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Ever since I remember, I have been visiting India my homeland, for my yearly summer vacations. I have lived in many places, but wherever I studied, the ritual of visiting my relations back home wouldn’t be missed. As I grew up, I gradually began taking more and more notice of the profound differences between India, and Dubai. Every visit would have me saddened at how much children like me were missing in terms of luxury, education, and resources, or at how so many poor begged in the streets, the same streets as the ones in which the rich, who completely disregarded them, lived.
A few weeks before last year’s vacations, I found myself dreading the visit to India- not only was it going to be boring, but it was also going to be painful- seeing again the children who deserve to enjoy as much as I have.
It suddenly struck me that I should, instead of feeling sad , try to make a difference. I pooled all the money I had, and saved up determinedly the next few weeks, and started drawing elaborate plans for my initiative. When I’d collected enough, I shopped for all sorts of incentives I could use as a motivation for the kids with my pocket money, watches, calculators, earrings, pens etc. to give away.
My idea was to approach schools – starting with the one in which I’d briefly learnt in when I was little- to deliver a leadership program to poorer kids aged nine or ten. This was inspired by a Sallyann Della Casa -founder of non-profit Growing Leaders Foundation who delivered similar programs to many well-off schools in Dubai on a professional level.
Poor schools in India, I knew, won’t be able to afford air conditioning in summer, let alone such a professional motivation, so I adopted her guidelines, and principals and improvised on them. My father suggested that I might want to prepare a summary of my program to persuade schools of its benefits, so I did. The entire process seemed extraordinarily simple when I was still in Dubai, but on reaching Chennai, it was anything but that.
There were numerous challenges. It was only when my cousins asked dubiously, “Do you think they’d even allow a 14 year old student to enter the school premises, let alone speak to the principal?”, that I realized that there were many issues to be addressed. But I wasn’t going to give up.
I went forth anyway, starting with my small ex- primary school down the street. It taught many poor students, including the kids of my house-helper, for a brief time I had myself learnt there during a long vacation in Chennai- it was an amazing school.
I dressed acceptably (at the suggestion of my parents who felt that no school would permit a young wild-looking stranger in an outlandish outfit) and rehearsed what I was going to say to the principal.
The gate-keeper wouldn’t let me in. At least, not till I peeped through the gate and grinned my widest at the vice-principal sitting in the open room inside, who signaled bemusedly that the door be opened. I had to then explain my intentions to the vice-principal; she skeptically smiled at me all the way through, perhaps because she also had a daughter of about my age. And then she asked if this was a school project. When I replied not, I was allowed to meet the principal to re-explain my plan. I was finally allowed one hour with grade four and five kids on a Saturday- which was all I needed.
The session itself was delightful and educative both for me and the kids. First, the kids, about hundred here, were unwilling to reply to a stranger’s questions and return the smiles I gave them. But then they gave up the apathy surprisingly fast and enthusiastically interacted with me, shooting questions, agreeing with some, and responding. While in the beginning, not many kids raised their hands when I asked them “how many of you think you are leaders?”- By the end of the session, not one of them doubted their leadership capabilities; the success in getting my message through overwhelmed me.
The greatest joy was to see the most silent and withdrawn kids interact with zest; to see the warmth of happiness from every kid when they’re told they’re beautiful. The talk was meant to motivate their self-confidence, emphasize their specialty, about leadership, on breaking social barriers, on daring to try new things, and standing up against wrong practices like alcoholism (still very prevalent among the poor in India), among many other subjects. I ended the program with a story and a poem in English- this was meant to boost their language skills, but it ended up enriching mine too. While I asked them to guess meanings of certain English words, they taught me many new Tamil words as well. In the end, everyone was groping for my hands, and I couldn’t stop grinning as all of them chanted, “thirimbi va akka” (come again, sister). Finally I gave them the gifts I’d bought before leaving, and they looked as happy as I was feeling; it was a great experience.
Empowered by this, and armed with a letter of recommendation by the principal of this school, I repeated a similar session in another government school. These kids, about seventy of them, were even poorer, and tough it was harder to deliver my message; it meant more – hardly anyone else would let them know of their powerful leadership capabilities or give them new gifts, that made all the difference to me.
The third school being a bigger one, turned me down without consideration, because of my age and perhaps because I simply had no reputation or qualification.
After that, sadly, the vacation ended, but I am sure that the help I can do, is by no means, over. I have held on to every dime I can collect this year also, and am looking forward to improve upon and deliver even more effective programs or volunteer to make a bigger difference when I come to India this year.
Many schools might, like they did, turn me down because of my teenage and ongoing education, but I’d keep trying, for this program is not about me- it’s about doing something to empower other kids in the little way I can. I will keep going to draw smiles on the faces that deserve to be happy- it satisfies me.
An incredible message this experience has taught me is how much a little act that may not mean anything to us, can massively impact a less fortunate person’s life. Moreover, the process of dong something to improve and motivate others isn’t exerting, it’s exhilarating, enjoyable and rewarding. It’s the best way of showing gratitude for everything we are lucky enough to have and experience.
Pic credit: waterdotorg (Used under a Creative Commons license)
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