board chair Linda Gearheart previously served 34 years as an educator and administrator in the district – some of that time after Varia took office.
“(Varia) was always the first one to ask a question about anything, especially if she wanted to see improvement from it,” she said. “So, as a principal, we all respected her. We knew she was there for all the right reasons, and she always has been.”
Varia developed a reputation for meticulously reviewing board meeting materials, even joking that she studies more for meetings than she did for medical school. She also spends considerable time interacting with staff and students.
“We have 5,300 students and I think it’d be very hard to find a student that didn’t know who she was,” said Anna Shepherd, Floyd County superintendent.
“The kids love her,” added Maggie Allen, longtime superintendent’s administrative assistant. “It’s like walking in with a movie star when you’re walking through a hallway. ‘Hi, Dr. Chandra!’ They just love her, hug her.”
While some are quick to point out the funds Varia and her family have contributed to the community, much of it through Floyd County Schools, district personnel are most grateful for her involvement in the schools.
Even at 86 years old, she can often be found sitting on classroom floors reading to students and visiting school libraries. Whether it’s performing arts showcases, athletic events, awards ceremonies or even field trips, she is a regular face in the crowd.
“Of all the assets she gives, her time is the most valuable, and she gives it to our students, staff and families whenever she can,” said Bobby Akers, the district’s chief communications officer.
Following her obstetrics residency in New York, Varia and her husband relocated in 1979 to Martin, a Floyd County community. Both established local practices, she as an OBGYN and he as a veterinarian. She found her way to board service, while he served on the Martin City Council. As their new lives took root in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, the Varias began identifying ways to improve community outcomes, giving generously of both their time and resources.
Seeing the need, Varia opened a free clinic for those without access to affordable healthcare. The couple pledged $100,000 in no-interest college loans for victims of domestic violence. In 1993, they established a college scholarship program to support students Varia had delivered. She and the Varia Family Foundation have also funded several initiatives at nearby Big Sandy Community and Technical College.
“Varia’s generosity stems from her desire for students to see possibilities instead of just obstacles,” Akers said.
Over the past three decades, Varia and her family have given millions to area students in the form of district facility improvements, literacy programs, career and technical career pathways, new technology, athletics, coat drives, flood relief, field trips, food and more. This level of support for Floyd County Schools has directly contributed to student achievement.
“The older people, us adults, can see the money that she gives, but when you walk in the schools and these kids go grab her and hug her and tell her they love her, want her to come back and read, that’s love,” said Varia’s friend and assistant Dolly Hunter. “That’s not bought love, that’s love that’s shown from her heart to theirs.”
In all the ways she has empowered students, Varia has never wavered in her belief in prioritizing academics and the power of reading.
“Board members can approve millions of dollars for a sports complex but, unfortunately, we cannot approve even $10,000 for the library,” she said about how Kentucky funds education. “We need to change the system.”
Among the many projects Varia and her husband have funded, it is perhaps the Varia Planetarium at the East Kentucky Science Center that captures the true spirit of their legacy of giving. Mahendra Varia passed away in 2014, a year before the planetarium opened, however his portrait still hangs in the foyer. The couple would often sit outside to gaze at the seemingly infinite number of stars.
“He was my soulmate and my best friend,” she said during the facility’s dedication. “We would often watch the sky together.”
When talking about public education, Varia often uses the image of the sky to illustrate the limitless potential of students if only they were provided what they need to succeed.
“They can climb the mountain. They can touch the sky. They can ride the moon,” Varia said, her voice cracking and her eyes welling with tears. “And they can become president of the United States.”