November 5th: Happy Diwali!
Happy Diwali to all of our supporters near and far!
Here at AIC, we are lighting our diyas, wearing our best outfits, playing with sparklers, drawing rangoli designs, and eating yummy sweets to celebrate the festival of lights! We threw a Diwali party yesterday for the children in the Education Outreach Program, and it was a huge hit. The Residential Program kids spent the entire day at the centre helping us decorate for the party, making gift bags, serving snacks, running last minute errands and assisting the younger outreach children with the party activities (diya decorating, rangoli, etc) – they’re such awesome helpers, and we wouldn’t have been able to pull off the party prep without them! The Education Outreach kids had a great time eating, playing, dancing and painting, and the teachers even broke out their dance moves during an impromptu dance session as we were all cleaning up from the party afterwards. It was hilarious.
October 10 - Chase Community Giving Surprise
Wow!! AIC has been selected by the Chase Community Giving Advisory Board as one of 17 charities to receive an additional $30,000 from the Chase Community Giving Contest! We are so honored to have been recognized as a deserving charity and look forward to continuing to improve the lives and futures of our children through this generous gift.
September 30, 2010
It has been a busy September here at AIC (though don’t we say that every month?)! Here’s what we’ve been up to:
Between birthdays (Tushar and Geeta) and Ganesh Chaturthi festivities, there has been no shortage of celebrating this month. For Ganesh Chaturthi, we kept a Ganesh idol in the house, as per the tradition, and the children enjoyed doing aartis every morning and night for five days before taking the statue to the river for the visarjan (immersion in the river). Overlapping with Ganesh Chaturthi, the children had a week off from school, which they spent completing projects for almost every school subject. Scrapbooks, water harvesting models, map projects, posters, arts and crafts activities – you name it, they did it! After helping the kids with every type of project under the sun, the mere sight of glue sticks, glitter packets, cardboard sheets and popsicle sticks now makes our on-site Directors and volunteers cringe.
We also took the kids’ week off from school as an opportunity to get caught up on some health care appointments – audiology, ophthalmology, dental, orthodontic, etc. Lots of check-ups and follow-ups to keep us running from doctor’s office to doctor’s office!
Pooja received the opportunity to take a placement exam that would let her skip directly from 3rd standard to 5th standard. She spent the week-long holiday studying hard with the help of volunteer Naveen, and passed the exam! She has now been promoted to 5th standard, and is so excited to be among kids her own age. We’re extremely proud of her, since it seems like just yesterday that she was heading off to her first day of school (ok, maybe not yesterday, but less than two years ago, which we think is pretty incredible!).
Education Outreach Program
The last month has been extremely busy in the Education Program, as we are in the process of making many improvements to the schedule, teaching staff, facilities, and resources.
To start with, we initiated significant restructuring of the schedule for the Education Outreach Centre in order to maximize space usage and reorganize the classes so that the students are grouped together as logically as possible. After much deliberation, sketching and revising (our on-site Directors were up until 2am one night designing the new schedule!), we managed to ensure that our student to teacher ratio is never more than 10 to 1, as we had previously had several classes with nearly 20 students per teacher, a situation that was far from ideal. We hired three new teachers and caregivers and created an “Activity Room”, well-stocked with toys and learning resources in order to increase semi-structured activity and learning time for our youngest students in the mornings.
We have started receiving requests from parents for more tutoring time. Thinking back to the days when we used to have to beg and plead and fight with parents to send their children to school, it seems like such a miracle that they are now asking us to teach their children for more hours each day! To accommodate these requests, we have built extra tuition time into our schedule for those students who need or want additional instructional time. All in all, we are trying to strengthen the remedial component of the program because we recognize that some of these kids have to work harder to keep up in competitive private school environments given their backgrounds and home environments.
We have also been working hard on improvements to our facilities. Because all classes now run on the same schedule, we were able to install a school bell that is rung at the start and end of every class to improve teacher and student punctuality. Eric, volunteers, and several of our Residential Program children helped paint two of the rooms in the centre. Our new Activity Room, which was previously off-white is now extremely bright, featuring walls with different colors (“Lime Green,” “Bright Blue,” “Texas Yellow” and “Mango Orange”). The office in the centre has been spruced up with a new desk and some more chairs to accommodate visitors, guests, and parents. Swati, our Education Program Coordinator, has moved her desk to the front hall so as to be able to more directly supervise teachers, students, and caregivers. We also installed a donated washing machine in the centre, as it was becoming increasingly difficult for the caregivers to wash the uniforms by hand every day. The caregivers are very excited about the washing machine and it has been making their lives much easier!
Health Outreach Program
We’ve had an awfully busy month at the Health Outreach Centre, with an unusually high number of sick patients - some of them in extremely critical condition - in addition to our routine treatments (TB, common cold, diabetes, etc.). Within one week of young Bharti’s tragic death, we had yet another patient, Aarti, who nearly didn’t make it through a battle with dengue hemorrhagic fever. Luckily, after a week in the ICU and multiple platelet transfusions, she pulled through. Her husband and one-year old son were very happy to have her home and recovered.
In light of the dengue outbreak, Health Program Coordinator Rashmi and Director Julia successfully petitioned the local government ward office to intervene and fumigate the infected areas of the slum with insecticide, as the only means of prevention is to control the disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Unfortunately, two serious dengue cases were just the beginning! Many more hospitalizations followed this month, most of them related to high fever, typhoid and suspected dengue fever. 20-month old baby Muskankaur was admitted to a children’s clinic for malnutrition and diarrhea, and one of our community members had a tumor removed from his neck. On top of all this, we had countless other patients visit the health centre this past month. Little Arjun was hit by a motorcycle and fractured his foot. Due to a fighting incident, members of the Sikligar community had to be taken to the hospital to get stitches on their arms and backs. We took patients to eye check-ups and pre-natal check-ups, treated many, many patients every week for the common cold and had half a dozen patients come in with fractures. Often times, due to the extremely high number of patients, the health office was open way beyond our regular hours. We have definitely, never in the history of AIC, had a busier month for the Health Program than September 2010!
