Many of the rescued child labourers are on the verge of joining colleges

“I didn’t dare to dream of going to college, fearing it would never happen,” says Chinnaponnu, a one-time child labourer at a stone quarry, who has just passed plus two. Knowing the scenario at home, Chinnaponnu, who scored 78 per cent, rebuked herself every time her mind wandered to college, till a couple of days ago.

Chinnaponnu now has a chance at college, thanks to CHEERS, the district arm of the National Child Labour Project that rescued Chinnaponnu from the quarry at eight. CHEERS which puts child labourers in special schools before placing them in regular schools, tries to follow-up the progress of students, though many switch schools. Thanks to her teacher Mythili, who managed to get in touch with her, Chinnaponnu has applied to college.

No mean feat

Eleven other former child labourers who finished school this year, would be admitted in colleges with the assistance of CHEERS, says Pearline, project director. “Every year, a few colleges come forward to support the education of these students till they graduate,” says Ms. Pearline. The national child labour project provides students a monthly stipend of Rs. 500 throughout the course. Of the 12 students, four scored above 900. This IS no mean achievement considering the children have missed out significant years of schools, says Ms. Pearline. Alcoholic or ailing fathers, single mothers who are breadwinners and siblings who have dropped out of school are what these child labourers have in common.

Saranya from Allithurai had them all – a bed-ridden father suffering from tuberculosis, a mother who earned as a daily wage worker, and three sisters who dropped out of school. Saranya worked as a construction worker before CHEERS found her. “I had to carry heavy stones; I used to get chest pain often,” she says. Though none of her siblings completed school, Saranya is determined to see through college. Similarly, Chinnaponnu’s elder siblings were both picked up by CHEERS, but did not make it beyond Class 10. “Her family migrated from Odisha and she did not know how to read or write Tamil,” says Ms. Mythili. “Yet, she stood first in class 10.” She has never studied at night, as her thatched house is yet to receive electricity.

“I have never wanted to go to school so badly, till I dropped out,” says Sathish who spent two years on trucks carting iron rods from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, before he found his way back to school. “My father left my mother and the Rs. 3,000 I earned every month was a big help,” he says. “But now, I can become a English teacher. I have applied for B.A. English Literature,” he smiles. Since 1995, CHEERS, has lived up to its name, bringing cheer into the life of hundreds of child labourers. The teachers put in extra efforts to ensure children return to the classroom every day, says P. Chandrasekaran from Pallakadu Special School.

This they do by coming up with interesting games, activities and anything that can engage the attention of the children.