the project why bugle

the project why bugle

Normally it is left to me to blow the project bugle and list its achievements. Not an easy task I must confess. A few days back Megha our Asha stewart was here for the yearly mandatory site visit. She spent a few days at pwhy interacting with staff and children. When she sent me a copy of the report I felt I was looking at pwhy through fresh, candid and honest eyes and was vindicated in many ways and truly overwhelmed. I share the report with all of you.

Project Overview:

Project Why (pwhy) runs a number of centres that provide after school education for children from slums. They also have creches, a centre for disabled children and adults, and a women centre. We supported about half their budget in FY 2007-2008. They have recently begun an initiative, Planet Why to generate income that could be used to support the activities of Project Why.

Site Visit

PWHY was started by Mrs Anouradha Bakshi in 1998 as an endeavour to return her debt to society. It started with English classes for kids from the Govindpuri slums. In a decade they have grown to 13 different centres reaching out to approximately 600 children in three low income/slum areas of New Delhi. The field coordinators are Shamika (her daughter) and Rani (a resident of Govindpuri). Mrs Bakshi is the big picture person and chief fundraiser. Shamika and Rani handle the day to day logistics of pwhy which includes speaking with students, parents, managing teachers and resolving any type of community issue that crops up in their classes. Shamika has trained to work with autistic children and Rani has a degree in nursing. Rani is in fact a product of pwhy, having been one of its first students.

My site visit was spread over a period of one week where I was very cordially taken around the various centres, introduced to teachers and was able to have exhaustive discussions with Anou, Rani, Shamika, Barbara (a visiting volunteer from UK who worked with the British civil services) and Mr. Dharmendra (who runs the women’s centre).

Visit to centres

Pwhy office is located in Govindpuri, gali no 3. A narrow lane leads up to a three story building that the project owns. The ground floor is for mentally and physically challenged children and adults. They are divided into three groups based on the level of their disability. The first floor is a creche for children from 1.5 to 3.5 yrs of age. The disabled children and creche babies are picked up from their homes and dropped off to the centre each morning. The second floor is a primary after school centre and the final landing has an office and small kitchen. Across this building is the foster home and another primary after school centre in a rented accommodation. In Govindpuri, gali no 1 is another creche where I was treated to nursery rhymes and number recitation. Many kids were absent due to a flu that was making the rounds.

A five minutes ride away is a primary after school centre located in the very heart of the Govindpuri slums. A labyrinth of narrow lanes, criss-crossing many homes, kirana shops and recycling businesses leads to a single storey rented accommodation. A gutter along the homes was chock full of unhealthy and smelly sewage. In spite of this I landed into a neat, clean and odor free classroom with children bent over their books and two teachers administrating over 3rd and 4th standard boys. Teacher: student ratios were about 1:10 but this fluctuates with time as the after school program is voluntarily attended by children. I doubt if I would find this classroom without Shamika and Rani seeing as a dizzying circuitous route is needed to reach it!

A ten minutes ride away is the Okhla primary after school centre. This centre has an interesting history. Ms. Sophiya, one of the teachers who has been with pwhy for 7 years urged Anou to start a centre in Okhla slums because the Govindpuri centre was too far for the children and could not in fact accommodate more children. After much debate with the community, one room brick building (10’ X 20’) was built. This structure was repeatedly broken by miscreants from the locality over a period of one year. In Shamika’s words – “Saturday we would lock the room and on Monday nothing would remain.” Pwhy remained persistent and by focusing on their educational activities they were able to convince the community to embrace the learning centre. Today, outside the room a boundary wall has been erected and children sit out here, under a canopy, since they are too many to be accommodated into the room. The roof leaks, there’s a rudimentary toilet since the slum has no plumbing and the kids have to sit through hot summer months under one fan or huddle together in the one room during cold winters. In spite of this the teachers remain resilient and kids look very happy.

Located in the Sanjay colony slums, a five minutes ride from Okhla is another primary education centre. Situated on the first floor, this primary centre has three teachers who were busy with their charges when we visited. The door was locked because dogs were using the ground floor as a sleeping area and bothering the children.