On a related note, Rashmi and Julia also visited Dr. Tore, head of Pune’s government immunization program, and discussed various possibilities for government assistance to AIC. For one, Dr. Tore (with whom we have a long-standing relationship) promised free vaccinations to infants as well as free pre-natal and post-natal medical kits for our community. Dr. Tore is also willing to give talks to our community and participate in various health camps and awareness programs. Through Dr. Tore, Julia was also introduced to Dr. Jaiswal, a pediatrician who is very interested in opening a free clinic and would be willing to run this free clinic for AIC on weekends.
Community Outreach Program
Things are going well at the Community Outreach Program. This past month, we organized various nutrition programs, including a Food Preservation class (offered to AIC’s community by government health workers) that lasted for four days. During these four days, women from the community learned how to preserve food as jam and jelly, pickle and many other dishes.
The class was a lot of fun – we had dozens of women coming in to cut vegetables and fruit, stir and fry things, and take the occasional tea break. Everyone bonded during the class, especially at the end of it when we spent half an afternoon devouring all foods that that had just been cooked! Women who completed the training were given a cookbook as well as a completion certificate from the government.
The tailoring class will run through mid-October. Our students know how to stitch sari blouses as well as children’s clothing (skirts, dresses, shirts). It is wonderful watching our tailoring students proudly present the clothes they made to visitors at the centre!
Recently, our community members have been asking for adult literacy classes and we are currently looking for a suitable teacher to teach adults a few afternoons a week. We are hoping to start both Marathi literacy classes as well as an English class, and have received requests for both classes from many community members.
September 14 – In remembrance of Bharti
It is with heavy hearts that we share this news with you all.
There was a very tragic occurrence today in the Waghri slum when a 15-year old girl, Bharti, died suddenly of dengue hemorrhagic fever. Bharti and her 3 siblings are orphans and live with their grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousin in a tiny one-room hut in the slum. She had been sick for several days and her family hadn't taken her to the hospital until this morning, when they brought her to the AIC Health Centre in a state of collapse/complete body shutdown. We took her to the hospital, where they admitted her to the ICU, and then called an ambulance and had her transferred to the government hospital, Sassoon. She didn't even make it to the point of being formally admitted to Sassoon, as she went into cardiac arrest and complete internal hemorrhage within minutes of being brought inside the hospital. The doctors attempted multiple times to resuscitate her but were unsuccessful.
This affects us directly and profoundly for many reasons. Besides the fact that it was absolutely horrific to watch a child die right in front of us, Bharti was one of the first three Waghri girls we ever met, and she was the one who led us to the Waghri slum and introduced us to the Waghri community. She was among the first 12 girls in the Education Outreach Program, and came to our house almost daily for several years for showers, meals and tutoring. In the past 2 years she had dropped her schooling because her grandmother sent her out to work (she washed dishes and clothes in people's houses) and although we had tried many times to convince her and the grandmother to continue her education, she (Bharti) felt embarrassed about being so old in school and her grandmother insisted that the family needed the income. She continued to come by the centre from time to time, and had continued to participate in health/community programs. Bharti was AIC's first TB patient too, so our Residential Program caregiver, Sangeeta, used to walk to her house every day to administer the TB medication (this was back in the days before our Health Program existed, mind you!). She had also lived with the AIC family for a few weeks at one point when she was recuperating from a septic foot injury; between her participation in Education Outreach and her brief stint living with us, our children knew her well.
We told the Residential Program children tonight, and there was a lot of sadness and tears, and also some laughter when the children remembered how mischievous Bharti was and how she loved to dance. Some of the children will be making cards for her family, and we're going to put together an album of photos for the family, as they don't have any photos of her.
The centre is closed tomorrow, and we'll be attending the funeral procession in the morning. Since AIC has started working in the Waghri slum, this is the first time a child has died, and hopefully, will be the last.
July 20 - Orphans and Street Kids Need Not Apply
Most of the time we're so fortunate to be able to share good news with you all. Sometimes, however we have disappointment and heartbreak to share.
At the beginning of this year, our oldest, Aakash, applied to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy Summer Program in Exeter, New Hampshire. Not only was he accepted, he was awarded a full scholarship to attend the five-week program, which is rarely offered to international students. We were (and still are) so incredibly proud of Aakash. Five years ago, he was working in a railway station, sleeping on the sidewalk by a temple, and did not know a single word of English. The fact that he was invited to attend a summer program at one of the most prestigious schools in the United States, on a full scholarship, is truly remarkable.
The story of what happened next is exhausting to recount. The bottom line is that we applied for a passport for Aakash, a process that took six months and entailed hundreds (probably more like thousands) of hours of manpower, dozens of individuals' involvement, enormous stacks of paperwork and more affidavits than we care to remember. Many times, we were told it wasn't possible because, as we quickly discovered, there was no record of Aakash's birth or existence as a citizen of India in any city in the state of Maharashtra. We could write a book about the process, but the good news is that after a tremendously time-consuming, arduous ordeal, Aakash received his very own, brand spanking new, identity-and-citizenship-affirming Indian passport.
Having meticulously compiled a student visa application file full of the necessary documents, Aakash and Julia set off for Mumbai for his visa interview. Aakash's bags were packed and ready with him, as he was planning to leave for the US immediately upon receiving the visa. His ticket was printed. His emotional goodbyes - in school to his classmates, at home to his AIC brothers and sisters - had been said. CNN reporters, inspired by the story of a street child who had earned a scholarship to such a prestigious program, had been following his every move as he made his trip preparations and departed for Mumbai, ready to take on the world.
With the start of the Exeter summer program only a week away, Aakash was nervous because he knew time was running out, yet confident because he had talked to many people about the visa process and felt like he was ready for the interview. More than anything, he was excited about the trip, and the opportunity to spread his wings, meet new people and bring his experiences and photos back to Pune to share with his brothers and sisters.
We'll spare you the gory details; to make a long story short, Aakash's student visa application was rejected.
It's hard to express the swift devastation we felt as we watched Aakash walk, alone (as nobody was allowed to accompany him) out of the U.S. Consulate clutching his rejection letter, bewildered, deflated, and utterly confused about what he had done or said wrong. The painful disappointment that was written all over Aakash’s face as he saw his dream shatter in front of him is impossible to describe.
