“A child without education is like a bird without wings.” After my interaction with Dr. Usha Pillai, founder of IDEA Foundation, I couldn’t agree with this statement more.

With an aim to prevent children from dropping out of school, IDEA Foundation runs study centers and a sponsorship program for 2,500 slum/rural children in Pune city and Bhor. Lokmanya Colony, Kelewadi, Ramnagar, GopalWasti, Lakshminagar and Uttamnagar are some of the slums they work in, in Pune. A survey conducted by the organization in its initial years revealed that no such support was reaching these slums & villages from any another NGO or even the Government. Further, they comprised of people from really poor backgrounds.

So what does it take to keep children from families where education is not a priority in school? A lot clearly, as IDEA’s interventions show. Their interventions address the needs of the children as well as parents. For children, there are activity-oriented study centers, play-and-learn centers, and educational sponsorship program.

Activity-oriented study centers are targeted at school going children, aged 6-14 years. Operational for about 4 hours a day in two batches, these centers are intentionally run within the slum community itself. These help children inculcate regular study habits as well as ensure that they have truly understood concepts being taught at school. By focusing on reading, writing and comprehension skills, children get a sound educational foundation here.

Play-and-learn centers focus on ‘school readiness’. It’s like a start-up program where children are taught the basics with the help of poems, games, and activities, thereby creating an interest in them towards schooling. These children are then enrolled into school as early as possible. In addition to mainstream education, they continue to attend play-and-learn centers so that close monitoring of their progress is possible (which is also communicated to parents).

Educational sponsorship is offered to children from poor families. Children get school material, support to meet school and coaching class fees. Extra-curricular activities and study skill workshops further create opportunities for their all round development. Study skills workshops are conducted for all children. These classes impart skills that will improve children’s writing for examination papers. Children appearing for final exams have found this to be very useful.

Apart from the above, IDEA helps set up and strengthen parent-teacher and school management committees as well as provides counseling to children and their families. Understanding and addressing the problems at home through counseling has greatly helped improve attendance of those who were not so regular at school.

The organization operates on its core principle, which is that “every child is different and so is their reason to drop out from school” and its activities are reflective of just that.

During my visit to IDEA’s Ram Nagar center, I observed for myself how activity based learning was taking place. For example, for Math and English, number and learning cards are used to teach basic addition/ subtraction, new words etc. As the childrens’ ability to grasp new concepts is on the lower side, it’s important that the learning is fun and not limited to the textbook. A child named Ratuja Parameshwar whom I spoke to at their center reinforced this. He said, “We have more fun in doing and learning. This also helps us recollect better in the future when we sit for exams.”

Another student Akshada said, “IDEA has really helped me with my school studies a lot. My mother is a house maid and father’s a gardener; so they are not able to help me with my homework. My elder brother and younger sister study at the center too. All three of us have been greatly benefitted.”

So how difficult is it to get a drop-out to start attending school again? After all, they’ve had a bitter taste with schooling once, which made them give it up the first time round. Says Dr. Pillai, “We realize this; which is why we first speak and convince parents about the role IDEA will play. Once parents lend their support, the child is enrolled again. Of course, they are little reluctant at the start.”

IDEA’s centers also impart vocational training in arts, crafts and tailoring. Targeted at dropout adolescents who will not prefer to go back to school, the purpose is to give them skills to earn a supplementary income to help their families. With weekly/bi-weekly classes, skills such as jewelry making, embroidery work, ceramic painting, and the like are taught; these are skills that have a demand in the market. This helps them make paper bags, mobile covers, files and even seasonal items like Diwali diyas, rakhis etc.

“I could identify my talent, learn and now I teach other students,” says Pallavi who learnt art and crafts from one of the study centers of IDEA. Pallavi now teaches students at IDEA herself. Her skills also helped her set up a small home-based business through which she makes decorations for marriages, birthdays, festivals etc. She is using income from her business to earn a graduation (BCom) degree. Way to go Pallavi!

It’s the enthusiasm of children like Akshada and the improvement in the lives of people like Pallavi that keeps Dr. Usha Pillai and her team going. After all, their sole focus is on ensuring a happier future for thousands of underprivileged children that have been deprived their fair chance!

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