When associate law professor Dr Lalita Sharma moved to Indore’s new locality in 2009, she noticed a bunch of young teenagers and children from a nearby slum gambling, street fighting and loitering aimlessly. Being an educationist for 18 years, it pained her to see the children tamper with their future.
After a brief intervention with the local vegetable vendor, dhobiwala and her domestic help, she learnt that most slum dwelling children were left unattended as parents worked the entire day. So she decided to tutor four to five children, post her work. She kept aside an hour or two daily to teach them the school curriculum and soon found herself with 20 children from the slums.
Today, she runs an NGO called ‘Abha Kunj’, and educates around 500 students annually. She has had an army of 200 volunteers over the years who have joined her in this mission. The impact of Sharma’s interventions has been extraordinary. Her students have surpassed the emotional, social and development barriers to learning to become nurses, marketing executives, engineers and so on.
When she approached the parents many believed that education would not change their fate. Some refused stating their daughters were meant to get married. Along with addressing the concerns of the parents she had to reassure herself that she was in it for the long haul.
“The children go through emotional trauma or difficulties at home due to poverty, quarrelling parents, bullying by senior students, lack of empathy from school teachers, etc. They need someone who can turn up every day and be there for them or show them the possibility of a bright future. I had to be emotionally available and physically present,” Sharma tells The Better India.
Initially, she taught the children in her living room and later moved to the porch when the students increased. The first month was tricky as she had to teach them to keep themselves clean by cutting their nails, dressing well and combing their hair without sounding offensive or elite. A few weeks later, she was glad to see the oil stains on her wall as the kids got into the habit of oiling their hair neatly.
Sharma roped in her mother-in-law and a few of her college students to volunteer, too. The college students saw this as an internship opportunity and even started counselling the children with career prospects. As the word about Abha Kunj spread, she got volunteering requests from working professionals, homemakers and retired personnel.
The students are divided into batches as per their school timings and volunteers are assigned accordingly.
“Since all students do not have the same calibre and knowledge skill set, we customise our course for school dropouts, kids of migratory parents and the ones who cannot cope with school education. For example, we have had girls and boys in Class 8 who could not form a simple sentence. So, we give every child personal attention, especially when they join to ensure less dropout rate. We have also enrolled children who have never attended school, in the secondary section after teaching them the basic curriculum,” says Sharma.
‘Education turned my life around’
Many of Sharma’s students who finished school return to teach more students. To such volunteers, Sharma provides a monthly honorarium, knowing their financial background. She even invites experts from fields of law, medicine, marketing and more to provide career counselling, workshops and vocational training.
One such student is Kajal Chandel, who is in her final year BCom. She was forced to drop out of school after her father suffered from a paralytic attack but with the help of Abha Kunj she was re-enrolled.
She says, “Education turned my life around, and Lalita Ma’am played a huge role in it. She changed the mindset of my parents’ who didn’t believe in spending money for my education. From paying fees to mentoring me at every stage, Ma’am did everything for me. I want to give the same guidance to other underprivileged children and hence I will continue to volunteer for as long as I can.”
Another student started free tutoring in her colony. Sharma says she was surprised to learn that her student was teaching Math to 15 children from the primary section.
Another student, Pooja Singh, completed her MSc and is now working with Cipla as an analyst.
“Besides academics, I learnt a lot about physical education and moral values that helped me in personality development. College curriculum can be complicated but Lalita Ma’am’s tutoring made it easy and interesting which helped me score well and land a good job,” Pooja says.
Apart from the big impacts, there are everyday victories that motivate Sharma to continue her endeavours. Like the girl who was abandoned by her father at birth. Sharma gave her special attention and by the time she reached Class 3, she was able to recite tables from 2 to 46.
Last year Sharma started ‘Mohalla’ classes for kids who weren’t able to attend digital classes. There are 22 such centres run by volunteers in their respective localities.
Running the initiative for so many years has been a daunting task for Sharma, especially considering that she has been using her personal savings to meet the expenses like stationery, school fees, stipends, etc. Three years ago she quit her job to scale up her programmes, which meant an increased financial pressure.
“Sure, there are challenges even now, but being an educationist, teaching is my primary role that I don’t want to give up. These children may not have the privileges but they are bright and hardworking. Someone has to tap their potential and make a difference,” she adds.
For her selfless service, Sharma has bagged several recognitions and awards including the New York-based Global Women’s Award in the ‘influencer category’ in 2018. She was also felicitated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development under ‘100 Most Impactful Women of India’ in 2016.
You can reach Sharma here.
Edited by Yoshita Rao