But the worst part of the story is still to come. According to Aakash's visa rejection form, he was denied a student visa because he "did not demonstrate strong ties outside of the United States", ties that are defined as "social, economic and/or familial" in nature. In short, Aakash was denied a visa to attend a 5-week summer program in the U.S. because he is an orphan, living in a home for street children, dependent on the generosity of others with no financial resources of his own. Thus, in the eyes of the U.S. government, he had no reason to want to return to India, and was classified as an "intending immigrant." According to the letter, "the decision cannot be appealed."
Going into all of this, we knew that applying for a visa to the U.S. can be a competitive, difficult process. We submitted every ounce of proper, complete documentation that was required, as well as several items that were not, including proof of a round trip plane ticket, a letter from a U.S. citizen guaranteeing that he would cover any unforeseen expenses for Aakash and would personally ensure that Aakash left on the date of his return ticket, tax returns from the guarantor proving financial ability to sponsor Aakash, a letter from AIC explaining Aakash's situation and scholarship, etc. Though none of those materials were required for his visa category, we wanted to leave no stone unturned. Turns out we shouldn't have bothered, as none of his supporting documents were even glanced at, and in a matter of minutes, after a few cursory questions, Aakash was summarily rejected, handed back his hard-won passport and sent on his way.
The rejection stings, but it is the fact that he was rejected for reasons that are entirely out of his control, and circumstances that will never change that strikes us as so unjust. The rejection letter warned him not to reapply unless "there has been a significant change in your current situation." As you might imagine, Aakash will always be an orphan.
The most trouble part of all of this is that the reason cited for Aakash's rejection applies to all of our children. All of our children come from backgrounds similar to Aakash's - does this mean that they should never be eligible to experience travel abroad, have exciting educational opportunities (whether in the US or anywhere else) and be given the chance to prove themselves before being labeled and turned away?
It is tempting to try to put a positive spin on this story - it's amazing that Aakash got a scholarship to Exeter, maybe Aakash will be awarded a scholarship again next year and we can try again - but we wouldn't be doing justice to Aakash, or, really, to any of our children if we opted to gloss over the injustice that occurred when Aakash was rejected. Part of being a parent is fighting for your child, and the fact of the matter is that Aakash was rejected because of his background and family situation and unfairly denied an opportunity that he had worked so hard to earn.
Our children are happy, healthy, well-adjusted individuals with winning personalities and smiles so bright that it is easy to forget that the battles we fight for their equal treatment, inclusion and opportunities are not over yet.
In fact, in some ways, the hardest part of our work is just beginning. Our kids are growing up, and will soon begin to encounter the glass ceilings that are into place to prevent "people like them" - those who started off poor, have no families, have experienced neglect and abuse, come from low castes and socioeconomic backgrounds - from having access to equal opportunities and reaching their fullest potential. This situation with Aakash's visa is just one example of the many ways in which those like the children in our care continue to be written off with labels, assumptions and discrimination. Not just by the U.S. Consulate, but everywhere, in so many types of situations.
Since this situation transpired, we have been worked with Aakash to sift through his feelings of sadness, embarrassment, confusion and failure. Seeing and feeling his heartbreak, it is easy to second-guess ourselves: have we encouraged our children to dream dreams that are too big? But despite our brief period of self-doubt, once the dust settled, we remembered that there is no such thing as a dream that is too big. We will continue to encourage our children to aim high, set their own goals, and refuse to accept failure or defeat.
We will also continue to fight for their right to be treated like the intelligent, capable, inspiring individuals that they are until the world starts to listen. We owe it to Aakash and we owe it to all of our children.
July 14, 2010: Thank You!
AIC won $20,000 from the Chase Community Giving Campaign, featured on Facebook this month. We reached out to supporters far and wide through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter postings. We collected over 3,000 votes! By voting and showing your support for AIC, we were able to place in the top 25 organizations (out of 500,000!) and won $20,000!
AIC will use the $20,000 prize to fund our Education Outreach Program, which provides education opportunities to children living in the Waghri and Sikligar slums in Pune. The money will be used to provide things like school tuition, exam fees, uniforms, shoes, tutoring services, meals, sweaters, and textbooks for severely disadvantaged students, many of whom never attended school before.
With the money we won, we will be able to make a huge difference in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable children. Thank you for your continuing support of AIC, and we look forward to winning more contests like these, with your support, in the future!
June 29, 2010: A picture is worth a thousand words
June 15, 2010: Our noses to the grindstone...
Residential Program: Between bowling, swimming and the World Cup, it’s no wonder they are reluctant to head back to school!
At the beginning of this month (right before school started) our friend and supporter Jim took all the kids to an afternoon of bowling at the arcade. The older kids were competitive as never before and loved seeing their scores up on the large screen at the arcade! The younger ones looked hilarious trying to get the heavy bowling balls to roll all the way to the end of the bowling alley. Ramu loved sitting on motorbikes at the arcade and pretended to play video games all afternoon. Thanks, Jim, for such a nice end-of-summer outing!
The kids started school again in mid-June and have been busier than ever since! We had to get two full rickshaws full of school supplies from the overcrowded Yerwada market to make sure everyone was fully equipped for the new school year. Once the school materials arrived, everyone spent an evening covering books and labeling their arts and crafts supplies. Volunteer Claudia and caretaker Sangeeta helped the younger kids cover their books, while the older ones happily covered their own books, listened to music and shared their excitement about the first day back at school. While the kids are getting back into their school routine, Julia didi and Sangeeta have been busy going to the market and various stores to get hairbands for the girls, school uniforms and shoes for kids who grew out of their old ones, water bottles and tiffin bags for children who need new ones, and all sorts of other items. Making sure the entire gang has everything they need for the new school year is a full-time job!
On a very exciting note - Poonam has been accepted as a first grader in Nagarvala School! We are all so happy for her, and very relieved because we were worried there would not be space for her to be granted admission this year. Since Poonam has never been to school, this is such a big milestone in her life. While we are all thrilled about Poonam's admission, no one is more excited than Poonam herself! She bounces off the walls in the mornings before the driver picks the kids up for school, and returns home in the afternoon beaming with joy, itching to share all her stories. We are confident that smart little Poonam will do extremely well at school and are looking forward to keeping our wonderful supporters in the loop about her achievements and progress.
