'One doesn't need to wait for the government to come forward to help.'
'Why blame the system when we can start doing things in a small way?'
For millions of street kids in India, school is a distant dream.
Poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, lack of free, clean running water are just some of the obstacles they must overcome to get basic education.
Take nine-year-old Ajinkya*. While children his age went to school, he'd hop in and out of Mumbai's local trains, travelling ticketless begging for money.
He used the money to buy drugs and alcohol.His father threw his mother and him out of their house and had remarried.
His mother worked as a maid to make ends meet, leaving him to fend for himself during the day.
Ajinkya is one of the many slum children across India who are victims of substance abuse and neglect at an early age.
While he was fortunate enough to be discovered by a Vision Rescue team, millions of children are living their childhood in poverty, denied any opportunity for betterment.
Vision Rescue has been working towards freeing children from all forms of exploitation by engaging and sustaining them in education.
"One of my favourite stories is about this child who was with us at a baking centre in a red light area. When we first got introduced to him, he wanted to become a goonda. A few years ago he graduated from high school. At that time when asked what he wanted to do, he said, 'I want to get educated and work in child protection.' Stories like that are what make me go back every morning and do it all over again," Vision Rescue Founder Biju Thampy tells Anita Aikara/Rediff.com in the concluding part of the interview.
Getting kids into classrooms
We engage the kids in our programmes and later admit them into government schools or small private schools, if their parents can afford the fees.
We then work with these schools and follow up on the kids.
We provide incentivising services to government schools like taking over their sports programmes, running their parent teacher meetings, conducting teacher training programmes, and helping them set up laboratories and libraries.
This provides the children an incentive to become regular.
The other part of sustenance is working with their families, because if the environment in these children's homes are not healthy, they will drop out.
The kids aren't motivated to get to school if there is substance abuse, domestic violence or financial problems at home.
We try to have a proper understanding of their homes and help create solutions.
Our support programmes include bringing in healthcare, running vaccination camps (for babies and now for COVID), skill training for mothers, de-addiction for father, etc.
Challenges Vision Rescue faces
The main problem for slum kids is poverty related.
It could be caused due to unemployment and lack of education among their parents, poor sanitation, no running water, substance abuse, lack of proper housing, etc.
For us the challenge is limited resources. At times something as simple as finding the right teachers seems like a huge challenge.
Not everyone wants to come and teach in a slum because of the unhealthy conditions there.
To go into that environment and stay there the whole day can be pretty challenging for a qualified person who could get a job elsewhere.
That's why for the teacher more than employment, it has to be a calling -- some kind of passion.
Another challenge is to work with the system.
For example, running water is not available in many slums.
Tankers provide water which is expensive and supplied at specific times.
Several children can't go to school because they have to get water when the tanker comes.
Then there are times when kids are pulled out of school to look after a younger infant.
These are real-life issues that people face, and to get children to school we need to come up with solutions.
The government's role in helping educate more children
If the government is system-centric, things won't work. They have to be people-centric.
When we try to enroll street kids in schools, we are asked about their birth certificates, which these kids don't have.
It will really help if the government can become more child-centric.
In many places the anganwadi structure is there, but how many of these are functioning?
Also, it is important for the teachers to be passionate.
In India, teachers are one of the least paid employees despite teaching being one of the most challenging jobs.
I feel people who are working in challenging environments should be paid more, otherwise there is no motivation for them.
The children attending aganwadis may have problems at home, so there is little motivation for them to attend school.
Their parents would rather have them work and bring home money.
Despite their challenging situations back home, there must be something so attractive for the child to wake up in the morning and say, 'I can't wait to go to the anganwadi.'
Some of the children we have trained are working with us.
It feels so good to see the children, who have come through our educational programme in the early years, finally graduating.
One of my favourite stories is about this child who was with us at a baking centre in a red light area.
When we first got introduced to him, he wanted to become a goonda. Later he wanted to become a policeman.
A few years ago he graduated from high school. At that time when asked what he wanted to do, he said, 'I want to get educated and work in child protection.'
Stories like that are what make me go back every morning and do it all over again.
A message for people who'd like to help
In school, most of us have said the pledge, 'All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country...'
If we really mean what we said, that's enough. One doesn't need to wait for the government to come forward to help.
If somebody from your family was in need, would you wait for someone to come and help?
Why blame the system when we can start doing things in a small way?
*Name changed to protect identity.