The landscaped garden with its walking paths is slowly coming alive. It is still mid afternoon and the sun is hot. But in that shady corner at the back of the park there is animated activity. Several groups of children are sitting on colourful bedspreads clamoring for attention from the ‘teacher’ who is patiently talking to them.
This is a summer camp with a difference, run for the children living in the jhuggis bordering the sprawling housing colony of Hiranandani Estate, Thane. The camp is managed by young volunteers – housewives, who reach the park in sweltering heat promptly by a quarter to four. Children ranging in age 4 to 14 begin arriving in twos and threes and soon the place is abuzz with activity. The enthusiasm and commitment of these young women are infectious. Mostly untrained, they have devised ingenious teaching methods by which they are able to capture and hold the interest of the children. The love between the children and the teachers is palpable and visible at first glance.
The children learn English and maths, they draw and paint, learn simple shlokas and play games. In short, they do what is done in upmarket summer camps which charge a hefty fee for similar activities!
‘When the classes had started a month ago, there were about 60 children, but with the holidays, many have left for their hometowns and villages. Even then the average attendance is about 25 to 30 children,’ says one of the teachers.
Each child gets a banana and some dates – both high energy foods loaded with nutrients so needed for growing children, especially from the economically disadvantaged group as these. (All the peels are collected and deposited in the garbage bin at the end of the class – Swachh Bharat Abhiyan!) Colour pencils, stationery, drawing print-outs for colouring — all are contributed by well wishers many of whom are regular evening walkers who are happy to see the children engaged in constructive activities instead of running wild in the heat. In fact even some of the teachers have joined the initiative after watching the kids during their walks.
Often it so happens that though people are willing to volunteer for a good cause, they are unable to find avenues that are close to their homes, fit into their daily schedule and are not intimidating. This is one such activity, whereby the resident volunteers of the colony have found a way to make a difference in an underprivileged child’s life.
The children might live in ragged houses; their mothers might work as maids and cooks, their fathers as masons, plumbers, vendors and electricians, etc.; they might only attend the local municipal school, but they are not lacking in dreams or aspirations.
‘I want to be poleesh’ says one little girl, in all seriousness. Her neighbour giggles and corrects her, ‘It is police, ga!’ Another girl, a little older, is more specific: ‘I want to be a soldier!’ she says firmly. Doctors, teachers, engineers…and more.
When I asked the children if they liked to come to the park, they enthusiastically nodded. ‘We don’t feel like going home!’ said one young boy. A class five student, she is determined to learn English well enough before school reopens, to show off in her class. The girls are more articulate than the boys, but that doesn’t mean they latter are any less enthusiastic or intelligent. All of them are confident and exuberant in their demeanor.
- Some are artists — very good ones at that. Shivam is one of them. Incidentally he is the monitor of the class chosen for the task due to his irrepressible impishness. Don’t they say that by giving responsibility to the naughtiest in class, he can be a changed person? When asked which subject he likes the most, he says with a twinkle in his eyes: Çhitra banana! (To draw). He is also in charge of distributing the bananas J
- Then there is the pretty Anjali, a sixth standard student. She is a designer in the making. Look at her creations!
- Some are brilliant students. Abhay is one of them. The fifth standard student can easily take part in a GK qui competition. His grasp of facts is phenomenal.
- Roshni, an eighth standard student loves maths and science. She can solve the toughest math problems set to her by the teacher.
The camp lasts for two hours after which the older children rush back home, to help with the household chores. Some help their parents in their work, like one of the older boys whose mother runs a poli-bhaji centre.
As part of the activities, a Bal Chetna camp was conducted by the Art of Living volunteers. It includes some basic pranayama and asanas and even meditation! The story-telling sessions and the affirmative statements after the session aim to shape and change the way the children think and react to situations., even while instilling self-confidence in them. And there are games that makes them alert and quick in their responses. It is really an energizing programme, true to the term Chetna and the teachers vouch for its efficacy in calming the children.
The brain behind this wonderful initiative is Pushpa Subramani, an exuberant social worker, who also runs an art academy in the colony. There are plans for the camp to metamorphose into a regular tuition-cum-activity classes once the summer holidays are over. All they need is a place where they will be protected from the vagaries of the weather. The children are also being motivated to keep their jhuggies clean and hygienic.
The key to the sustained success of such projects is follow up and regular contact with the children. That should not be difficult given the physical and emotional proximity of the volunteers and the children.
Such initiatives can be easily replicated in any neighbourhood. All it needs is a team of dedicated volunteers who love all children and are willing to give their time and effort.