Most recently, just a few days into the new school year, all the kids enjoyed an afternoon at the pool, courtesy of volunteer Mary and her husband Remi. When it comes to swimming and playing in the water, our kids always have a blast. Even water-shy Ramu allowed Kajal to coax him into the water for a little while, right before he fell asleep in volunteer Claudia's lap for the afternoon. In the late afternoon, we took the hungry brood to the nearby Hard Rock Cafe for appetizers and milk shakes. While eating, everyone got to watch a World Cup soccer game on the big screen - a huge treat for our soccer-crazed kiddos. Thank you Mary, Remi, Tresta, Tobias and everyone else who made this very special afternoon possible – the kids can’t stop talking about it!
Education Outreach Program: Hi ho, hi ho, it’s back to school we go!
The daily happenings at the centre could not be any busier! Our centre is buzzing with students of all ages and staff members are getting used to the large number of newcomers this year. We hired additional caregivers to help prepare the children for school in the mornings and are currently hiring new teachers to keep up with the influx of students. Our volunteer coordinator Tresta has been busy setting up teaching schedules for our international volunteers to ensure that all students, even those studying in Marathi-medium schools, receive adequate exposure to English. The atmosphere at the centre feels more and more like a school environment with each passing day - what an exciting time for the AIC Education Outreach Program!
As is the case for the Residential Program, we've also been busy ordering books and obtaining school supplies for the Education Centre. Our office is filled with stacks and stacks of books, there is hardly space to get administrative work done, and covering books has been a huge production! The Education Outreach kids are back to spending their days at our centre, enjoy regular meals and playtime with their friends and are all excited to be back at school.
Meanwhile, the AIC Nursery School has been open since the beginning of June, and our little ones are slowly but surely getting used to spending time away from their parents. Our teachers and caretakers at the nursery are managing the bunch well and have already taught them an impressive number of English songs and poems. Many thanks to Amanda Brian and her family for donating many boxes full of amazing books, toys and games for the nursery school. The kids will be absolutely delighted!
Four of our smallest AIC kids just started attending LKG (Lower Kindergarten, ages 3-4) at Nagarvala School and love being in school and meeting new kids! Arun, Aman, Kareena and Rakhi arrive to the centre early morning, where caretaker Pinchu gets them ready for school. Our rickshaw driver, affectionately known to all of the children as "Deshmukh Uncle" then takes them to school and accompanies them into their classrooms. This is a big change for these little ones, who have spent their entire lives in the slum so far. Getting to travel to school by rickshaw is a new adventure every day! We are excited to be able to give these four such a great start to their educations and are excited to watch them thrive at school, now and in the years to come.
Health Outreach Program: Medical camps in the making!
In addition to daily events at the Health Centre, our coordinator Rashmi is planning several seminars and 'camps' for this month. Many of our community members are in need of glasses or appointments with an ophthalmologist. Due to the large number of patient requests, Rashmi is planning an "eye camp" for the community, sponsored by Desai Hospital, in which specialists from the hospital will come to our facilities with their equipment on a set day and conduct en masse examinations on-site, free of charge. We organized a successful eye camp in November 2009 and believe that this month’s camp will be equally beneficial for our community.
Our organization typically does not sponsor adult dental care, but to provide our patients with an opportunity to get their teeth checked, we are organizing a "dental camp" at our Health Centre this month. Much like the eye camp, the dental camp will be sponsored by a local hospital. Immediately following the event, patients will be able to receive dental care and treatment at highly discounted rates.
With the start of the new school year, we will also be holding a "Sexual Health and Awareness" seminar for both adolescent boys and girls in our programs. Our resident doctor, Mrs. Apurna Mane, has agreed to lead the seminar for all adolescent girls and a male physician will be teaching the adolescent boys about puberty, sexual health and hygiene. Given the frequent complaints about abuse and sexual harassment reported to us by members of the slum community, we believe that sex and puberty education is a vital (and often neglected) aspect of our adolescent students’ education and work hard to ensure our children and our community are adequately informed about reproductive health, rights and responsibilities.
Community Outreach Program: Tailoring and toxins...
We launched our newest tailoring class in mid-June, with a slight delay due to Health Program Coordinator Rashmi's workload. The training program is a month-long project comprised of five three-hour classes every week. The tailoring training is very well attended, and we've already heard lots of positive feedback about the experienced teacher!
In upcoming news, later this month, we are planning an educational Environmental Awareness seminar for members of the Waghri and Sikligar communities to inform people about health concerns/hazards associated with pollution, toxins, poor sanitation and waste in the urban environment and also teach them about the long-term effects of environmental damage. Although our Health and Community workers often find that imparting long-term, big-picture values such as environmental sustainability to these communities takes time and repeated effort, we strongly believe that it is a worthwhile endeavor to hold these seminars. With time, these concepts and values will begin to catch on in the slum communities, such as was the case with the importance of education for children, which, though initially a difficult and foreign concept for many the slum families, has rapidly become a staunchly-held conviction in those same communities.
May 31, 2010: The end of summer is fast approaching!
Residential Program: Summer camps, new faces and educational outings
Ramu went to a two-week summer camp for three-year olds at Vivero International Pre-School. While Ramu himself was not too enthusiastic about leaving his siblings and caretaker Sangeeta behind, we are all glad that he is starting to get out of the house more to make new friend and experience school for the first time! Meanwhile, Poonam is hoping for admission at Nagarvala School, so that she can finally ride in the school van with the other kids, instead of waving good-bye from the gate every morning. Poonam is also anxious to buy her books, school bag, water bottle and school uniform and asks about these items daily! Meanwhile we are still waiting to receive news from the school about her admission, as technically they are not admitting new students this year. But we can dream, right?
As usual, our little soccer enthusiasts have been nagging us to send them to soccer camp every day! They currently attend the Pune United Football Academy summer camp, go to practice three times a week and love spending time with their teammates. Coach Elic continues to waive the prohibitively high fees year after year so that they can continue to participate and we are extremely grateful to him for that.
