“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”
There can be nothing worse for UPAY than discontinuation of a functional center. As the slums of Sec-51 were cleared by urban development authorities, our beloved center ceased to exist overnight as the students had to migrate.
Setting the context. My journey with UPAY started in around early March, 2018 and I had opted to teach as a volunteer on weekends in Sec-51. In my first day at induction, I came to understand that the center had stopped existing since a couple of months and the center head also had to change cities. Our zonal team encouraged me to stay with Sec-51 center as they hoped to restart the center and directly monitor it themselves in the interim while they identified a new center head.
Survey, the first step. Our zonal director Akanksha and zonal operations secretary Akhil had identified another slum near the location of the older center. They decided to kick it off with a quick survey to get a pulse of the area. As I tagged along with them for the survey, I got a strong reality check of how tough this job might be. It takes an immense amount of courage (which I completely lacked at the onset) to step in the midst of a group who have a completely different cultural mindset and talk about your vision. I think crossing this threshold of influencing and convincing people who are already seeing you as an outsider is the most critical step of the process. Thanks to the experience of our zonal team and their backing, I got that confidence and tried to talk about it. To my utter surprise, the group seemed very keen and we were even questioned about possibilities of setting classes every day instead of just weekends to be more effective. We surveyed about 15-20 families and the survey ended up being a great success. As we walked away from the slum, I noticed a few kids watching us with hopeful eyes. I was filled with optimism and encouragement. Somehow the fear in my mind subsided to be replaced by a vision, a vision to make this center a success.
Learning to teach. The next day was a Sunday and we had plans to kick-start the center from the next weekend. There was another thought which kept bugging me. I was going to be the first teacher at my center and I did not know the first thing about handling kids of those age groups and from a completely different background which I had never even come close to experiencing. I thought of visiting another, more established center to see how exactly are the kids handled and taught. This experience was completely out of the world for me. As I went to a nearby center which had been running for over a year, I was taken aback when I was wished a series of ‘Good-mornings’ and an immense level of discipline among the kids, especially the slightly older ones. I always had a strong sense of pity for such kids but for the first time that day, I had a strange respect for them. I was mesmerized by the sheer degree of impact that a systematic educational process can create for anyone. Every single kid of that center seemed to be filled with a sense of empowerment and optimism. I learnt quite a lot that day.
Kicking off. As we neared the first day of our center, I started developing cold feet and began to question myself if I could do it. Once again, Akanksha and Akhil helped me out there. Their confidence proved to be really motivating. As I, Akhil and another experienced volunteer, Sanjiv made our way into the slums, we split ourselves to reach different parts of the slum and call them to a nearby park that we had identified as our center’s location. Although we were only set out to teach kids over four years old, a lot of the kids had to come with their younger siblings as their parents were off to work. To be very honest, these kids were completely different from the ones I had met in the other center. Some of them kept running and playing around without paying any heed to us while some of them were half-clothed and kept shouting out abuses. Thanks to Akhil and Sanjiv’s experience, in a few minutes, we managed to get them in a straight line and tried to break ice with them with a few games. I realized immediately that mere weekend classes were not going to be enough. I needed to come a few weekdays as well in the initial few days to maintain a continuity and eventually win their trust. Over the next few day, I made them play creative and educational games to try to build a rapport with them. Every day was a new learning for me and I went home wiser.
The Next Steps. We recently installed a white-board and the UPAY banner in our center, which is nothing more than a modest space under a tree. But, when the kids come and sit there, a strange liveliness gets instilled in the place. It is almost as if a blank canvas just got painted with colors of all kind. We recently appointed a salaried teacher who, thanks to her experience, is wonderful at managing the kids. I keep visiting the center from time to time now. The journey with UPAY till now has taught me a lot about life and more than anything, about myself. As we plan out of our future path to open more centers while sustaining the existing ones, we are sure to be met with different kinds of challenges at each turn but with every passing day, I am getting increasingly more confident that things will eventually work out for the best as nothing can dampen UPAY’s motivation to nurture the next bunch of kids!
-Nayrhit Bhattacharya (Center Head, Sec-57 Center)