Eight months ago, Sajida Vadgama was sitting on a worn out wooden desk in a classroom in Govandi, a Mumbai slum that shares the Human Development Index of many Sub-Saharan African countries. She travelled 20 kilometres from her home to attend a Teach For India ‘matriculation’ meet. Matriculation is the period after the fellowship offers are accepted and before the start of Institute, a five-week residential training program that inducts people into the program.
That morning she joined 30 others like her – enthusiastic, nervous, curious and perhaps weary individuals eager to hear first-hand accounts of the fellowship experience to better prepare for the plunge they were about to take. Sajida and her cohort listened as current and former fellows shared stories and tips before they all strolled through the slum, guided by the students. When she heard about Qadr, a student with ADHD, who resisted picking up a book despite wanting to read, simply because he didn’t know how to, her hand shot up. She asked how a fellow was able to diagnose and support this student, just as Sajida had done with one of her own two children.
“As a child, I wasn’t able to complete my studies. I managed to finish my graduation with the support of my husband. I really believe that every student should be given an opportunity to learn, so they can make their own choices. So I used to volunteer and support students. I would pursue it in my own small way whenever I got an opportunity and connect people to resources – it was more administrative. Both my children are now abroad, and I wanted to touch more lives on a larger scale,” she said. “You may want to do a lot of things on your own, but it’s not easy to teach. So, I decided the fellowship was the best way to learn from experts who understand this field and become part of a bigger movement.”
When Sajida took on the fellowship, she set a goal: to be impactful. But she couldn’t clearly define what that impact would look like.
In August 2016, she met a few of her soon-to-be students for an informal session at Cafe Coffee Day. It was the first time she met 13-year-old Vijay. “When I first met Vijay, there was something about him. I was very impressed. There was definitely a spark in him. I thought, ‘if this is the kind of student body I am going to be associated with, it’s going to be an amazing two years,” says Sajida. Vijay is an incredibly bright, well-spoken child. Although he comes from a very low-income background, he was already a leader in his community. Sajida even remembers Vijay trying to assuage her ‘fears’ about the fellowship, telling her that it would be fun!
Sajida observed that he had built up a strong foundation with help from previous fellows: “His values and attitudes were all in place. You don’t really have to teach, you tell him something and it’s done! The kids have vision documents, and he’s got a bold vision where he talks about changes he can bring to the community.”
Vijay started a learning circle for dropouts in the Jijamata community near his school. He began by conversing with kids who didn’t go to school. He even approached older children. Many questioned him, but, eventually, Vijay gathered a willing group.
A few months ago, Sajida noticed a markedly different Vijay. He was worn out, unable to focus and his condition was visibly deteriorating. Due to financial reasons, his family moved from the surrounding community to Nala Sopara, making his daily commute 74 kilometres.
“He used to get up at 3 am in the morning. He and his older brother, in class 10, would start at 4 am at Nala Sopara and reach the community by 10:30 am. His brother would come to school and Vijay would gather students in an old lady’s house to tutor them before his afternoon school. We felt that this kind of travelling isn’t very healthy for him, but it went on and on because he didn’t want to leave a good school. He continued his work in the community too.”
When Vijay’s grandfather passed away, Vijay went to his village and didn’t return for more than two weeks. When he did, Sajida approached him and he broke down. “Didi, I get very tired,” he admitted.
One day, Sajida discovered that he slept in a car. “The very next day, I brought him home. It really shook me. This should not be happening to a kid,” she says. She often had students studying at home and staying informally. “My people are very cooperative,” she explains. The idea came from her husband, who suggested they support Vijay while they find a long-term solution. “If I can help him, why not? I believe nothing should hinder an education,” says Sajida.
Sajida and her program manager reached out to Vijay’s parents to attempt to resolve the problem. “His mother has never been to this part of the town. His father used to attend parent-teacher meetings, but he’s quite authoritative. Two days before we started this conversation is when we met,” she explains. They came up with three options for Vijay: stay with Sajida until he transitions to morning-shift school in class 9, find a school near his new home in Nala Sopara or find a home for him in the Jijamata community where he could live and run a community centre. “I was talking to him and his eyes lit up whenever we spoke about staying in the community. He was excited about it. He circled it in his book and talked to his parents.” She knew the community centre would be part of his incredible ongoing leadership journey. Living in the community would also help his older brother as he studied for the boards. The team found a place to rent surprisingly quickly and Vijay promptly moved in on January 11!
“The other kids were very supportive. A set of parents even came forward to offer him a home. The outpouring of support made him aware of what’s out there,” recalls Sajida, who contributes to his rent. She credits her school team, program manager and co-fellows enough for facilitating critical conversations with the community.
“His parents are now very appreciative and cooperative. His mom even agreed to go to the CCI match with him!” says Sajida.
A few months into her fellowship and Sajida is already envisioning great things: “This really inspires me to do more. This issue is, of course, a much larger problem. Whenever we are looking at one problem, if a solution works, it can be replicated. We are talking to another student whose situation is different. Each child, society and context is different, and hopefully, this will inspire people to search for solutions.”
Sajida is also keeping her disability lens on. She’s identified six other children who will be diagnosed with potential learning disabilities, ensuring they’ll be in a good place when they enter the ninth grade. “We’re working with other Teach For India Fellows and organisations to integrate support and make learning more fun and accessible to students like them.”
Have you ever wondered what difference you – one person – could make? Sajida’s work is a testament to the value and impact of seemingly marginal and incremental acts. When her path crossed with Vijay’s quest to become an exemplary leader, she was able to give him not only a home but the chance to continue envisioning a better life. How can you reach out and create an impact today?