Other exciting happenings this month included our new volunteer Claudia, who arrived in mid-May. After two months without volunteers, the kids are pretty thrilled to have someone new to hang out with! Claudia (in the process of completing a degree to become a teacher) spends a large part of her day teaching at the outreach centre and makes her way to our home in the afternoons, just in time for English study time, evening play time, dinner and reading time! We celebrated Sonali's and Santosh's birthdays in typical AIC style, of course -- with lots of cake in people's faces and a nice family celebration after dinner. Santosh’s birthday occurred while we were on holiday in Goa, which made it all the more exciting.
On top of everything else that went on in May, the whole family was invited to enjoy a one-day outing with one of our social workers, Rashmi, and her NGO's co-founders. We left early on a Sunday, made our way to a beautiful mosque an hour outside Pune and toured the Muslim quarter there. Afterwards, we went to have a lunch picnic in a forested park and met with members of another NGO. Rested after a quick nap in the forest park, we made our way to the famous Balaji Mandir (a large temple on the outskirts of Pune) and then managed to visit the Katraj Zoo and Snake Park on our way home. It was quite a busy day of cultural and environmental exploration for the kids!
Education Outreach Program: Gearing up for another big year
With the new school year approaching rapidly, tuition time at the centre was kicked in full gear in mid-May, with all teachers helping our outreach children revise last year's syllabus so that the material would be fresh in their minds by June. We have had several teacher and staff meetings to prepare for the new school year and the increased number of students at the centre. Education Outreach coordinator Swati has been busy ordering furniture for the centre (such as a much-needed shoe rack for the front hall) and comparing stationery prices in wholesale stores. Volunteer Claudia ran an English prep “boot camp” with the Nagarvala English-medium school kids so as to ensure they have a great start into the new school year.
Our soon-to-be 10th graders have studied continuously throughout April and May, with just a one-week summer break. They are all getting geared up for a challenging year of school as they will be preparing for 10th standard final exams (the "board exam" which is centralized across Maharashtra). The students' percentage score on the board exam next spring will determine their options for their future education (such as admission in reputable colleges), and we'll be doing all we can to give them the best possible tools for success on the board exam.
As for the younger kids: our preparations for the new AIC Nursery School are underway and our nursery advisor Gauri has been introducing the teachers to the syllabus and teaching methods. Nursery school classes will be held on the first floor of our Health Centre, so that the often rambunctious nursery children do not distract or disturb the students at the Education Centre as they study. We currently have about twenty students (ages 3 and up) signed up for the nursery school; their excited parents ask Julia daily about the starting date of AIC's nursery program!
Health Outreach Program: Pattras and Rehab
May was a busy month for staff of our Health Outreach Centre. Coordinator Rashmi organized the Community summer camp at the beginning of the month and then spent two weeks catching up on her duties at the Health Centre.
Besides the daily rush of taking patients to and from hospitals and doctor appointments, Rashmi also put a great deal of energy into planning home improvements for two families with infants in the Waghri slum. AIC sponsored 'pattras' (corrugated sheets of metal) to ensure a safe and dry home environment for little Vir Waghri and Nikhil Waghri (3 and 4 months old, respectively). Construction work was completed just two days before the onset of the monsoon - perfect timing given the massive downpours we have seen here recently.
Assistants Lakshmi and Anita have been running to and from hospitals as usual, taking care of our patients and keeping track of follow-up appointments. Lakshmi has gotten into a daily morning routine of taking ill children to Dr. Shirole, a pediatric specialist with whom we have built a rapport in the last weeks. Anita usually spends her afternoons at the centre, takes patients to appointments but also holds down the fort at the centre when Rashmi is out doing her work in the field. Diabetes patients show up at the centre every morning to have their blood sugar levels checked by our Health workers, and we have a number of tuberculosis patients receiving government-sponsored DOTS treatment at our centre on a daily basis. With all that goes on here, it is now hard for us to believe that we ever ran the Health program with just one staff member!
In other news, we sponsored a cataract surgery for a Waghri community member who had been waiting to have restored vision but had been delayed time and time again due to other underlying health concerns. We’re very glad that she has finally been able to undergo the surgery, as we had been attempting to arrange the procedure for almost a year. Another interesting Health development is that Rashmi and Julia spent a day at the Muktangan Rehabilitation Centre in Pune to meet with doctors and members of the administrative team. The goal of the visit was to discuss a collaboration between AIC and Muktangan – the majority of our community members suffer from alcoholism/substance addictions and are in need of medical treatment and counseling. Going forward, we hope to be able to provide the necessary care and rehabilitation to our community members through a partnership with this reputable centre.
Community Outreach Program – Networking and advocacy
The month of May was an exciting month for our Community Outreach Program! We established rapport with the Sir Syed Ahmed Khan Foundation, which in addition to many other things provides educational assistance to slum children and adolescents. The foundation sponsors discounted admission to the Adarsh Open School, which provides school drop-outs with the opportunity to complete their 10th grade education and prepares them for the Maharashtra board exam. Currently, about a dozen AIC community members have signed up to complete their 10th standard at the Adarsh Open School. AIC has agreed to pay 50% of all tuition fees (roughly $80 per student for the year) for our students and the rest of the cost will be borne for by the students themselves, to ensure their serious commitment to the program.
Our Health and Community workers have also been meeting with government officials to advocate for improving the Waghri and Sikligar slums by providing families with construction materials and metal sheeting before the onset of the monsoon. While these sorts of provisions are often granted to recognized members of low-caste and untouchable communities, as members of Denotified (Criminal) Tribes, the Waghris and Sikligars are excluded from most sources of government aid, thus we are always looking for opportunities to bring government attention to their situation in the hopes of securing the aid that they should rightfully be receiving.
May 7 2010: We're baaaack! (Did you miss us? :))
The Residential Program family had an absolutely wonderful time on vacation in Margao, Goa! Everyone spent a full week relaxing, swimming in the pool and playing in the ocean waves, taking strolls on the beach at sunset and eating scrumptious seafood dinners in the evenings. We went on a boat tour to a small island in the ocean, had lunch there and learned how to crack coconuts on a rock. On the way back from the tour, the high waves provided for a roller-coaster-type experience! On another afternoon, some of the children rode in a banana boat while others preferred to spend their afternoon playing "freeze tag" in the pool. Another highlight was definitely taking a tour of the Margao fish market, buying some seafood (including squid!) and cooking it for dinner at our house that night. The train rides to and from Goa were also exciting; we all bonded playing games for many hours and had two "train sleepovers" in the tiny berths on the train. What a wonderful experience and much-needed holiday for the entire family!
