Aarambh – A beginning – Educating mindsets and more

In October 2012, while at a friend’s house, we sit chatting about what each of us does professionally. Conversation inadvertently moves to social causes and to what we do for the community that has laid the foundation for what we are today. (I know there will be arguments to the contrary, however, I do believe that community always has a role to play, however minute it may be, in grooming every individual). And giving back to the community in their own way are two such individuals – Shobha Murthy and Anuradha Padmanabhan. Anu is a freelance soft skills trainer who often lends her expertise to and works with multiple NGOs in the area, Aarambh at Turbhe being one of them. Run by Shobha Murthy, the founder, trustee and director of Aarambh, the Turbhe center is one of 10 community centers – across all of Navi Mumbai. Each center caters to about 15 pre-primary kids and 20 children in the class 1-10 range. 
Caring for others beyond your immediate family and friends circle is something that really needs to be appreciated in this time and age. After what we go through with the proverbial grist mill, who has the time or inclination to look beyond our daily routines and chores – much less spend that time on kids and youngsters – none of whom are your own? When iDiya and Indiblogger come up with a social change contest as part of IndiChange, I am instantly reminded of Anu. On call, I want to know what Aarambh is all about and she explains patiently. Aarambh centers are essentially community centers that work with underprivileged children and women from all backgrounds of life – children of sex workers, day labourers, house help etc.
A volunteer at Aarambh helps children draw and paint.
A volunteer helping children with Art.

The divide between the rich and the poor continues to expand. But looking down at the so called lower class with scorn or apathy is going to lead us nowhere. Speaking to Shobha Ma’am, I get a sense of the helplessness that courses through her, even as she does the best she can with the resources she has at her disposal. In response to my question, ‘What are the expectations from the educated/general public?’ she says: ‘There are people who come forward to help. But with such a large urban population, it is disappointing that there are so few volunteers. Today, I see two Indias. One which is full of educated urban youth who have the best of everything but are enclosed in their own little world. And the other which is composed of the underprivileged who have the desire to learn but do not know how to. We have Indian businessmen making it to Forbes lists and earning thousands of crores, yet that’s the only section of India which is advancing. What’s the point? If the country has to advance, shouldn’t we all be moving together?’ I do not know how to respond, I feel saddened by the veracity in those questions. The shame of not being able to do more lingers in my mind, yet here’s a lady who’s doing so much yet feeling guilty that she cannot do more.

Mid-day meal time at Aarambh, Panvel
Mid-day meal time

She tells me about children who drop out of school due to circumstances at home, yet come back after 2-3 years later wanting to pick up the threads. Aarambh helps with providing affidavit certificates, education gap explanations and such. It helps children get enrolled in school but Shobha Ma’am tells me how, because of lack of volunteers, she feels like she’s setting up these kids for a ‘sink or swim’ situation. Of how it feels to encourage the underprivileged community to educate their children, to show them hopes and promises and yet not have the required backup to keep up to those promises. When we talk about how parents react to their efforts, she says ‘You have to see them Deepa, even they have so much faith in education now. When waiting for their children to finish class, they’ll sweep the classroom or clean the place because that’s their way of contributing. And the children; they know they are from the weaker strata of society, that they’re getting a chance at something better. So they are well behaved. When both parents and children are so enthusiastic and we are unable to provide them the support that we promised them, we as a society are the ones failing them.

15 years ago, when a few scientists from BARC volunteered at Aarambh, they set a new record. Teaching evening classes after work, they painstakingly worked with children who were only too eager to learn. The result? For the first time since its inception, students of Aarambh passed their standard 10th exams in their very first attempt! Up until then, students needed 2-3 attempts to clear their exams, if at all. The volunteers have long since been transferred to other locations, but they still call up to enquire about ‘their children’. I ask about funds and she tells me, inflow of funds is decent but not steady. Conglomerates like JP Morgan do pitch in. ‘Money is money. If not today, it will come in a few months. But how do we spark interest and initiative in individuals?’ She asks forlornly.
Education is a powerful medium by which slowly and steadily, the gap can be reduced if not bridged completely. But urging the underprivileged comes with its own set of challenges. When my mother tried to encourage our house help to study, even opting to take classes for her after work, she refused. She does not have time for it. Compared to education which can give her a good future tomorrow, she needs the money today.To pay bills and run the house, to pay for her brothers’ education and such. But let not a few such obstacles bog us down. For every person unable to attend school because their circumstances don’t support, there are still many more who have the un-quenched thirst to learn and are willing to!
Aarambh children participate in a dance show, Panvel
Aarambh children participate in a dance show.

