“To work for children is like serving God”: Rockstar Anganwadi Worker R. Sundari Shares Her Inspirational Story

Posted: August 14, 2019

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A victim of child marriage herself, today, R. Sundari’s story reveals not just her commitment to children’s growth, but the power of the Anganwadi system in India.

An Anganwadi worker at a very popular Anganwadi centre in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district, R. Sundari recently won the Plan India Impact Award 2019 for the best Anganwadi worker. What got her the award was her innovating teaching methods and focus on making learning a joyful experience for every child, which has ensured that children who come to her stay enrolled. No wonder, more and more parents want to send their kids to Sundari’s centre! 

Humble and highly passionate about what she is doing, Sundari comes across as someone self-motivated and selflessly driven for the cause. I had the privilege to meet her briefly at the Plan India Impact Awards ceremony in Delhi. We spoke about her journey from child bride to child care worker, and how she is transforming lives going above and beyond the call of duty.

The journey and her inspiration

Sundari shares a story from her own childhood, “When I was in class one, I had a teacher who was blind. Not only did she teach exceptionally well but she also loved all the children so much. She always remains in my memory and will always be my role model. Despite her disability, when she could manage to teach and motivate us so beautifully, why can’t I do it? I resolved that I could do more!” 

Whatstarted with only three children in 2012, is today the most popular Anganwadi centre in Kanchipuram with more than 125 enrolments so far. In this journey of seven years, Sundari has not just touched the lives of several children but also supported many expecting and lactating mothers. She reveals, “I always wanted to be with children.  For me, children and God are the same. Working with children is like serving God. Even if there is a lot of age difference between the children and me, I learn a lot from them.  It is this motivation to be with children and make their lives better, which keeps me going”.

Was it easy when she started and what are the challenges now?

“It wasn’t easy. There have been a lot of struggles. Outreach, infrastructure, ensuring no dropouts, managing children where there are family feuds…it has all been quite challenging”, Sundari says.  She pauses and continues, “There was this one incident, which I can never forget. Due to domestic violence at home, the mother had entrusted me with the responsibility of the child. But the father tried to take the child from the school forcefully. He even blamed me for illegally confining the child and not just that, called the police. Things got terrible but finally they were resolved in my favour.”

Parents’ trust in her work has grown immensely over the years. Now, more and more parents with children in the age group of 2-5 years want to send their children to her centre. But there are challenges. Smilingly, Sundari tells me her dreams and also the roadblocks, “My centre is the only one which has a sanction of 25 children (as compared to the standard sanction of 20). But I want to further request for 30 children due to an increase in admission request, but it is difficult to get sanctions. Also, space and infrastructure are becoming an issue. I want to try various innovative teaching methods but cannot. I also want to host meetings and educate more and more pregnant women and lactating mothers from across villages which I am unable to do. But I shall keep trying”.

Going beyond her call of duty

Sundari has reached out to more than 1200 households and has ensured that all community members, especially girls and women, benefit from various government schemes. She shares, ” I am happy that now 100% of children between 1-5 years of age have been immunized in my community. We have been able to successfully combat malnutrition and children are achieving their developmental milestones on time. My sessions on health and hygiene to Panchayat led Self-help groups now have members from around ten villages…” 

Working closely with the local Panchayat, District Collector, and other bodies for over 1.5 years, she also managed to have a compound wall and toilet complex built for the centre.

Her centre is one of the very few which remains open late at night to support the migrant workers who pick up their children late. Located near factories, it caters to the children of many migrant workers from states like Bihar. “It is so satisfying to see these children picking up Tamil and not just that, teaching the language to their parents also. Thanks to them, I have also started to pick Hindi words”, she chuckles.

What does this award mean to her?

The Plan India Impact Awards acknowledge the hard work and exemplary dedication of last-mile champions like Sundari who are the change makers on ground. On August 9th, 2019 Plan India felicitated these champions in eight different categories from across 21 Indian states with 83 participating NGOs. The awards in the third year of their existence are meant to not just acknowledge but also replicate the exemplary efforts of grassroots workers driving the national development agenda.

R. Sundari being felicitated at the Plan India Impact Awards

“I believe that when I go back and show the Plan India award, I will get sanction for more space for my school as well as help to build infrastructure. With that, I will be able to serve more children and try new methods with them. I also think that this will inspire more people from my community. This award is a huge motivation not just for me but for many like me…”, shares a joyous Sundari. 

Sharing the vision behind the awards, Anuja Bansal, Executive Director, Plan India says, “At the heart of all the work that Plan India does is the empowerment of girls and creating coalitions and groups of young boys and girls to give them leadership of rights of girls and children. There are a lot of rewards and recognition for people who are at the strategic and leadership positions, but it is the hard work and efforts of last-mile champions which need to be recognized because they work in very difficult situations. Such recognition motivates them, and they understand that we care for them. And equally important, when they go back, they carry with them the stories and recognition that they have got which inspires others many similar workers. Since the need of change in our country is so large, if through these awards we can create a ripple effect of recognition of many, many more such grassroots workers, then we have achieved our objectives.”

Learning more about Sundari’s work and listening to the inspiring stories of many like her at the Impact Awards fills me with a sense of hope. I feel positive that their stories will motivate more people at the grassroots to lead the reform process and emerge as last mile champions. 

Read more about Plan India’s work and stories of last-mile champions here

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Present - North India Lead - Education, Charter for Compassion, Co-Author - Escape Velocity, Writer & Social Activist.

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