Residential Program: Operation RELAX
We really cannot begin to express how happy everyone around here is to have finished exams! Kids, staff members, volunteers Tresta and Mary and our on-site Director breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when the children finally finished their end-of-year exams on Tuesday, April 13. Since grades will not be published until May 3, the kids are enjoying their carefree days and seem to have forgotten that school actually exists (we’ll be sure to remind them with revision time once the new school year school draws closer)...
Post-exams, the children spend their days listening to music, playing soccer outside and playing lots of card games. With the absence of volunteers, the kids are spending more quality time with each other and are bonding over games and down time. To keep everyone busy, we have started sending the gang to AIC’s very own homegrown summer camp (see details below!) every morning, as well as to soccer practice in the afternoon three times a week. Ramu’s preferred "hangout spot" these days is a bucket of water outside the house (no, really, he can keep himself busy for hours with just a bucket of water). At nighttime, most children choose to sleep on the tile floor right under the fan or on the balcony to get some breeze. Since summer started early this year, we are all hoping for early onset of the monsoon – it might be rainy and muddy, but at least we won’t all have to endure the heat.
To escape from the heat, we are planning to go on a family beach vacation this summer (the first in three years)! Planning is still in the works, but we’ll keep you posted once we finalize the details!
Education Outreach Program – AIC Summer Camp and other Shenanigans
Along with holidays and the crazy heat, the AIC summer camp is here! Kicked off with a festive inauguration as well as an arts and crafts session, the camp promises to be heaps of fun for children of all ages! Our social worker, Rashmi, spent many hours planning the summer camp and has managed to bring in dozens of experts for all sorts of exciting activities. The kids will spend the next ten days doing yoga, arts & crafts, horse riding, pottery and much more. On top of that, they will be learning Lezim (a folk dance), plays and skits and will get a chance to watch a professional puppet show as well as Bollywood movies on a movie-theatre sized screen. What more can you ask of a holiday camp?
And last but not least, we can't help but brag a bit about two of our awesome outreach children, siblings Manju and Raj. Manju and Raj joined AIC a few years ago, having never before attended school despite the fact that they were 10 and 8 years old, respectively. After a significant amount of 'catch-up' tutoring, we enrolled the sister-brother duo into an English medium school, where they quickly became top students in their class. This month, Manju and Raj were awarded scholarships to attend the well-regarded K.C.T. Vidya Niketan School, a school in Pune that sponsors children from marginalized communities. Starting from June 2010, Manju and Raj will attend K.C.T. Vidya Niketan School with full scholarships. The English-medium school has won several education awards and maintains high standards of teaching. We are proud of you, Manju and Raj – you truly deserve your scholarships and have bright futures ahead of you!
Health and Community Outreach Program – Focus on Community Building
While Rashmi has been busy planning the AIC summer camp, she certainly has not neglected her responsibilities at the Health Outreach Centre. Patients flock to the centre every day and keep our entire health team more than busy. This month’s focus has been community building, mostly inspired by our Women’s Day Program last month. The self-help groups are meeting frequently and are enjoying the newly designated Health Centre (more space than ever before!).
Meanwhile, our vocational training programs are still an important part of our community outreach efforts. This month, we kicked off a Hotel Management course, sponsored by the Institute of Hotel and Tourism Management (IHTM). The 6-month course is taught in 2.5 hour sessions on weekends and is well attended by AIC community members as well as by members of surrounding communities. We are excited to have the opportunity to establish a relationship with the IHTM, and hope that it might eventually lead to vocational training for those with less/no formal education in the future (currently, the IHTM only accepts students who have completed 10th standard).
Also of note - we have acquired four sewing machines and are looking forward to making them accessible to all members of our community. A handful of our women and older girls already completed tailoring training and we hope to be able to enroll many more in tailoring programs in the near future! Going forward, we aim for these women to be able to supplement their incomes or even start small tailoring businesses using the new sewing machines.
Lastly, after months of hard work, we decided to take a little break and organized a Health Outreach team trip mid-month to Sanskruti, a “cultural garden restaurant” right outside Pune. Everyone in the group truly enjoyed the food and entertainment in the open-air space, despite a major sand storm interruption, followed by an enormous downpour!
April 7, 2010: It's World Health Day!
On World Health Day, the AIC Health Outreach Team organized a health check-up camp for women and adolescent girls from the community. A group of women (as well as the older girls in our Residential Program) met at our Health Centre, talked about World Health Day during a discussion led by social worker Rashmi, and listened to a short talk on women's health by Dr. Mrs. Mane. Afterwards, all women were given the opportunity to participate in a discussion about reproductive health issues. The event contributed to our community-building efforts -- women were asked to give an account of their daily routine in front of their peers and many women bonded over similar stories and shared experiences.
Here's what we've been up to this month:
Residential Program: English. Study. Time.
March here at the home could be described in just three words: English Study Time! (Our first kids coined the phrase "English Study Time" to refer to studying/reading/learning/completing homework back in 2005 when "English" "Study" and "Time" were three of the only English words they knew, and the name has stuck since then.) English Study Time currently lasts for a total of six hours a day at the minimum, split into three sessions of two hours each, as all of the children are studying for their final exams. Needless to say, every free minute in between study sessions is used to take naps or play outside to get rid of their surplus energy...we can't wait until summer vacation!
As the kids are busy preparing for exams, our volunteers Tresta and Mary as well as home director Julia and caretaker Sangeeta are all working extremely hard and spend their days preparing worksheets, studying one-on-one with the kids, grading mock exams and making sure the kids take their study time seriously. Not an easy job, given the kids’ different skill levels and age groups. To make things easier on the grown-ups, we have given our children a study incentive – whoever works most diligently gets to go on a swimming pool excursion after exams are over – what a treat!