The furthest away is the women’s centre located a twenty-minute ride away from pwhy office, in the Sarita vihar village. This centre runs independently solely due the perseverance of Mr Dharmender, the manager of this centre. Dharmenderji has been with pwhy for 8 years and started as a teacher. Realizing his potential and interest in taking on a bigger role Anou has made him sole in charge for the women’s centre. His commitment and passion are evident by the amount of progress he has made in just 8 months since the inception of this centre. It took several months for him to find the right space and convince a landlord to rent it to an NGO. The interior was then re- designed to accommodate a creche, sewing class room, beautician’s class room, library, room to house women, a kitchen and, a primary as well as middle level after school program. The after school kids occupy space on the terrace under a canopy bravely withstanding the heat (they have only two coolers so children sit close to it by rotation – another innovation by Dharmenderji). Not only does he run the entire outfit but he’s also called on each day to resolve the myriad problems of his students and parents. The after school programs are so successful that he has started a waiting list!

He’s also done a remarkable job with the women who stay at the residential centre. Junoon, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder was ably handled each time to calm down. She was in rehab when I visited. Having querulous women is also a problem with the neighbouring community who will not tolerate this type of behaviour making his negotiation and diplomatic skills all the more valuable. Dharmenderji is grooming the centre to function independently from him by setting up processes that encourages the various teachers to take more initiative and ownership in their endeavours. Dharmenderji will take over the administrative running of planet why and is wholly committed to making it a reality. Meanwhile his thoughtful, humble and intelligent manner have greatly distinguished his contribution to pwhy and I can’t think of a better manager for planet why.
The women’s centre was also a pilot program to see how project why can run a centre far away from the main office as well as one that ran numerous activities. So far the pilot has been successful and the problems they have had to set it up have provided valuable lessons that they can apply to planet why.

At the Girinagar slums is another rented accommodation. This is located 10 minutes from the main office. The ground floor contains a computer centre that is open to the public. Internet is available at a nominal rate of Rs. 10 per hour and computer classes are also administered here. The first floor is the domain of Mr Naresh perhaps, the most beloved of teachers at pwhy. He teaches maths to the senior secondary students andserves as a valuable role model to all his students. There’s also a library here. From the last batch a student called Janaki ranked 13th in the Delhi CBSE board exams. There aren’t as many senior maths teachers so his role is invaluable. It has been difficult to expand high school after school programs since there are too few maths teachers who can teach in Hindi at that level.

General comments and observations

All centres and classrooms are spotlessly clean. Students are responsible for cleaning them after class. The walls are decorated with charts and the children’s handicrafts. There’s a white board in each centre that is being used as per need – in some they have taken the place of blackboards and in some they are activity boards while in others they have a timetable. It’s particularly nice to have these instead of chalkboards because in the crowded small classrooms chalk dust causes discomfort.

All teachers (except from women’s centre) meet during noon to partake in the daily lunch together. The lunch is provided by pwhy in the terrace of the Govindpuri office. This ritual is very useful as it serves as a forum for the teachers to discuss their problems with Shamika and Rani and between themselves. They exchange stories and solutions. A valuable bonding time has been established.

All pwhy’s transport is taken care of by three autos that are driven by parents of children that attend the schools. They are full time employees of the NGO and they are indispensable. They cart children from various homes in slums to the creche ensuring that the children come to school and ferry Shamika and Rani, and their daily rounds of various centres.

  1. An unusual feature of pwhy is that teacher retention is high. Two contributing factors to this are All teachers are local i.e., they live in or very close to the slums where they teach
  2. Teaching provides employment to people who would otherwise have to do manual labour.

One example is Ms Sophiya of the okhla centre who is belongs to the SC/ST class and was unable to get employment as a teacher although qualified for it. Since pwhy doesn’t run schools it can employ people who don’t have teaching degrees but have had an education such as the two brothers Sanjay and Vikki who are lohars (migrants from the blacksmith gypsy community) and lived in a slum that was broken down. They teach the primary classes and if not for pwhy they would not have been able to get good jobs that would use their education.

