Nalini Gangadharan began initiating bridge schools for children about 10 years ago. When she saw that livelihood opportunities were also crucial, she started the Teen Channel for adolescents. Today, the CAP Foundation she heads reaches out to millions of people.

When Nalini Gangadharan, chairperson and founder of CAP Foundation, was in the tenth grade, she may not have known how exactly her career would shape up but she knew for sure that it would revolve around development. The idea was triggered by a flood relief programme that she happened to be a part of in Chennai many years ago. “Even in the eighth grade, I was teaching children from slums behind my school,” she recalls. Nalini later acquired a degree in social work and has been working as a development professional ever since.

In 2003, the CAP Foundation was initiated as a partnership between corporates, government and civil society in response to the challenge of providing successful learning programmes to children working in hazardous conditions; bringing together various stake holders including parents, the police, community volunteers etc.

“Bridge schools meant for providing mainstream education opportunities were set up, so that children were equipped to be accommodated into regular schools,” explains Nalini. But the core issue was that a more effective bridge was needed to link learning to livelihood. This was among the most important concerns that came up from the children and youth themselves.

As a response to that, in its current and more evolved avatar, the CAP Foundation strives to empower youth with a range of academic, vocational and occupational opportunities. “The idea was to provide meaningful livelihood options. There is no purpose in education without enough livelihood opportunities. There are innumerable choices available these days and what these children and youth need is access to opportunity,” she says.

Learning itself needed a different kind of approach. That idea gave rise to Teen Channel, which is an accelerated learning programme for out of school and adolescents at risk. It provides academic competencies for Std. X exams, life skills, basic computer literacy, basic English among many others. It's all about flexible timings wherein students can learn at their own pace.

P. Madhavi, aged 25, a carpenter's daughter who dropped out of school after Std. VII, had joined as a student under the Teen Channel programme.

Today, she works with CAP Foundation so that she can give back to the community what she has learned. In her own words: “I was working at a textile shop after dropping out of school. A volunteer from CAP approached me one day and spoke to me about the Teen Channel programme. I didn't know even a word of English then but today I can speak confidently in front of any number of people. I completed Std. X, which was for me an achievement in itself. Recently, I acquired a B.Com. degree from the Open University. My parents were extremely proud of me when I was awarded the Women's Exemplary Award by CII! Thanks to CAP Foundation, I am a very confident woman today. Nalini Ma'am is like a role model to all of us. She has taught us to live with dignity. Since I feel empowered with education and economic independence, I want to help other women and children by joining CAP as an employee.”

The foundation also tied up with madrasas, to reach out to children from minority communities; girls in particular. Shares Nalini, “The importance of community learning centres, like madrasas, is often underestimated. Coming to think of it, they are actually strong local community enterprises. The Foundation helped provide access to additional benefits from the government like fee exemptions for children who couldn't afford education, midday meals, free study material etc. Besides religious education, we helped them impart formal education to children as well. Finally, this project that reached out to 80,000 children through 900 madrasas was handed over to the State government. I am happy about the fact that CAP Foundation played a significant role in trust-building between the madrasas and the government.”

Apart from academics, CAP Foundation focuses on providing vocational training for broader livelihood opportunities. The CAP vocational junior college offers a variety of courses in the fields of automobile engineering, computer science, accounts and taxation, physician assisting among others. Currently, there are three vocational junior colleges run by the Foundation in Andhra Pradesh. Besides this, there's the CAP community college with flexible diploma and associate degree programmes. It is registered with IGNOU.

Another programme that has greatly impacted the lives of many young people is Ek Mouka, which is a basic employability skills training programme for unemployed youth at risk-living in urban and semi-urban neighbourhoods. It involves new partnership strategies for providing an integrated and placement oriented platform for out of school and at risk young people.

Through one of its most recent programmes, Meri Pehchan, CAP Foundation is also reaching out to 100,000 people from poor, lower and middle income groups; from 66 localities of five districts in Andhra Pradesh.

Alumni groups

The CAP alumni groups are a strong presence now too, with about 8,000 alumni already and still counting. They offer guidance to newly employed students on the importance of saving and responsible spending. They also lend money among themselves. “I hope they have a bank of their own sometime,” smiles Nalini.

Nalini is passionate about young people and attributes her high energy to being associated with them. “I learn from any young person I meet. The energy of the young is so full of potential. It just needs channelling in the right directions. I see India as soon to become a nation led by the young, for the young, and of the young.” She humbly adds, “Our contribution is but a drop in the ocean.”

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012