In other news, Sanjay broke his right hand while playing outside just a few days ago and is no longer able to take his final exams (he couldn’t be more excited). Instead of letting him watch movies all day, Sanjay has agreed to help out English Study Time. He has been a wonderful tutor for little Poonam who will soon be a first-grader. Thankfully, Sanjay is scheduled to have his cast removed by mid-April; right after exams finish and in time for the summer holidays. What coincidentally perfect timing!
Seeing that the school year is coming to an end, we have started planning a few summer activities for our children. In just a few weeks, our 4th standard students Sonali, Tushar, Kajal, Santosh and Smita (from our Education Outreach Program) will get to go on a camping trip in Mahabaleshwar with Pugmarks Ecotours! This will be the first time away from home for all of them, and they are looking forward to spending a few days swimming, kayaking, mountain climbing, and hiking with new friends in scenic Mahabaleshwar!
Education Outreach Program: An AIC Preschool!
Big news to report from the Education Outreach Program – after noticing a trend of young children from our community who arrive at AIC ill-prepared to start school, we have decided to start our own Early Childhood Education program! Following the start of our pilot nursery program in January, we made the decision to formalize and expand the program to a 3 year track (nursery class + Junior Kindergarten + Senior Kindergarten) at the beginning of the approaching school year. We have several teachers who are certified in Early Childhood Education, but are in the process of hiring several more, along with teaching assistants and caregivers, as we want to ensure a favorable teacher-to-student ratio for the benefit of the roughly 40 children that we will be admitting into the program this year.
As we are looking forward to giving our little ones a head start in our new program, we are also busy working on school admissions for our older children (five years and above). The admission process at English-medium schools in India is difficult and even kindergartners are facing substantial competition. All students have to pass entrance exams and are selected from a large pool of applicants. We have been working hard to prepare our students for entrance exams at the reputable Nagarvala School and are hoping to gain admission for as many students as possible! In addition, we are looking forward to enrolling our highest-achieving Marathi-medium students into private Marathi-medium schools so as to enhance their chances for a bright future. So many of our students are extremely hard-working and truly deserve a chance at a great education! As we are accepting the nursery children into our program and accepting a few older students from the wait list, our Education Outreach Program is gradually expanding. By the beginning of the next school year in June 2010, the number of children in our program will have risen to roughly 200!
Health and Community Outreach Program: Celebration and Planning...
International Women’s Day on March 8 gave everyone reason to celebrate, and our Health Outreach Program held more events this month than ever before! Our Health Program Coordinator Rashmi was extremely busy organizing all sorts of gatherings for the women in our community.
The AIC Health Outreach team, along with our Education Outreach staff, put together a large Women’s Day event at our new Education Centre. Thanks to Program Coordinators Rashmi and Swati, AIC was able to welcome a large number of guest speakers and visitors. Our children from the Residential and Education Outreach Programs performed impressive dances and skits, while guest speakers talked about women's rights and advocacy. Our teachers weren’t too shy to perform songs in front of the crowd either! Our "chief guests" were, of course, the women from our community. Many of them proudly watched their children perform dances and skits and all were given small gifts during the event. The program was a great success, especially for our children who received praise from all around and were enormously proud of their dance performances! While the women were definitely the focus of this Women’s Day event, AIC staff, children and the community all came together to celebrate – a great bonding experience for the entire extended AIC family here in Pune.
In other news, after a brief hiatus we are starting literacy classes for members of our community again once the school year comes to an end. Many women have expressed the desire to learn to read and write and are looking forward to attending daily classes at our Health and Community Centre. Being literate will also make it easier for the women to start their own businesses after having completed AIC vocational training sessions.
On this note, a group of women from our community just completed a tailoring class, sponsored by the Bank of Baroda and Shantai (our Health Program Coordinator Rashmi’s very own non-profit organization). Following this vocational training program, we plan to acquire four sewing machines to give our women an opportunity to tailor clothes to supplement their incomes. To sustain maintenance of the machines and allow for continuous training of the women, participants will pay a small usage fee (a few rupees). There has been much community interest in this project, and we look forward to sharing progress updates as it develops.
As if this were not yet enough, our Health Outreach team has also been working hard on day-to-day events: hospital trips, visits to the slum, health-related surveys, the acquisition of birth certificates and ration cards for everyone in the community and all sorts of emergencies. Rashmi has spent many hours planning a holiday camp for the children in our Education Outreach Program and Health workers Lakshmi and Anita have been braving the heat (100 degrees F and above, every day!) while taking patients to hospitals, doctors and clinics all over Pune. Our Health Outreach staff works impressively hard and we are proud to call them a part of the AIC family!
March 1, 2010: Happy Holi!
The photo pretty much says it all!
February 28, 2010: February Photos
Health Outreach Program: A Space of its Own
At the beginning of this month, we interviewed several women for the position of Assistant Social Worker and ended up hiring two part-time employees to assist our Health Outreach Coordinator Rashmi with everyday work at our Health Centre. Anita and Lakshmi, our new AIC team members, have been doing a great job so far and have learned the ropes quickly. They spend their days helping Rashmi out during counseling hours, taking patients to hospitals, supervising our vocational training sessions and making visits to the busti (slum) to make sure all patients are well taken care of. Both of them have done an impressive job so far, working extra shifts and spending many hours waiting in hospitals with our patients. Meanwhile, Rashmi is glad to have the extra help – given the rapid expansion of our Health Program, it has become impossible for one person to do all the work!
With the move of our Education Outreach Program to the new Education Centre (see below) at the beginning of the month, we finally have some much-needed vacant space for the Health Outreach Program back at the old Centre. Needless to say, our employees as well as all members of our community are thrilled about this recent development! We are planning on organizing a number of programs and activities at the new Health Centre, which boasts two large rooms on separate floors - all for our health and community projects! This is a pretty major upgrade, considering the only dedicated Health office space we had previously was a (literally) closet-sized room.
Within the next few weeks, we’ll be organizing health-screening camps and adult literacy classes as well as self-help group meetings. Due to the high demand for vocational training programs, the enlarged Health Centre is already in use: we are currently holding a month-long motorcycle repairing class for teenage boys and men in our community. Also worth noting: the training program as well as materials, snacks, lunch and the teachers’ salary are fully funded by the Bank of Baroda. We hope to continue our partnership with the Bank of Baroda so as to be able to offer further vocational training programs to our community members.
