If you’re the kind that can chat endlessly on the mobile with your friends, then you could surely spare 15 minutes talking to a child in Mumbai’s slums, training him or her to hold a conversation in English comfortably.
That was the idea that got C.V. Meera Raman to start a Mobile Mentor Programme for children at Mumbai’s AASHA - Aao, Ab Seekhna Hoga Aasaan, run in a park in Jogeshwari East for children in the chawls and hutments in the area. Around 45 children now benefit from this voluntary set up.
An informal initiative set up by this Bengalurean, who now lives in Mumbai, the mobile mentorship idea has caught people’s imagination. She has got over 28 volunteers ever since she floated a message on Whatsapp a few days ago, including four volunteers from Bengaluru, two from Chennai, one from Sakleshpur (Karnataka), and one from Assam. Friends from back home here in Bengaluru, where Meera studied at VVS Rajajinagar and then MES College, were eager to pitch in.
“We found that while we were teaching the children spoken English, they had no one to converse with at home. So they would come back and say ‘hum bhool gaye jo aap sikhaye’. Each of their parents has a mobile phone. So we thought why not have them converse in English every day for 15 minutes using their parents’ phone? We have a pre-prepared questionnaire about what volunteers can talk about — ask them how their day was, what they did at school etc,” says Meera. They do a check on the volunteer’s background to prevent any kind of misuse of the connect with the children, says Meera.
A writer who has dabbled in television and radio, and a Montessorian with 12 years experience in teaching English - spoken, creative writing and public speaking, Meera got together 40 people in the society where she lived in Mumbai, which houses 1,200 apartments. “Last year on Teacher’s Day, Prime Minister Modi called for volunteers to make up for the paucity of resources to teach young children. I found that a lot of educated women in my complex gave up full-time careers to stay home and support their families and growing children. They were eager to help these children, who either study in government schools or don’t go to school at all. The idea is to teach them things that they are not exposed to in their municipal schools,” says Meera.
Every evening, from 4.30 p.m. to 6 p.m. these children aged eight to 14 are taken through various classes and guest lectures — sometimes spoken English and reading, or comprehension and writing, drama and song, even Spanish — anything that improves their confidence levels and brings them joy. They even have a small “circulating library” without any physical space as such, where kids exchange books (donated by volunteers) among themselves to read. “We feel that good English language skills improve their chances of employability,” offers Meera. Recently they had an IIT/IIM graduate who gave the kids a pep talk on “How to be positive and become a shining star”.
They have had physiotherapists come and teach children and their mothers (many of them labourers or maids) how to look after their spine and back.
There are a variety of classes like public speaking, fun with science, stories from mythology, dramatics, dance, etc.
“We also have 45 members in our group who teach, volunteer, donate, prepare teaching aids to facilitate better learning. Each one of us wants to do something for our society and country. But we don't know what to do and how to go about it. We also have limitations because of our families and responsibilities. So even if the inclination is there, it doesn’t materialise. All I did was bridge this gap. The classes go on in a park next to our society, so there is no investment. All the members are volunteers. Most of them post pictures on FB of the work here, and that brings in more volunteers. To volunteer one or two days a month is not really difficult for most people; it’s a model that can easily be replicated anywhere.” Learn more about the organisation or volunteer through www.facebook.com / aaradhana.aasha