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Sunday, December 07, 2008

When dire straits is not the end of the road

She came back from an elite girl's school in the US and walked straight into a slum to make a difference in the lives of the slum children. She began by teaching a small group of kids and today, this has evolved into a basic 7-year education course. At the end of which, the children learn to speak almost faultless English.

They also suddenly see a bright future in front of them, out of the poor circumstances of their birth. Shaheen Mistri has done this single-handedly. Well, with some help from her friends who were the first teachers to the kids and now a host of people who volunteer their time with Akanksha, the NGO that educates slum children, which Mistri set up.

Its beginning was very arbitrary - with money coming in from friends and family, the name was chosen by a college student and they all liked it, while the logo was designed by yet another collegian. She feels that all this has come together so perfectly because young people believe that they can make a difference.

So this is one place where you might just find privileged children making the time to teach their much-less privileged bretheren. The curriculum is almost the same as in formal schools but Mistri says that the methodology is very different because it should be able to engage their attention. So, the kids are taught through stories, games, quiz shows, and songs. To keep them coming back, there are many positive reinforcements given to them.

Akanksha may have started on a wafer-thin budget and with word-of-mouth publicity but today, it has a healthy corpus of Rs 8 crore and it's looking to move to other cities apart from Mumbai and Pune. Akanksha has also begun to work with municipal schools to reach out to more children.

There are teachers who are trained and employed by Akanksha but who go out and teach in government schools, and they also train the teachers there. At the moment, this initiative is in the pilot phase but the idea is to extend the same benefits that children get at Akanksha, to a formal school setup. Akanksha is also looking to share its resources like their curriculum, teaching expertise etc with everyone, who is willing to borrow and use them.

As NGOs go, this one has been around for 15 years and now is self-sustainable for the next 3-5 years. Mistri has managed to do this by matching projects to resources. She says that each Akanksha centre is adopted by a business house. Also, there are other measures like where the kids co-create a painting or do a sculpture with a famous artist or sculptor, which is then auctioned off.

The companies that sponsor each centre have been amazingly supportive and generous. Mistri explains that Akanksha goes to corporates with 15 options that they could chose from, to get involved with them. It could be an outright financial assistance or even a mentor programme, where the kids get to interact one-on-one with someone in these sponsoring corporates. Each kid gets to spend a day with one person - be it a CFO or mid-level executive of a company.

Today, Mistri has the satisfaction of having bettered so many lives. Carrying her work forward are Akanksha's alumni, who do unto others what was done for them. They visit the paedetrics ward at Bombay Hospital thrice a week, to cheer up the children there and spread good cheer, love and enlightenment.

Written for moneycontrol

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