Shaheen Mistri was an 18 year-old American on vacation in India, when she came face-to-face with a level of despair that changed her life.
In Mumbai she saw that slum children get a rotten deal when it comes to school; no water, few working toilets, absent teachers and desks without chairs. In most schools, there is little or no hope of learning English, the best ticket to a job in this bustling city. Combine this with the general hardships of slum life in Mumbai-- a shanty for a home that regularly gets bulldozed, inadequate drinking water, hunger, rampant disease and infection, high rates of domestic abuse and alcoholism-- and you wonder how half of the children manage to make it to fifth grade.
"If we believe that our future lies in the hands of our children, this presents a staggering problem; In Mumbai alone, 2.3 million children live in slums and on the streets.”
Shaheen Mistri saw just how rotten this deal was and instead of going back home and resuming her comfortable life in the United States, she decided to stay and do something. She called on a few friends for help, set up a classroom in a borrowed corporate office space, gathered some teacher volunteers and raised $500 to start a free, after school-learning program called “Akanksha” which means aspiration.
The children, with all of their untapped energy and potential, came running.
The program has developed a hands-on curriculum that includes art, theater, values, civic responsibility, reading, math, and English. Once a student demonstrates commitment by attending for one month, Akanksha makes a big commitment to them: to provide them with “a strong educational foundation, a good time, self esteem and values,” until they are 18 and ready for the job market.
Mistri’s program has expanded from 15 children in one center, to over 2,600 children in 51 centers throughout Mumbai and Pune, with another 2,100 children served within their schools. The engine behind this growth has been both eager children and an army of bright and giving volunteers. From the volunteers’ perspective, working with these children is an unforgettable and often life-changing experience.
Akanksha prides itself on a safe, caring environment that provides needy kids with opportunities for joy while they build skills and confidence. But Mistri also believes these children need exposure to the larger world, in particular the world of work.
“I was hell-bent on taking the children out of the slums to show them that life can be different,” Mistri says. To that end, a major component of Akanksha for 16 to 18 year-olds is the pairing of students with volunteer mentors.
By drawing on successful people in Mumbai’s business community, the students see meaningful possibilities for a life outside the slums. They interact with professionals in the business world, they observe them in their professional environment, and they begin to shape their own future. Akanksha makes an impact.
“We want them to grow into concerned citizens and we want them to leave with a job,” Mistri says. “We want to encourage them to dream but more importantly, we want to empower them to deliver on their dreams.”
What do you think?
Many of the volunteers are housewives, mothers and even foreigners who are visiting Mumbai for a year. What does it take to train a volunteer force so diverse in age, education level and background? Is this program easy to replicate in other countries or are there elements of Akanksha’s teaching techniques that are uniquely Indian?
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Take action: Are you available to help Akanksha in India? Attend one of the weekly volunteer training sessions at Akanksha’s offices – in Pune and in Mumbai.