Varun Shrivastava has been educating slum children and trying to provide them a better future through his NGO, UPAY (Under Privileged Advancement by Youth).
Varun, who works for NTPC, recalls how deeply tormented he was during his IIT Kharagpur days when he saw children living in poverty. He was especially hurt by the way they had to beg on the streets and sell things at traffic signals. He was disheartened and felt that most of them would buy the things they sell. He wanted to help them but didn’t know how to go about with it.
In 2010, he eventually started an NGO, UPAY, in Nagpur, which aimed at uplifting underprivileged children. He started visiting slums in the city and interacting with children and their parents, while trying to figure out ways to help them. His friends joined in and started accompanying Varun to these slums where they soon started teaching children. Today, UPAY has more than 120 active volunteers and a team of doctors, professors, engineers, teachers, and other working professionals. Varun says –
“We faced a lot of difficulty in the beginning. The kids we wanted to teach had never been to school. All we could do is speak to them, feed them, or play with them. Spending time with us slowly helped them develop a connection and we could slowly develop their interest in studies.”
The biggest problem Varun and his friends faced was, however, convincing the parents. Varun recalls how, “The children helped their families by selling things at traffic signals and begging, and would have to stop if they went to school. We faced many difficulties but knew that perseverance was the only way forward, and we pursued.”
UPAY currently runs two programmes, the first one is ‘Reach and Teach’, where volunteers travel and reach out to children living in slums, labour quarters, and villages. They use government infrastructure like school buildings and Anganwadis to teach these children. If they do not find a concrete structure, they erect tents in open spaces and teach them.
The ‘Reach and Teach’ programme teaches children in batches. Acurriculum is designed and developed for each subject and grade. Varun swells with pride when he tells us how his students, who once didn’t know how to read or write, are today setting records in their areas and scoring up to 90% marks.
The second programme ‘Foothpath Shala’ is for homeless children who live on streets and footpaths. The volunteers organise classes for these children on the roadside and do not rely much on infrastructure. The children who come under this programme are usually illiterate and are divided into three levels based on their aptitude and learning capabilities and taught separately.
One day per week in UPAY’s curriculum is dedicated to sports, while another day is for cultural programmes and storytelling sessions. UPAY aims at the holistic development of children and wants to help them become learned and respectable members of the society. Varun says –
“To bring children to the classes, we have to lure them with sports equipment, clothes, and study materials. There are other expenses too. Every month, our volunteers chip in some money from their pockets. We also receive donations from friends who believe in our cause. This helps us manage the finances to run UPAY. We have not approached the government or corporates for funding till date.”
Varun also told us how they help good students get admission in schools. They also bear the tuition fees and hostel charges for these children. Twenty-five children from UPAY have been admitted to schools and are doing really well. Varun regrets that more children should be sent to schools, but they do not fit into the school structure yet.
The NGO also imparts skill development lessons to children who do not show interest in education. Parents get involved too. The NGO runs an e-commerce portal, apnasaamaan.com, where they sell candles, incense sticks, and other handicraft goods, which are made by the villagers and slum dwellers. The money raised here is used by the NGO to fund the education of their children.
UPAY currently runs centres in Maharashtra and parts of Uttar Pradesh. It wants to reach out to more children in the days to come. With a group of dedicated volunteers, they have a good chance too. Varun tells us how education is the solution to all our problems. “It not just helps build morally and socially responsible citizens, but also helps fight inequality and other social dogmas.” Although happy with the way things have turned out, Varun feels that his journey has just begun.
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