Empowering Children Since the Age of 22 - Here's Saurabh Taneja's Inspiring Story!
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Be the change you wish to see in this world". I have held on to that quote all my life and I do not believe otherwise.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Jaipur. Both my parents worked for the State Bank of India and gave their best to ensure that my sister and I had access to the best education. I grew up listening to stories of compassion and kindness from my grandmother. That instilled in me a desire to be that person and give back to the world. That’s how I began to see myself in education and live by the values I wished to see in the world.
On completing my education, I landed my first job in Bangalore at the age of 22. I also began volunteering at a nearby Anganwadi Centre. This was my first experience witnessing poverty up close, and I was shocked. The situations were as bad as they could get with minimum facilities, but the Anganwadi had one person who was trying their hardest to hold it all together. The helper who worked there, despite her own financial limitations, brought rice and rations from her home only to feed the children coming to the Anganwadi. The helper’s compassion and devotion to the kids was a mirror for my privileged self. This inspired me to join the Teach for India initiative in 2009, and I started volunteering to teach students in underserved community schools.
Empowering through education
As time passed, I kept on working for different schools in Rajasthan on a large-scale school transformation project, where I was visiting government schools to observe their functionality and derive how they could receive help. On one such visit to a school, I was observing a classroom, and this one girl caught my attention. She looked much older than the other kids in class and was unbelievably amazing with all the questions presented by the teacher. Her enthusiasm was commendable, and I couldn’t help but be curious to know more about her. Upon having a conversation, I was shocked with what the teacher told me. The girl had already topped this class 2 years ago and the reason why she was here was simply that the nearest school was 30 km away and would cost her about rupees 72 to travel every day. Listening to her story broke my heart, but it also astonished me that her limitations did not stop her from doing what she loved - learn.
The ground realities were concerning. The education system in both rural and urban settings was poorly managed. Government schools were hampered by a lack of proper facilities, resulting in low admissions, high dropout rates, and abysmal graduation rates.
I also spent two years teaching in a government school in Bandra, Mumbai, which brought to the fore a few truths and a few moments of hope. Several children with extraordinary potential to succeed were languishing in our public and even private schools due to a lack of quality teaching and leadership. Having connected with their families and enabling a few of the children in my classroom and being a path to fulfill their potential became the driving force for me to continue my journey to end inequity in education in India.
I became convinced over the next couple of years that a school is a powerful unit to drive a transformative impact on the lives of children and communities. I decided to move to Pune to start the first stand-alone secondary school in partnership with Pune Municipal Corporation and the Akanksha Foundation. The school was built with the primary goal of providing an excellent education to children from marginalized communities in grades 8 through 10.
My exposure to the Akanksha Foundation—one of the oldest and most prominent NGOs that focused on providing quality education to children from low-income families—and what they were achieving drew me to its vision. And we founded the first school in 2013. We started to partner with several corporations, individuals, and government stakeholders to fulfill our mission.
In 2013, we founded our first school, named Acharya Vinoba Bhave School in Pune. Through this school, we aimed to empower each graduate with a sense of mastery, a sense of agency, and a sense of purpose through holistic education, such that they can break the cycle of poverty in a single generation.
We were creating a space to mentor children in a way where they are as capable as any other student, no matter their background. Before the school started, our entire team decided to visit every student’s home to understand their communities, their dreams, and their aspirations. During one of these visits, I met Namrata, who became one of our memorable students. When I met Namrata, she happily welcomed me to her house and told me all that she was reading about her inspiration, Kiran Bedi, and how, just like her, she wanted to become a role model for her community. Her excitement and energy were contagious. In our first batch of 60 students, Namrata stood second in her class and went on to earn a full scholarship to the United World College Armenia, Central Europe.
I stayed on as the Principal for 4 years, graduating 150 children from SSC exams with a 100% pass rate. Our schools have become safe spaces for children, and our educators have always pushed themselves to do whatever it takes to ensure the children get an excellent education that helps them achieve their goals.
I am currently the CEO of Akanksha Foundation, and at present, we are running 26 schools in 3 cities—Mumbai, Pune, and Nagpur—in partnership with local city governments, serving nearly 13,000 children.
Our PCMC English Medium School, Bopkhel, has been ranked among the top 3 for the World’s Best Schools Prize under community collaboration, not too long after it was shortlisted amongst the top 10 in June 2022. It’s the only Indian school to be shortlisted among the world’s top 3 best schools, and this is a proud moment for us.
Over the last few years, our alumni have gone on to accomplish significant things, most importantly continuing their education until undergraduate, with hundreds of them studying in India and the world’s best colleges today. Many have also decided to give back to their community by joining the Akanksha foundation.
We share our story with as many people as we can so that somewhere we can inspire someone to start something that changes the world because it starts with one but impacts millions!
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath