The afternoon sun is in its full glory at Thakkar Bapa Vidyalaya in T. Nagar and sitting under the shade of a tree is 65-year-old D. Vimala. The retired officer from Income Tax Department is engrossed in reading a chapter from ‘Social History of England’ to a B. Ed student with visual impairment, something she has been doing for different organisations working for the visually challenged.
“My motivation comes from these students, who are keen to learn and are hard-working,” says Ms. Vimala, who has also recorded lessons for those who do not have access to the Braille.
Ms. Vimala is not alone. The city is increasingly seeing a number of individuals, both young and old, who are campaigning for a social cause. While some are content being called to volunteer, as and when there is a requirement for one, many others have even started their own social organisations.
John Bosco is the founder of Anbhagam Street Children Educational Development Centre, which offers free evening classes for children living in slums.
Around 310 students attend classes, a majority of them being children of migrant labourers.
Helping Mr. Bosco are five student volunteers, who are paid a monthly honorarium of Rs.500 each.
Shyla Vishwanathan is another Good Samaritan running a library for visually challenged students in Adyar as part of the ‘Karna Vidya’ project of the Rotary Club of Madras Coromandel.
Social work has certainly evolved over the years. With the involvement of socialites, companies as part of corporate social responsibility and senior citizens who want to make good use of their time post retirement, volunteering has come a long way. From health to education to employment and human rights, the areas being sensitised are many.
“In 1988, we had only a few NGOs working among street children in the city. Now, it has increased to over 30,” says Commissioner of Social Welfare M. P. Nirmala.
There are over 104 NGOs working among children, orphans, elders and working women in the city, as listed with the Social Welfare Department.
Besides, there are various informal groups that are actively campaigning for a cause via the social media.
“The focus, however, for the past five years, has been on creating self-help groups with NGOs counselling and conducting awareness programmes,” says Ms. Nirmala.
However, getting volunteers is not always an easy job. While some take a small stipend home, a majority offer their service free of cost.
After tasting success in Mumbai, Dream India, a team of young software professionals, made their presence in Chennai about two years ago. They offer educational classes for slum children in Anna Nagar, Perungudi and Valasaravakkam during weekends.
Natarajan Raman, one of the founders of Dream India, says that getting volunteers is not an issue as they have around 30 in Chennai and more than 350 across the country.
The suburbs too are seeing help pouring in. Thanks to an Information Technology company, the St. Thomas Mount Panchayat Union Primary School and the Government High School in Medavakkam have a fully-equipped computer laboratory, and have professionals come and teach.
Others such as S. Viswanathan, a bank employee, who has the distinction of donating blood 104 times, are motivating others to join him. “Apart from donating blood myself, I also motivate others to donate. I have about 200 contacts, who donate blood, ” he said.
What is the difference which volunteers make to an organisation? “It helps us attain our goals without paying people,” says M.B. Nirmal, founder, Exnora International. The 21-year-old organisation today boasts a database of about 25,000 volunteers in the age group of 15 and 80 , who are ready to offer their service in around 100 different areas that Exnora champions.
So, what’s the satisfaction one gains?
“In the eight years of my service as a volunteer, I hardly remember how many people I have rescued so far. The first person I rescued was an old woman who was lying unconscious near the Royapettah Government Hospital. Years later, when I ran into her at a public place, she recognised me immediately, much to my surprise,” says R. Krishnan, who teamed up with Pudupet resident S.G. Ganesan, to do rescue work coordinating with ‘1253’ -- the helpline for the elderly.
(With inputs from Liffy Thomas, Vidya Venkat, Deepa H Ramakrishnan, K. Manikandan, R. Srikant and T. Madhavan)