A volunteer at Angel Xpress Foundation writes about how a people’s movement is helping change the lives of underprivileged children.

In January of 2012, Mumbai-based financial services professional (who was then on a sabbatical), Anubha Sharma, set out for her regular morning walk which ended as an hour spent teaching slum children who gathered on the promenade. On this day a boy in her class was shivering in the early morning chill. A few months ago, Anubha had joined the citizen group who would gather to teach these children every morning. Keen to do what she could to help the kids, Sharma put up a post on her social media page asking for warm clothes. The overwhelming response gave her clarity as to what she should do post her sabbatical. The career decision was not to join another corporate, but to start her own NGO where she could support underprivileged children.

THE IDEA

“I had offered breakfast for the kids, when one of the members of the citizen group asked me to teach. The children I taught were curious, bright and lively and I soon realized I was enjoying that one hour I was spending with them every day. At the same time, I was saddened by their lack of basic knowledge, they clearly weren’t receiving much of education despite going to school. They were eager to absorb everything I was teaching them, but clearly, there were millions like them who needed intervention and were not getting any,” recollects Sharma.

The children I taught were curious, bright and lively and I soon realized I was enjoying that one hour I was spending with them every day.

Curious to know if the respondents to her post and others like them who were keen to help would also take to volunteering, she partnered with one of the women who had responded to her social media post, Beenaa Advani, and the Angel Xpress Foundation was born in April 2012. “We started a ‘Free Learning Center’ for underprivileged children on the Bandstand promenade. We registered children who lived in the nearby slums and reached out to the ALM members to seek volunteers, soon this centre was flourishing with 80 kids and many homemakers and retired men who were eager to share their time and knowledge to help these children, joined us.”

MORE FREE LEARNING CENTRE

Within months Sharma replicated this model in a park in nearby Santacruz. There too she found many local residents keen to support the idea. “Soon there were women from other parts of the city approaching us to help them set up a similar enterprise in their neighbourhood  and as a result, today Angel Xpress Foundation (AXF) has become a free resource centre for citizen groups keen to set up a social service program in their own neighbourhood.” The six-year-old AXF has 17 centres across Mumbai and touches upon the lives of 1,900 slum children, who get daily lessons in Math and English after their school. They are also given a snack every day as well as regular fun and educational outings which surely is a big attraction to visit an AXF centre. They also offer health check-ups and regular counselling for the children.

AXF centres across Mumbai touch upon the lives of 1,900 slum children, who get daily lessons in Math and English after their school.

THE VOLUNTEERS SPEAK

“I got a lot of love from my teachers, they spoke to me like a friend would and guided me all through,” says Khushboo Suman Jha, one of the first students of AXF. Daughter of a humble security guard, Jha aspires to become an IAS officer. “I have a purpose in life today, which I wouldn’t have got had I not been with AXF,” she adds.

Sharma says that her greatest support is her network of 500 volunteers who teach Math and English to the children by contributing just two to three hours from their week. “Most of our volunteers are homemakers or career women who have taken a break. We also have a lot of retired people who volunteer for us,” explains Sharma.

Anju Kalucha, a teacher by profession, quit her career to take care of her young daughter. She soon realized that she could take some time off her daily chores and contribute to the society. That’s when she decided to volunteer at AXF. Kalucha was, in fact, one of the earliest volunteers of AXF. “The time which I spend here teaching kids mathematics is amazing. When I am with them time just flies, I forget my pains and my worries,” she shares.

Similarly, for homemaker Simran Doulatramani, teaching at AXF is something she looks forward to every day. She said, “The unconditional love, respect and appreciation that I got from the children helped me cope with some of my personal challenges that I was facing. They made me discover the art of counting my blessings.”

Versova Class, Picture credit: Angel Xpress Foundation

THE TRAINING

All of AXF’s volunteers are continuously given rigorous training. “It took us a few years and a number of trials to get our pedagogy and training modules in place. Today our focus goes beyond academics, we are training our volunteers not just to focus on academics but on overall personality development of children through life-skills development as well as social-emotional learning,” points out Sharma.

Apart from training her volunteers, Sharma also helps citizen groups across the city to replicate her model. “All that is needed is seriousness of intent and availability of a shaded garden which is conveniently located for volunteers within walking distance of a slum or a municipal school,” she says. AXF has till date helped 11 citizen groups to set up their own learning centres. 

WAY AHEAD

Sharma hopes to train more volunteers to support learning for over 10,000 children across the city in the next few years. “We are developing a technology platform that will support training and reporting to ensure a smooth running of these learning centres across the city,” she says.

The views expressed are the author’s own.

Picture credit: Anubha Sharma/ Angel Xpress Foundation

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