As for medical treatments and health work, this month was business as usual: babies born, minor injuries and diseases treated, ongoing screening and check-ups, surgery for one of our outreach boys, eye exams, domestic and alcohol abuse counseling, etc. Volunteer Nikita spent a few days at the Health Centre and accompanied Lakshmi and Anita to hospitals with our patients. She was amazed by the work that is being done in our health program and commented on how impressed she was by Lakshmi and Anita’s energy and dedication. Two weeks ago, Dr. Thore of the Pune Immunization Centre visited us at our Health Centre in Yerawada and was in awe of our programs and facilities. Following his visit, he called to promise free immunizations for all of the children in our slums as well as a large de-worming camp for the entire community. We are excited about Dr. Thore’s offer and can’t wait to send you updates and photos of the immunization camp (to be held within the next two months)!
Lastly, this month, we celebrated Sankranti with members of our community, the children at our Outreach Centre and with kids, volunteers and staff members at the home. On January 14, everyone exchanged tilgul (multi-colored sweets made from sugar and sesame seeds) as tokens of goodwill. The underlying thought in the exchange of these sweets is to promise each other to remain friends instead of fighting or speaking bad words to each other. For the women in our community, Sankranti is a special festival as it comes with a celebration called Haldi Kumkum. We invited all married women to our centre, handed out gifts (kitchen utensils) as well as tilgul and honored all married women with speeches. Besides the roughly sixty(!) women who showed up at the Centre, we were also able to welcome three representatives from the Pune Municipal Corporation, who promised to develop a housing scheme for our slum population. Needless to say, our women were thrilled about the good news and are looking forward to the initiation of the housing project (which will hopefully provide needy families with a accommodation outside the slum in a few years).
Education Outreach Program: The Story of our new Education Centre
At the beginning of this month, our long-standing dream of moving to a bigger Education Outreach Centre became reality! After months of searching for a building that would suit our needs, we found one just five minutes away from our existing centre. While we started some classes at the new centre at the beginning of January, we did not move all our education outreach activities to the new centre until January 13. Moving day was crazy, to say the least! Volunteers, home directors and staff members spent many hours cleaning and setting up the new centre. In addition, many of the older boys in our Education Program were extremely helpful; they worked all day to move heavy furniture, kitchenware and whiteboards. Our teachers did not shy away from hard work either – all of them carried bags of school supplies from the existing centre to our new building and rapidly set up their new classrooms. Our work definitely paid off! We are all proud of the beautiful space we created in our new building. Volunteers are in the process of painting murals on the walls, our teachers have decorated classrooms with educational posters and kids’ artwork, and caretaker Anita is excited about the well-equipped kitchen at the new centre. Be sure to check out our photo albums for shots of moving day and the new centre!
Besides moving to the new centre, there were many other things that kept us busy in January. To start the new year off on the right foot, our children and teachers, with the help of Swati and Rashmi, arranged a New Year's party for the thirty children at a nearby home for disabled children. The party, complete with singing, dancing, snacks, gifts, and a performance by our talented dancers, was immensely enjoyed by all. The kids in our Education Program, though they live on the streets and in the slums themselves, were so proud to be able to do something for others to spread joy and goodwill for the new year.
As there is never a dull moment around here, a few days later we hired two new teachers and started tutoring eighteen nursery school kids (Upper/Lower Kindergarten, as they call it here in India) two hours per day. We submitted applications for admission at Nagarvala School for our three year olds and are hoping that they will all pass entrance interviews at the beginning of February. Our volunteers and teachers have all worked hard to prepare the children for these challenging interviews – kindergarten in India is extremely competitive! As for the older ones (4-5 years old), we are hoping to also enroll them in Nagarvala School and are waiting to hear back from the admissions team there. Overall, it’s been wonderful having so many new faces at the centre during tuition time! The little ones certainly fill the space with liveliness and keep teachers as well as volunteers on their toes at all times.
We continue to be extremely impressed by the hard work of our dedicated teachers in our Education Outreach Program. The nursery school teachers, who started working for AIC just a few weeks back,handle the nursery children with much affection and, on top of that, manage to keep everyone focused throughout tuition time. Keep in mind that we are talking about a group of almost twenty small children! Our teachers who teach the older children in our program are doing an equally remarkable job; they have been spending many hours preparing their children for the upcoming exams and have been pulling extra shifts on weekends and holidays. In addition to the hours spent teaching the kids, our teachers (in tandem with our volunteers) were also involved in decorating the Centre and worked extremely hard to create a beautiful space. On this note: a big thank you to all our teachers – we couldn’t succeed without you!
On January 21, we had birthday celebration at our new centre! Poonam Waghri celebrated her sixth birthday with teachers, volunteers and children from our Residential and Education Outreach Programs. As is the case with many of our incoming children, we have no birth certificate or other documents for Poonam. Since birthdays are big celebrations here at AIC, we let everyone choose a birth date. Poonam, who never had a chance to celebrate her birthdays before coming to our home, was quick to decide she wanted her birthday to be the very next day!
Ringing in the New Year...
...with a brand new Education Outreach centre!
Winter vacation meant all sorts of fun for the AIC family - murals, babies, soccer, Global Affairs, new kittens, hyper children, track suits from Austria, trips to Mahindra College...loads of excitement! [Meanwhile, after the first few days of winter vacation, we adults in the house passed our time counting down the days until school started again!]
Exams are rapidly approaching! (cue ominous music) After quite some time off during the holiday season, the kids are studying hard and staying up late to memorize their ‘portions’. We currently have six volunteers here at the home, all of whom are busy preparing worksheets and ‘mock exams’ for the kids in our residential program. Many of the kids have been getting great scores on their mock exams, and Julia didi took all the high scorers out for dinner and ice cream. At school, the kids have been busy preparing for exams and attending school picnics as well as sports events. Tushar and Sonali were selected to represent their class at a citywide sports day and participated in dozens of competitions. Despite many hours spent studying, the kids still find time to go to soccer practice – none of the kids would want to miss out on their favorite extracurricular activity!