Over all teachers at pwhy are very proud oftheir work and derive satisfaction from the respect and adoration they receive from the parents and children. Indeed, they are looked upon gratuitously byparents who otherwise, would have treated them with contempt just because of their caste!

There have been exceptions. A few years ago one centre had to be closed because teachers were taking extra tuitions for the children who attended their classes and charged them for the service; essentially they used pwhy for recruitment and space to further their tuition business.

  • Except for the foster children and staff no child is explicitly provided with lunch.Most children eat their meal at the govt school under the mid day meal scheme. Children who come to the creche bring their own lunch. I was surprised by this, but Shamika gave me the reason – pwhy feels that parents need to take some responsibility towards the care of their children. The 9-5pm creche provides a safe environment for children of families where both parents work and no one can stay behind to take care of the child. Since pwhy takes a nominal Rs 1/ day per family the lunch acts as an alternate reminder to the parents that they too are participants in the child’s upbringing and not to take pwhy’s role for granted. Of course children who do not bring their lunch are given a portion from the staff lunch.
  • Teachers are keen to learn English. An English teacher from US, Ms. Nina plans to work with them to improve their English as well as their teaching methods to grasp the language. Speaking good English is perhaps the best confidence that we can give these children.
  • The foster home was an inadvertent addition to pwhy. Encouraged by the donor who was to fund planet why these children were taken in as the first batch of entrants to planet why. When the donor quite abruptly pwhy decided that they had given too many dreams to these children to send them back to their homes (if they had any!) and has continued to take care of them. All except the disabled children will be placed in a boarding school next year. Many are older than they appear but were malnourished and with no education when they were brought in. They have been attending a kindergarten and have caught up to Std 1 education. These children would be a good match for the Support-A-Child program. Anou has already identified an appropriate boarding school for them.
  • The boy’s come to school in the morning and girls in the afternoon because the govt school is open for girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon.
  • Pwhy attempts to provide a little more than after school education; they are very careful not to refer to their centres as tuition centres as they try and provide a holistic and not just academic education. They have sponsored various open heart surgeries.
  • Another nice thing about their processes is that it is very open to change. The organization has a constant influx of volunteers – mostly foreign who spend time here in various capacities. They also interact with other NGOs, most recently with Praxis that carried out a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, opportunities, threats) on their employees.

Overall impressions

Project Why is a vibrant, dynamic organization that works with flexibility and love in the community that they serve. Their teachers are passionate and committed. Ithas a flat organizational structure encouraging its teachers to innovate and share their ideas. The strongest fear the teachers have is what happens if Anou passes away. Although Rani and Shamika are the logistical branches of pwhy it’s Anou’s unflagging spirit and fundraising effort that keeps pwhy running. Her energy is the strength of her teachers. Anou recognizes this and is trying to work towards a model where all her centres are community owned and run. This might take a while to be realized given that some parents are so overwhelmed that even the nominal Rs 1/ day is out of their reach or sometimes they are unwilling to be equal partners because they want things for free. Rani and Shamika are being encouraged to participate in fundraisingactivity. So far their small efforts ( selling raffles in the community or at a college fest)have been resource intensive and without good returns. India being the land of judging a
book by its cover has led them to feel under confident in corporate settings. It’s ironic since these two girls are the ones who interact with each child, parent and teacher in pwhy! I’m sure given the right impetus they will soon take a more proactive role in fundraising.

Asha-Seattle currently supports approximately half of pwhy’s budget and I certainly felt our project partner had exceeded their mission statement and our donor money is going towards building a more educated society.

Project Why
Location: New Delhi
Site Visit Report
25th – 3rd Oct 2008

Inclusive ways of the heart

Inclusive ways of the heart

Manu and Champa have now been flat mates for over six months. They share the flat with four other little residents and are all part of what we call fondly our foster care programme for want of a better name. In a few months if all goes well the four little ones will leave for boarding school. Whether others will replace them is a million dollar question and will depend on the dirty but life giving word: funds!

But that day is yet to dawn and for the moment life is bindass in our little flat. What is amazing is that our attempt at inclusive living is a success. Not because of well defined rules or training but simply because every one in the flat follows his or her heart. It does not matter if Manu is in his thirties and Champa in her twenties, for little Aditya and his pals they need to be helped and looked after.