For the most part, Aarambh centers are not full-fledged schools or overnight stay facilities. These are for children born to parents who are unable to provide for them, yet do not wish to see them lose out on better opportunities in life. For tiny tots at the pre-primary level, the center doubles up as a school and play area. From colouring to singing songs, storytelling to play times, children are kept busy by dedicated staff and volunteers. For children in grades 1-10, a typical day starts with school. Aarambh centers are strategically located close to municipality schools. Once school lets out, children come trudging in. The centers provide mid-day meals to children and then follow it up with extracurricular activities like singing, dancing, play time etc. This is where people like Anu come in. Working with the elder kids in the batch, she conducts workshops that teach children about team building, leadership skills, personality development and such so that children are able to conduct themselves better in school as well as out in the real world.The teacher-student ratio is not fixed; it depends on how many children need help with the skill which the volunteer/staff is knowledgeable in. Many of the volunteers or staff are individuals who have grown up through the center themselves. College students often teach in return for a certain amount of ‘pocket money’. Several of them, who step in to help, come from the same backgrounds as the children and recognize the need for education. However, a challenge for Aarambh today, is finding people who can provide specialized subject teaching to elder children who need some help with specific concepts or subjects. Like someone who can help them with Math.

At Aarambh, women learning to sew and knit.
At Aarambh, women learning to sew.

In addition to furthering education for underprivileged children, Aarambh also works with underprivileged women teaching them basic skills like weaving, bag making etc. thus empowering them and making them financially independent. Many such women go ahead to become success stories and come back to the center to help teach others. Several times, post the conduct of awareness programs in the city, help troops in, but it is the temporary kind. Celebrities step in for a little while, garner publicity and leave. And children are left feeling confused. They have started to form attachments, they have started receiving love, attention and affection; something they are not often privy to in their own homes.

A young aspiring painter at Aarambh calling out to volunteers!
A young Picasso calls out to you!

When I ask Anu about children at Aarambh and their reactions to volunteers, she says, and I quote: “They have high aspirations Deepa. They have this spark in their eyes and somewhere, due to their circumstances, they are unable to do more. It was only a one week workshop but the day I was saying Bye to them, they couldn’t resist tears. For so many of them, their mothers are sex workers, their fathers are drunkards, they don’t get attention at home. But they have this craving in their eyes, in their heart, in their minds to do more, but we are unable to help them more. That is why we need more passionate people, who are willing to be more regular.” For this reason, Aarambh is looking for individuals who could attend on a regular basis. Let not the word ‘Regular’ scare us. Even a bi-hourly Math class, conducted twice a week is regular. Let us not be afraid of commitments. It isn’t fair to the children that they form a routine, a schedule which they get used to, only to be left stranded to fend for themselves.

For six centers which are located en-route to major IT parks, the centers should ideally attract more educated youth and adults – considering that they’re open from 9 AM to 9 PM. Shobha Ma’am tells me ‘The kids all live in the vicinity. If we tell them to come for a class at 7 PM, they’ll be there. 8 PM, they’ll be there. They’re hungry to learn. And people don’t even have to teach 100s of students. It’s 15-20 max. Not like schools.’ Thoughts churn around in my mind. For interested individuals, an extra hour after work – twice a week or so shouldn’t seem like such a bad option, should it? She asks me then, what is it that stops people from volunteering? If they want to be paid monetary benefits, then it isn’t really volunteering, is it? People don’t communicate their expectations from the experience. She tells me, Aarambh is ready to pay for conveyance, provide certificates of experience and such if that is what is required. But people are still not interested. In the end, she leaves me with a question. ‘If the educated won’t do, then who will?
So, I ask you today, what is 3-4 hours a week? It’s akin to giving up 45 minutes of TV time a day. Is that so difficult? To face a book instead of spending that ½ hour a day on Facebook? If not for anything, do it for Karma. What goes around, comes around. Do good unto others; good will come back to you. Do it for selfish reasons. But do it. And be serious about it.
Mundane chores often consume our day and we find that we have no time for anything else. But a few years down the line, when you look back at your life, wouldn’t you rather feel good about having done something effective?  If we set our hearts to it, we would start loving the effort too! A child from a slum is waiting for your helping hand eagerly. Let not the reluctance of visiting a slum hold you back. Organizations like Aarambh help bring them and you together under one roof. Take that first step, you will not want to let go of the little hand. Go out there and put in a few hours each week for a cause close to your heart. You will not regret it.
Enquire about such initiatives in your vicinity. Take that first step. Aarambh. It is a beginning.
For more about Aarambh: 
Contact Number: 022 27680965
Cell: +91-9820616940
Note: The above post is based on true conversations (quoted verbatim) with the two exceptional women. Image credit for all images rests with aarambh.org

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