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The Rediff Special/ A Ganesh Nadar
Meet one of Mumbai's angels
April 10, 2007
Shaeen Mistry is not your ordinary woman. She works seven days a week, because she does not consider it work at all. "I love it," she says with a wide smile.
Her work is giving thousands of poor, underprivileged children what many of us take for granted -- a decent education, skills to follow dreams, and an opportunity to shine in life.
In the last 15 years, the Akanksha Foundation -- which Mistry founded -- has grown from one centre with 15 children to over 2,600 children in 51 centres in Mumbai and Pune. The Foundation takes care of another 2,100 children in 10 schools.
Akanksha's aim is to provide each child with a strong foundation in English and maths, and to give them self-confidence and a sense of values.
Apart from a regular education, Akanksha imparts vocational training for the children, and guides them on how to get jobs. It also gives scholarships to children who want to pursue higher studies. Children are taught that learning is fun.
Though its main focus is on education, the folks at Akanksha have realised there are other factors that influence education.
Healthcare, for one, is very important. Another factor is being uprooted. As Mumbai demolishes its slums, Mistry and her band of compassionate warriors help the slum-dwellers relocate and cope.
And as with all growing children, there are myriad emotional problems. Every child grows up with questions like what they want to do, what kind of job they should look for.
Mistry and her volunteers are there with them at every stage -- as friends, counsellors and guides.
Though they cannot guarantee jobs for all their wards, they do try very hard. One of their programmes helps the children write their resumes, trains them to appear for interviews and tells them where to apply.
Akanksha also has scholarships, which the children can avail of four years after they stop studying in their centres. If a student is eligible for engineering or medical college, they sponsor it. "If the amount is very high, then a part of it will be a loan," Mistry adds. "And we expect our children to pay back."
In its empowerment programme for grown-up kids, Akanksha deals with health issues like HIV, drugs, and relationship issues. Mistry says a lot of kids face pressure from home to marry early.
Every month a meeting is held for parents at the centres where the progress of the child is discussed, as are other, specific issues. Every month they choose one specific subject to discuss, like hygiene and health.
Parents are advised on how to buy the most nutritious food with the money that they have. This happens once a month, but Akanskha also has a social work team that is in the community everyday. The parents can contact them at all times.
Mistry would like every grown-up child in her centres to have a mentor. So far, a little less than half the children have mentors. They are trying to find mentors for all the children.
Mistry, the daughter of a banker father and a speech director mother, was born in India but travelled a lot in her childhood. She attended 10 different schools in 10 different countries, including Lebanon, Greece, Indonesia and the United States.
She has been involved in social work since she was 12. Most of her summer vacations were spent working with social service organizations. At 18, she took it up seriously in India.
She started Akanksha in the 1990s, and though it has grown into a huge organisation now, she says she is doing the same thing she always was.
The difference is that now they are reaching out to even more children. They are scaling up to reach to other good samaritans who want to do similar things in their locality.
And now, "we are planning to run schools ourselves," Mistry says, as opposed to operating out of the space other schools provide them. Akanksha is also going to work in government institutions, to help run them better.
As her organisation keeps growing, so do the challenges. One big hurdle is finding quality teachers and people to run the organisation. Every new centre requires teachers, social workers and other essential staff.
Mistry wants Young India to pitch in. Her organisation is trying to get college graduates to teach for two years. She wants to make it a nationwide initiative.
But will young graduates have the time to think of underprivileged children, instead of running after lucrative jobs in the new, booming India? Mistry is optimistic. She thinks that some definitely will.
She wants India Inc to be part of her zeal to make India a better society for all, too. Her programme will be endorsed by corporate houses.
"I want to change the perception about teaching," she emphasises. She wants the teaching program as a kind of internship for fresh graduates.
For the last two months, most of Mistry's time has been taken up by conceptualising the young graduates programme.
As she is completely hands on, she doesn't travel much. She goes to the US once a year, mostly to raise funds.
She does take time off when she needs it, Mistry hastens to add. "I do take holidays, specially for my two children."
She feels she has been lucky in life -- materially and emotionally. And she feels the need to give back to life as much as life has given her.
But what drives her is that she loves what she does.
"I wake up, excited thinking about all I have to do that day."
If only more of us thought like her.
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