- 06 Jul 2023
Great things happen when people from different walks of life come together for a common cause. I have been lucky enough to meet such people and create something for those in my community.
In India, children begging on the streets is unfortunately not a rare sight. Every time you step out of a rickshaw or stop at a traffic light, children as young as 3 years old will approach you asking for food or money. These children have no choice but to rely on what the strangers give them and hope that it will fill their bellies that night. 19 years ago, when I realized the severity of these ground realities, I couldn’t think of anything else. I wanted to change how these children would grow, and I remember wanting them to have enough food, clean water, and most of all, education so they could sustain themselves. That’s where my journey began.
Despite having a family background of engineers, I was inclined towards working for children through the social sector. I wanted to help as a college student, so I started volunteering with two orphanages in Mumbai, where I spent most of my time with children between 8 to 16 years of age. I was an introvert, but being around children took all the stress away. We would learn, play, and eat together, and our bond grew inseparable.
While I was spending my days volunteering at orphanages, a friend introduced me to a man who shared my compassion to help children - Biju Thampy. He lived in Goa and upon hearing our common interests, I invited him over to the orphanage. The day we met, I showed Mr. Thampy around and shared with him my love for children. We spoke about the poverty-stricken regions of Mumbai that were in desperate need of help. The alignment of our thoughts motivated us to work together, and we visited various places around Mumbai before landing on one area that desperately needed attention. The Mahim Station was in such a bad state that simply entering the station was a task because you’d get surrounded by kids begging on the streets, often naked. We immediately knew we had to do something about the conditions there.
I described my findings to Mr. Thampy, following which he and his wife flew to Mumbai to investigate the situation. We decided to start somewhere, even if it meant striking a simple conversation with the children in the slums. The conversation started with names and ages, but the children were still skeptical about talking to us. We tried asking them if they wanted to eat something, to which we received a willful YES! A few vada pavs got us chatting, and we finally gained their trust. That was the beginning of the 19-year-long journey of Vision Rescue.
As our visits continued, we realized most of the children weren’t fed, sometimes throughout the day, and were in very poor health. None of them had ever been to school or had any access to education. The situation was dire, but we wanted to ease into a solution to avoid burdening the children with change. An initiative that had started with eight children reached 35 as we started playing cricket with them at a local garden. The goal was to invite as many kids as possible and expose them to a world outside the atrocities of the slum.
The next step was to source education for them. Since they had no educational background whatsoever, we were starting from scratch with the alphabet and numbers. We, a team of four, started teaching the children on the footpath but soon realized that the commotion and dust around made it an unviable option. Renting a place in Mahim wasn’t cheap, and our lack of funds made it challenging to find something that could replace a classroom until we thought of a unique way to bring it all together.
Our unique classroom was a school bus. With just a few benches and a board, a bus would transform into education on wheels at a much more affordable price. We were able to raise funds for a bus, and one of the schools that we had reached out to generously agreed to lend us a bus for a low price. We set up the bus and drove it to the children, telling them that it was their bus, and no one was going to take it away from them. I still remember the joy on their faces when we drove around town - screaming out, claiming their mobile school. It was one of the happiest moments for all of us.
Time passed and each year we started giving basic education to children, eventually enrolling them into municipal schools. We had now grown to have four buses reaching out to different communities at once, making a bigger impact. Yet, we faced our share of challenges. The harsh weather made it difficult to sustain this method of outreach and education.
So, in 2007, we registered Vision Rescue as a non-profit organization and could now afford to rent a place inside their community. We shifted entirely from buses and introduced learning centers in different slum communities in Mumbai. Now that we had a stationary place, we were able to solve the root-level issues that affected the children. Many families in the community faced issues like domestic violence and alcoholism, which affected a child’s psychology and performance.
We introduced vocational training for women, including culinary, hair & beauty, and handicraft skills, so they could create a livelihood of their own and not depend on the men of the households. We also started counseling the fathers of the communities on how their actions could affect their children’s lives. We put together a medical team and tie-ups with various hospitals to provide the best health care for the families.
Today we are working with 1500 kids directly and have educated over 18,492 children across Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. We also provide sports training, all thanks to a student of ours. He was a notorious child who only wanted to play and had very little interest in studying. We introduced our sports programme to encourage students like him to approach education more positively, and now he is employed at Air India, making all of us proud.
Working with a small team of five to six people was a challenge of its own, but we all had the same motive, and we simply enjoyed what we did with no expectations in return. We started off as co-volunteers and eventually became the closest of friends at our regular tea stall, which binds us all together in conversation. We have all pulled through difficult times together, and that makes the experience special for us.
At times, we wouldn’t have any donations, so we had to donate from our pockets. We couldn’t feed vada pav to the children every day and needed something more nutritious. I remember the dreadful day when we did not have anything to feed the children, and we decided to apologize to them. That very evening, a grocery shop owner decided to donate 150 kg of dal and 100 kg of rice. Since then, we have served over 6 million meals, without missing a single day. To think about it, our prayers and appeals for contributions have never gone unanswered through all these years.
I remember working with children when I was a college-going student. Strangers would walk up to me and tell me to stop wasting time on these children, make a career instead, and their words made me question my decisions. Knowing that we made a few right decisions 19 years ago feels like it has all been worth the effort!
As honest and beautiful as the journey of Vision Rescue is, Giving for Good takes pride in being partnered with them. Together, we are aiming to empower and educate the women of the slums in Kalwa, Mumbai, so they can provide a better environment for their children at home. Since the wheel of impact is always in your hands, we encourage you to be a part of the change and donate to our Skill Development for Women fundraiser and change multiple lives.
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath.
With words as her medium and a diary full of scribbled ideas, she is usually found looking for ways to use her writing to impact for Good. If she’s out of sight, she’s probably either reading, petting cats, jamming to retro Bollywood, or of course, writing!