CITYSCAPE The Vidyarambam Trust brings cheer to hundreds of underprivileged children in the city. PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY traces its activities
Do you believe in Santa Claus? I know it's too early to bring him up. But, Vishwanath Ranganathan and his group play the benevolent man from the North Pole to a number of under-privileged children, through the year. They established the Vidyarambam Trust, a non-profit organisation, in 2002 to address the needs of underprivileged pre-primary and primary children of rural Tamil Nadu. “Once, I got talking to little kids on a road in Kanyakumari. They had aluminium plates in their school bags — they went to school for the food! That's when I came up with the idea of educating the underprivileged. When I discussed this with my friends, they came forward to help, and we formed this organisation,” recalls Vishwanath, founder and president of Vidyarambam Trust.
As we talk, a group of children scurries towards Ranganathan. They surround him, fondly looking at him as he asks them to introduce themselves — “My name is Sanjay. I am nine.” “My name is Ajishya. I am eight.” “My name is Vishwana, and I'm eight too”…
Vishwanath explains how it all started. “First, I bought slates and gave them to 10 children.” He then brainstormed with Prema Raghavan of Rishi Valley School and developed the right study material for these little ones. “All the books and educational materials are developed by us,” he says, handing me a pocket-size purple Spoken English book. More help came when five more women, also from the same institution, came on board to design the study material. Thus Vidyarambam adopted the ABL (Activity-Based Learning) method of education.
Vidyarambam now has five trustees, five resource centres, and has 450 centres spread over 12 districts. It has dedicated teachers trained by the Vidyarambam team. The teachers are paid Rs. 35 per child and there is a teacher for every 20 students. Initially, the aim was to teach pre-schoolers. After a survey revealed that students of first, second and third grade, too, couldn't write in their own language, they were roped in too. In the third year, Vidyarambam expanded to include third, fourth and fifth standard students too. “We discovered that the quality of English was very poor among sixth, seventh and eighth standard students; so, last year, we coached about 1,000 students from 33 schools. They passed,” says Vishwanath with a contented smile. “Write down any word...even a big one. My children will read it out for you,” says a confident Vishwanath. “Constitution,” is the word I write. And, each member of the three-foot army spells out the word replete with actions as their mentor and teachers beam proudly. Everyone applauds and the little ones coyly look down and sway. “We teach them the sound of the alphabet; this is the Phonemes method,” says one of the teachers.
And, it's not just all work for the children of Vidyarambam. There is enough and more time to play too. The concept of a mobile toy lending library has not only managed to enamour children across villages but has also drawn them into taking interest in education. The van laden with scientific and mathematical games stops for three hours in every Government school.
“After the tsunami in 2004, kids were afraid to go back to school. We then went to their houses, showed them the toys, and that's how we got them to come in again,” smiles the man who initiated it all. Vishwanath says he is thankful to all the sponsors who made his mission possible — the Trust now has four vans that ply to various districts and spread cheer and literacy.