I remember the days when the issue of Manu’s daily bath was a huge issue. The simple act of helping a mentally and physically impaired soul have his bath brought out the ugliest side of our land: caste, gender and more of the same. Compassion, humaneness and such values were all forgotten. Yet Manu’s bath at the foster care is no big deal. If Praveen the housemaster is busy little Vicky and Nikhil set out to task and help Manu with his bath. One pours the water the other applies the soap and in a jiffy Many is squeaky clean. Then little Aditya climbs on a stool and sloshes Manu’s hair with oil and voila Manu is ready for the day. If Champa needs help with her mane of hair and Aunty the housemother is not at hand, bossy Babli sets to comb the unruly tresses. For these little kids caste, gender, age, social origin, disability or all of the these are not an issue. Manu and Champa are their flat mates and if the need help our little brigade is ever ready!

When the idea of setting up this programme was first mooted I smiled with glee. here was my chance to show to all that children were the ones capable of ironing all issues, bridging all gaps and fostering humane values if given a chance. And this is what I see each and every day as this motley crew learns to live, laugh, play and learn together. Inclusion is not something that needs to be taught, you simply follow your heart.

they came, they saw, they conquered

they came, they saw, they conquered

For almost a month now, project why has been touched a very special brand of love. Almost a month ago seven bright students from a leading business school in Paris landed on our planet brimming with enthusiasm and energy. Sofia, Aude, Anais, Matthieu, Aymeric, Jessica and Carlos are members of SARI, an association aimed at extending support to organisations in India. This year project why was the chosen one!

I must confess that I was a little apprehensive at first as this was the very first time we were hosting not one, not two but seven volunteers at a time. But somehow the warmth of the emails they sent and their deep commitment was enough to bowl us over.

This unique bunch of kids is not your run of the mill business school scholar. They are kids who have learnt to see with their hearts at an age when most of their peers are busy with mundane pursuits. For the past months they have been busy preparing their trip and have spent many a week ends and holidays fund raising for us: baking cakes and Indian pies or taking up sundry chores, they just did everything they could think of.

For the past month these incredible kids have been battling the odds that awaited them with grit and determination: the heat an dust, the mosquitoes, the power cuts, the over spiced food, the language problem and above all the cultural shock. And frankly nothing can prepare anyone for slum India! I guess many of our own people would find it difficult of not impossible to spend one or even half a day there. But these brave kids soldiered on and after a difficult first week each one of them found their place in project why. And what was even more remarkable was the fact that they even slept in turns at the foster care where life is rudimentary by all standards, a place where I must confess, I would not find it easy to stay.

In the day they each went their way, some to teach at the women centre, others to play with the kids in the creche and still others to Okhla which is by far our most forbidding centre. Questions abounded in their minds and perhaps we were not able to answer them all. It is much easier to deal with an individual than a group and we realised we too had a lot of learning to do. Many things remained unsaid though they were deeply felt by all of us. We would have liked to be able to reach out and interact much more than we actually could.

By the time they leave, the SARI group as we fondly called them, would have left their indelible mark in our hearts. But that was not enough for them. The last week was spent on a huge shopping spree: school bags for the kids at the women centre who use plastic bags in lieu, oodles of mats to replace the threadbare ones, white boards and even clothes for little GyaniChu. But the biggest gift all is the money given to rebuild our Okhla centre that was literally blown apart. The SARI kids will be fondly remembered by each one of us. They conquered our hearts in their own way.

I have often said that I am busy being grateful. And once again I find myself filled with the same overwhelming sense of gratitude. I realise that I often fall short of saying the two sated words: thank you as they cannot even begin to express the depth of my feelings. Perhaps I should use them more often.

There is another thing that the SARI kids have done and that they not are even aware of. They have vindicated a dream of mine, one that I wish I could see happen with their peers in India. I am convinced that India could change for the better if young people from good homes and leading institutions found the time and the commitment to reach out to the less privileged. I wonder whether that day will dawn while I am still around.

