“It all started 20 years ago with a group of 15 boys outside my door. I began to get involved with them through playing rugby,” says Matthew Spacie, founder and Chairman of Magic Bus Foundation, an organisation active in India since 1999 with the aim to empower children, youth and communities to get out of poverty. “After a while we began to hire a bus to take children living in the urban slums for a sort of weekend holiday on the hills or on the seaside, so that we could also give them the opportunity to step out from the difficulties of their life,” and that is why he decided on the name Magic Bus.
Now the foundation has offices all over India and is working with thousands of local volunteers, often coming from the communities from which the children hail. Explaining the rationale Matthew says, “Working with people coming from slums and disadvantaged areas helps to be closer to the people we want to help.” He adds, “We do not want to look like outsiders who have come to teach what people can and cannot do, but we want to give the message that the future is up to them, they own it and they can do it.”
Children are enrolled in the programme at the age of seven and it lasts for 10 years, staying with them throughout their life by helping and empowering them to hone their skills. This builds the confidence of the youngsters to be ready both for employment and higher education. The technique used is to connect games with education: there are different kinds of games connected with real life situations, for example, saving water, marital life and health care. Relating sports activities and challenges of real life can help children assimilate this learning into their daily lives.
With the ratio of boys to girls in the programme being nearly equal, the foundation is investing its energies in the field of gender education and all its implications. This includes sensitive issues relating to cultural behaviour, such as gender-based violence and material needs such as menstrual hygiene and use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. These types of topics are still considered taboo in many communities, and it is only due to the longstanding activities of the foundation and the trust it has won among the people that it has been possible to take them up. As the Mumbai-based Spacie points out, to improve the knowledge of gender-related issues, it is necessary to provide an “emotionally safe environment” where the children can express themselves without external pressures and without feeling ashamed or judged.
When asked about funding Spacie says he would be happy if — in the future — all the money necessary for this kind of activity came from India, instead from abroad.