In search of lost childhoods

When Sakthi, a 13-year-old Narikurava boy in Tiruvannamalai, was offered a shot at education, he wasn’t interested. Hailing from one of Tamil Nadu’s most backward tribes, Sakthi, like other children from his community, lived a nomadic life. However, the prospect of being provided two square meals at the residential transit school appealed to him. Once he enrolled himself for classes, he realised just how much he enjoyed them. Education groomed him and improved his lifestyle. So much so, that when he went home, people were impressed with the way he dressed and conducted himself. Now the winner of the Ashoka Youth Fellowship, the teenager has motivated 40 children from his community to study and has even been nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of Hand in Hand India, an NGO that works towards rehabilitating children engaged in child labour and destitute women, apart from solid waste management. Sakthi is just one of Hand in Hand’s many success stories. Since its inception in 2002, the NGO has worked towards bringing children from marginalised communities into the mainstream by means of education. And it is for this that the organisation was honoured with the prestigious Pradhan Mantri Bal Kalyan Puraskar by the Ministry of Women and Child Development last month.

Kalpana Sankar, managing trustee of Hand in Hand India, accepted the award from President Ram Nath Kovind at Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 22. “The award is a huge boost for us. To work for a social cause, one needs reassurance; it is not an easy job. We’re answerable to several stakeholders and even the staff needs to be motivated,” she says.

In search of lost childhoods

Formed as Hand in Hand Tamil Nadu, the NGO underwent an organisational change in 2004 to become Hand in Hand India. That is also when Kalpana took over the reins. “Our vision to rehabilitate children was very clear from the beginning,” says Kalpana, adding that the NGO has a presence in over 1,165 villages across Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh apart from CSR activities in Karnataka.

“What worked for us were two things: we got the local youth involved; and roped in the local governments. These helped us make inroads when we first started out,” says Kalpana. But the team faced its fair share of challenges too. For starters, a lot of the families, especially those that are into weaving, would make their children drop out of school to help whenever there was a large order. “Nimble fingers was their excuse. But this was terrible for the children who’d end up spending long hours at the loom; they would be malnourished. Those working in factories would work hours without a break; they would be beaten up and not even be paid adequately. Even children who’d graze cattle would walk as far as 50-60 kilometres in the scorching heat. When we tried speaking to the families to convince them to send their children to school, they’d slam the door on our faces or hide the kids. But we didn’t give up. We’d go till they relented. Once we convinced them that education is the only way to ensure brighter futures for their children, they began to send them to school.”

The NGO, which runs seven residential schools to groom these children and prepare them for regular schools, works towards helping them regain their lost childhoods. “For the first couple of months, the children are allowed to simply play and do all the things they couldn’t earlier. They’re gradually initiated into studies. Our teachers also educate them in basic aspects such as hygiene. Even after they go to regular schools, the teachers routinely check on them. In the last 15 years, we’ve had 400 students completing their graduation, 150 doing post graduation; some engineers and one doctor.”

Meera, 17, from Andhra Pradesh is another of their success stories.She grazed cattle before she went on to top her Class XII exams and even received the Pratibha Award. She wanted to study nursing, but now has her eyes set on becoming a doctor.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 10:17:40 PM |

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