Yes our SARI kids will be in our hearts for a long time. I hope they too will remember us and forgive our shortcomings if any. What they did is something they can truly be proud of. And in a land where the divine rules, we will pray that God grants them all that their heart desires.

You can share some of the special moments of their visit here:

the trick is to finish with flourish

the trick is to finish with flourish

“A person taking stock in middle age is like an artist or composer looking at an unfinished work; but whereas the composer and the painter can erase some of their past efforts, we cannot. We are stuck with what we have lived through. The trick is to finish it with a sense of design and a flourish rather than to patch up the holes or merely to add new patches to it” wrote Harry S. Broudy. These words came to mind as I sat this morning browsing the pwhy pictures taken last week.

Had someone suggested a few months back that one would soon be seeing Manu around a table sharing a meal with his pals in a proper home, I would have smiled and told the person to stop dreaming, reminding him or her gently that dreams took time to become reality. It would have been akin to fast forwarding a film to reach the end without living through the story. And yet the picture you see is no trick photography, it is reality, one anyone can share each and every day. The foster care was not even an idea in our minds, at best it was a distant and impossible dream.

For the last week or even more I have been avoiding the much needed task of setting out to seek help for pwhy. Strange as I thought I had overcome my almost innate reluctance to ask for money and should and could have picked my virtual begging bowl without fuss, any time needed. But I guess inborn feelings stay longer than one thinks.

But what needs to be done, has to be done. I knew time was of the essence and the task I had to be undertaken. And in order to do so, it was time to take stock of the past. In Broudy’s words I knew that nothing could be erased or painted over and that the work had to be finished with flourish and honesty.

So here I am again seeking support to see pwhy through. Have we reached the middle of the road? I think we have. Much of we set out to do when we began had been achieved in ample measure. The class X results declared yesterday reinforce the point. All the children passed and in in both class X and XII it is a pwhy student that topped his school. Many had made the journey from street to home and many other achievements big and small dot our firmament. We have met every challenge that came our way and have done our best in finding the right solutions. The sustainability issue that had for long been our Achilles heel, has now been addressed as we have bought the land needed for planet why. There is no looking back!

However as I write these words we are in a tricky situation: that of having to raise funds both for the building and the day-to-day running of the project. And our needs have grown as many new whys dropped our way and could not be cast aside as that would have been defeating the very spirit of project why.

We do manage to raise a substantial part of our needs but still fall short. Perhaps the reason for this stems from what I will call the soul of project why. For almost a decade pwhy has been able to survive and thrive because it is infused with goodwill, one that has come from the innumerable kind souls who have answered each and every call for help. Were it to be fuelled by impersonal sources – no matter how regular and steadfast – alone, it would cease to be.

To many this may sound preposterous and even old-fashioned in a world where success is measured by the weight of bank accounts and the size of buildings. But for me that is not so. The mere fact that we have been able to grow and thrive is the direct result the immense love that we have received from people the world over, many of whom we have never seen. Our success is the outcome of the trust and belief that had come with each coin dropped in my begging bowl. We have reached where we are because pwhy has never afforded itself the luxury of sinking into comfort zones that would rob us of our very individuality and make us pallid clones of others. It is but natural and essential that we fall short, as this is what will enable us to always remain who we are. Ours is a work where patches and holes are banished, and each corner of the painting or note of the symphony is part of the whole.

On a personal level it is also essential that I retain the ability to beg humbly and shed any misplaced arrogance no matter how innate it be. Only then will the intangible and indescribable riches that are vital to the very existence of pwhy continue coming our way

It is now time to finish the story with flourish, one that cannot end without the presence of each one of you.

A lot of water has flowed

A lot of water has flowed

This is a picture of Neha and Aditya taken almost three years back in happier times. Since a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. In those times questions were simple and solutions easy. Even mummy learnt to smile as she picked up the pieces of her broken life and wove them bravely into a new one.

Barely a few back just was working and had gladly accepted that Aditya become part of our foster care programme as she knew that this would give him a better future. Everything seemed almost picture perfect as we sat content in what we thought was a befitting conclusion of a journey started many months ago. We had conveniently forgotten about the big picture being busy putting final touches one the tiny one we could see.

