'I thought to myself, 'If this were my child, would I allow this?'
In February 2004, Biju Thampy served free meals to six street kids outside the Mahim railway station in north central Mumbai.
"I used ₹40 to buy vada pavs, which were readily available outside the station," remembers the founder of Vision Rescue.
Accompanying Biju was his wife Secunda and two friends, Rajesh and Jose. In the following months, they gave basic education to the street kids outside the station.
At first, they taught them by the footpath and later in nearby municipal gardens.
17 years on, Vision Rescue feeds 1,900 street children across Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata daily.
The organisation has been working towards freeing street children from all forms of exploitation by engaging and sustaining them in education, while empowering them to change their mindsets and make good life choices.
Biju and his team have served over 4 million meals and educated over 10,700 children from slum communities.
"Everything I learnt was on the job, from the kids and the communities that I worked with on the streets.
"When we tried to find out why the children we help are on the streets, we figured out that someone along the line -- their parents or grandparents -- made a poor life choice.
"To be able to make a choice, one needs to be aware of the options and for that, they need access to information and education.
"If I had to reverse a cycle, I had to bring education to these kids."
In an interview with Anita Aikara/Rediff.com, Biju reflects on his journey and Vision Rescue's mission.
A Godsend messiah to street kids
In 1996, I was in Mumbai for some work. While travelling in an autorickshaw a bunch of children came up to me.
One girl out of them looked really malnourished so I gave her some money, and when the rickshaw started moving, I saw an older beggar snatching the money from the girl.
I felt very helpless and frustrated, but didn't know what to do.
I returned to my room and didn't know whom to talk to about the incident, so I spoke to God.
'If you are the Almighty, why do you allow this to happen?' I questioned him. 'Why didn't you stop it.'
A thought crossed my mind as though God was speaking to me. 'Why did you allow this to happen?' he asked me.
That's when I realised God doesn't need to send an angel from heaven to feed a hungry child.
I started to research on the subject and the results were overwhelming.
So I brushed it under the carpet and returned to Kerala.
In 2003, a family friend who was in Mumbai told me about a newspaper cutting where a four-year-old child was drinking milk from a dog.
I thought to myself, 'If this were my child, would I allow this?'
That thought really bothered me. If I think India is my country, these children are my family, and the only reason such things happen is because I allow it to happen.
That was the trigger that led me to founding Vision Rescue.
Starting out with just ₹40
I did a survey to locate the most vulnerable street kids in Mumbai.
I walked the streets of the city, and found several kids all the way from Mahim to Dadar (both in north central Mumbai), begging outside the railway stations.
They didn't attend schools and several of them were doing drugs and gutka at a really young age -- as early as 6 years of age.
I decided to start at Mahim station. I didn't have any money and vada pav was easily available just outside Mahim station, so I bought some vada pavs and distributed it.
Vision Rescue's first funding started with ₹40 from my pocket.
Later the funding started coming family and friends. Church friends from Kerala helped us.
Now we have partners who give us donations.
From mobile classrooms to rented rooms in slum communities
In 2006 we got a bus and converted it into a classroom.
Later we got multiple buses and would drive them around to different communities, where the street kids could learn for an hour and then we'd feed them.
With time I figured that model was limiting because we could only fit in a certain number of children in a bus.
So we started going to non-notified slum communities where there are no other schools and sources of education.
We'd rent out rooms in the slum community and start education programmes there.
Our target group is children between the ages of 3 to 6.
We took information off the Internet and other sources, then visited areas which we felt needed help and did a baseline survey there.
We found out that if children don't engage in education at least by the age of 6, then chances are that they never will or dropout early.
If the children don't learn to read by the age of six, then they find it difficult to cope once they get into school.
Celebrating Every Child
Our staff is required to sign a contract on how they would treat a child.
When a child walks into our classroom, we welcome them and there is eye-to-eye engagement, which makes them feel wanted.
We don't use a stick or a cane. Even if it is challenging, we use positive reinforcement.
In the beginning it was difficult, but I have seen it really work.
Children would attend school, and then later drop by at our education centres just to get this affirmation from the teachers.