After completing my engineering from Father Agnel College, Mumbai, I spent three months teaching children in a government school, where I met Harshad, a 12-year-old boy. Harshad, like all his other classmates, lived in a low-income community in Sion Koliwada. He would try hard to focus in class, but often seemed exhausted, not confident, and used abusive language. I found out that Harshad worked in a job before school, his father was an alcoholic, and the boy was witness to a lot of violence at home. I always wondered how a child his age would feel when surrounded by such problems, and what his school was doing to develop his abilities to deal with them.
We all know and agree that schools are purposed to deliver an education that ensures children emerge as conscientious and reflective citizens capable of bringing change in their own lives as well in society. But how many schools do we know who qualify to claim this?
What’s more – with the changing social and cultural scenario, it’s even more imperative that children are able to build excellent problem-solving, interpersonal relationship building and decision-making skills (also called life skills). These are skills that could help an individual break through the barriers that keep them from making the most of the opportunities around them.
Keen to do something about this, I joined TISS to pursue an M.A. Social Entrepreneurship programme, where I met two people who felt the same way. Amrita came with an educational background in psychology and later worked in the education space, while Anukriti, came with a drive for entrepreneurship and a will to cater to any need she recognised in society. Though we may have joined the course for different reasons, it was our experiences before we met each other that really brought us together, as close friends and co-founders.
In 2012, we started the Apni Shala Foundation, an organisation in Mumbai working with children, teachers and parents. The aim is to create a space that allows for the development of skills, attitudes and values that one needs to bring about a positive change in their own life and in their community. Today, it is a team of professionals working towards creating a wave across schools by integrating life skills into schools’ weekly timetables.
Our focus area is design and delivery of life skills education programmes to create opportunities and experiences for children where they can develop essential skills such as teamwork, leadership, empathy, self-awareness, and communication. The highlight of our approach is that we ensure children are learning in a way that it really stays with them. When was the last time you learnt to be a good team player from a text-books? That’s why, we use a blend of exciting games, drama, art and community work that encourage participation, brainstorming, and reflection, but in a way that is fun and caters to different children’s learning styles. Till date we have worked with almost 3000 children, 100 teachers and over 200 parents, and the coming year we’re hoping to double our annual outreach.
We’ve made every attempt to measure our impact in numbers through objective annual assessments of the children. These evaluations show that 97% of the children we have worked with have developed a life skill. However, what motivates us and inspires us to keep going is stories like these:
12-year-old Simran along with three others in her class took up the topic of sexual harassment in July 2014. Although Simran was always one to speak up and express herself, she and her team took many weeks to narrow down on this topic – given all the awkwardness and silence about such issues in her community. However, this group was determined to do something about it. They decided, the best way to end sexual harassment was – get a policeman to patrol the area during ‘peak’ hours. Guess what Simran and her team went on to do? They roamed their community basti and conducted a signature campaign with 100 signatures! Next stop – Deonar Police Station! They filed their request – and got a request number from the police officer then. Next – we get a call from the police officer after a month saying that he’s going to take action!
We’ve come a long way, but we know we can’t make this journey alone. We need more people who care about the education system to join us in our endeavours. And so, we’re excited to introduce the Apni Shala Fellowship this year. This is a one-year paid fellowship for anyone out there who is passionate about working with children, and would like to make a huge impact in children’s lives, grow with a young organisation and rediscover themselves and their passions in the process. It seeks to build a platform for youth to become more aware of social issues and start out on their journey of self-transformation. Apni Shala Fellows will be frontrunners of the life skills education movement and the face of the organisation in schools. Following a rigorous training programme, fellows will work directly with children from low-income schools and communities.
We’re now reaching out to youth from across the country to come and join us in our efforts. Education is not an industry, but a movement. Working towards a shift in this sector doesn’t make you an employee but instead, a catalyst for change and a role model for future generations. We urge you to join us in our endeavours. We’re dreaming big. And we’re confident we’ll get there soon.