Only a year ago, Madan (14) would skip school and run to a cemetery near the Central railway station here and play cricket with skulls and bones.
Today, all that has changed. He attends school regularly, follows Tamil history and each evening joins children from Sathyavani Muthunagar and Pallavan Salai slums to play at Antony Sports Academy located behind the slums.
Like him, over 200 boys and girls in the 9-19 age group come here every day to play indoor and outdoor games free of cost.
The sports academy, founded in July 2011, is an initiative of Antony Charitable Trust, part of a Chennai-based property development company, Antony Projects; to provide infrastructure to poor children for “developing their sportsmanship.”
The children are encouraged to play chess, carrom, puzzles games, and physical games such as basketball, cricket, badminton and football, and given proper gear. The Trust even provides talented children to be formally trained.
“I want to play football well,” said Madan, when asked about his ambition.
K. Vijaya Kumar, project coordinator, said pressure to make ends meet compels parents of these children to ignore their social life.
“As both parents generally work, the children would be left untended. Many would return halfway from school once their parents left for work, and roam the streets or graveyards, getting exposed to drug abuse and fights,” Vijaya Kumar said.
According to residents, it was not uncommon to find children wandering in uniforms, often depressed by repeated family trouble. Some of these children narrated alcohol-related problems within their families.
Sita (14), whose father is an autorickshaw driver, aspires to be an athlete, while Anwar (12) wants to emulate Sachin Tendulkar. But, both children fear that their fathers’ drinking habits might ruin their dreams.
“We get all play items here and other friends to play with. I cannot stay at home as my parents fight every day,” said Sita.
To ensure that the children do not skip sessions, their parents, many of whom are labourers, auto-drivers and daily wage labourers, are kept in the loop about their attendance.
Some parents expressed happiness over their wards’ new found interests as it allows them to focus on their jobs.
The children, some of whom go to government schools, are divided into age groups and issued identity cards and admitted only after their parents’ consent, according to Vijaya Kumar.
“We also teach children from L.K.G to Class XII at our study centres spread across the city and provide them with snacks but plan to open one here in June/July,” he said.
The Trust also runs a free medical clinic at the site, where 30 to 40 patients are treated every day, according to project coordinators.
While most patients come here for general check-up, first aid and minor illness, serious cases are referred to the Government Hospital. The clinic, with a dedicated doctor and nurse has been operating since 2010. The clinic also runs a counselling centre for both parents and children.