At a slum near the Poonamallee bridge in Chennai, underneath the shade of a few trees, Rotaract Club of Chennai Central, RID 3232, has set up a classroom. Every Sunday the place is abuzz with 20 children ardently taking notes and listening to the lessons being taught. “This week they will start learning the names of fruits and vegetables in English, state capitals and addition in math,” says G Keerthi, the club president.
The path leading to the open classroom is muddy and lined with makeshift huts overlooking a large dirty pond. Small open ditches run through the path with dogs, cats and hens roaming around freely. “The living condition here is pathetic but the children are enthusiastic about learning and many of them don’t miss a single class,” she adds.
In partnership with Lure for Life, a Chennai-based NGO, the Rotaractors started the Bridge initiative “to improve the learning outcome of underprivileged children. Our classroom is a mix of gypsy and refugee children. They suffer from disparity and deprivation and are engaged in ragpicking or other small jobs,” says club secretary M Lavanya.
Three children attending these classes have been enrolled in orphanages and hostels. Keerthi has explained to the parents that “putting them in school is a better idea. But they argue that their child gets three proper meals and a decent place to stay at the orphanage. Some of the mothers want to send their children to school but none of them have an Aadhaar card. Without that, no school will accept them.”
When the club learnt about the Rohingya school in Balapur, near Hyderabad, set up by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a central government initiative, where close to 100 refugee children attend regular school, “we looked for similar schools in Chennai, but found none. We have been trying to get these children an Aadhaar card but we have been unsuccessful. These classes are the best we can offer them now,” says the club president.
After reaching the spot, the Rotaractors quickly begin to work. Keerthi says “every minute is precious. We just get one day a week and want to make the most of it.” While Lavanya goes to each hut and calls the children out for class, Mythili M, another club member, stops a gypsy woman with her child and enquires where she is taking him instead of sending him to class. “I have to make money so he is going to sell mirrors and combs with me,” says the woman. The Rotaractor argues that the child “has been regular to class. Let him stay back.” It takes a lot of persuading, but in the end, the woman agrees.
Kumar D and Keerthana C, two other Rotaractors, clean the classroom floor as the children begin to assemble. Kumar then brings a bucket of water and Lavanya helps them wash their hands. Everyone, including the Rotaractors, sits on the floor and classes commence. The first exercise is ‘Introduce yourself’. Raghav (12), confidently says “Hi, my name is Raghav, how are you?” His English pronunciation is clear and he smiles waiting for a response.
“We have come a long way from where we started. These kids who don’t want to miss a single class now were once totally uninterested and didn’t even want to be part of this classroom.” Club members had to come up with interesting games, rewards, and ideas to keep them engaged. “This is not a regular classroom and there is no compulsion for them to sit here. We had to be on our toes to keep them engaged. It was challenging,” says project chairman S Kokila. She adds that it felt great to see so many kids showing up regularly for these classes. “I cannot imagine what they can achieve if they had access to formal schooling,” she says.
The club provides these children with a basic education kit and replenishes their pencils and notebooks when needed. “We can see the change in their behaviour from the time we started in September 2022. These are no ‘slum kids’ as some people address them. They are only children who happen to live in a slum. They are not different from other children and they learn what you teach them at the same speed a child in a private school would,” says Kokila.
Apart from basic education for these children, Rotaractors also conduct special sessions in English speaking, writing and reading, art and craft, exercises and yoga, soft skills, life skills, and social awareness. All thanks to the efforts of a few mothers from the slums, the children sit throughout the class. Pushpa, the mother of three-year-old Vaishali, minds the class and any child who wants to slip out or distract the class receives a stern stare and a strict command to “sit down”.
Yasmin’s mother says, “I don’t know if my child will ever get to go to school but these classes have given us hope. Maybe our children will have a better future than us.” Not only do the mothers stand and watch the class in progress, but some also try to learn what is being taught. “I now know a few English words, thanks to the Rotaractors,” she smiles.
The children themselves have big dreams. While one wants to be a cricketer the other wants to be a teacher. As for Raghav “I don’t want to sell combs or books. I want to become a teacher.”
Keerthi says that strengthening their bond with the mothers could help in making this project sustainable. “It will encourage members from within their community to play a direct part in the project. They are interested in making things better. At the same time, we need funds to improve the current setup.”
The Rotaractors celebrated Diwali and Christmas with these children.
Pictures by Kiran Zehra