Neha had been complaining of back aches, one that even compelled to take a break from the gruelling hours she put in at the beauty parlour where we worked. We advised her to se a doctor and take some rest. Nothing could have prepared us for what was to ensue.

One morning Neha came by asking for help as she had been asked to have an MRI and did not have the money to so. In spite of her smile, we could see the pain and knew that something was wrong. When the results came we were shocked. Neha had advanced tuberculosis of the spine and many of her vertebrae had collapsed. The diagnosis was confirmed by a bone specialist. it was a miracle that Neha was still walking. She needed immediate immobilisation and even then the prognosis was terrible: risk of paralysis, permanent damage to the back and poor chances of recovery, septicemia from the risk of any of her abscesses bursting .

She was advised complete bed rest for at least 3 months as any movement could entail paraplegia. Neha has no one; even her mother has walked away from her life. Her only family is 5 year old Aditya. She needs to get back on her feet; anything short of that is a death knell.

As I write these words she lies in terrible pain in a room at our foster care. In a few days she will be moved to a room on the ground floor of the dame building. A day time nurse will look after her and at night a distant relative will take care of her. Neha weighs a paltry 32 kilos. The ordeal that awaits her is terrible and she knows it.

I have often prayed for miracles but am at a loss as I do not know what to pray for. Even the best case scenario is short of what Neha needs. A deformed back or life in a wheel chair is no life at all for this young single mom. What we need is a real miracle, the kind that is not fabricated by us humans but one that only He can make true.

A miracle for a little boy who plays and learns unaware of the reality that may become his!

So help me God!

wondrous are his ways

wondrous are his ways

The project why journey has been astounding in more ways than one. At every step, miracles big and small have dotted its path with regularity making one believe that the big picture theory really exists.

When we began the foster care programme, there was a huge debate about how to select the handful of kids that would launch the programme: social profile, performance, home situation.. The options were many. Finally four children were selected. Aditya and Babli being two of them. At that time none of us was aware of the real reason.

A few days back Aditya’s young mother came by our office. We could see the pain written on her face in spite of the smile she bravely put on. We had known that she had left her job as she had been complaining of back ache but nothing prepared us for what was to come. She wanted help to get the expensive CT scan her doctor had asked for. The scan was done and to our utmost dismay she was diagnosed with advanced Pott’s disease or what is knows as bone TB. Many of her vertebrae had collapsed and huge abscesses dotted her spine. The prognosis was not good: she could suffer paraplegia and septicemia.

Aditya’s mom had no support system as after her husband’s death she cut off her links with her own family. She had decided to bring up her child alone and after training as a beautician was working in a parlour earning enough to survive. Two months of sick leave had depleted her of her meagre savings. And to crown it all, her landlord had asked her to vacate the tiny room that was her home.

Aditya’s mom is at the foster care for a few nights. We will take her to hospital and start her treatment. Will she be saved is another part of the big picture cannot see. We will do our best and hope that things go well. We do not even want to think about what could have happened had things not fallen in place. We only know Aditya is safe and his mom in good hands.

When we invested in Babli’s tiny heart, we thought that like in all other cases she would thrive and grow after her surgery and fulfill all the dreams that she had conjured in her head. The script went awry many times and each time, we intervened in the best manner possible, or so we thought. On the way, we did wonder why, unlike other children, Babli was not growing, but felt that it was due to poor nutrition and care.

When we were about to launch our foster care programme, someone suggested Babli as one of the inmates. In spite of her advanced age, we all agreed that it would be a great idea, as the child was intelligent and would benefit from such a programme. A few days after her joining our housemother shared her concern about Babli’s constant bed wetting. Yesterday she was taken to the doctor and diagnosed with hypo parathyroid, a rare condition stunts growth and depletes the body of its calcium retention of the body. It can be treated and reversed with proper life long medication. Babli is now having all tests and investigations required and should soon be on the way to recovery and to leading a normal life.

When we selected Babli and Aditya we were totally unaware of the real reasons that had guided these two children our way. Today we know…

Wondrous are His ways…

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