Sunil Satpute founded Gharkul to take care of the educational and vocational needs of differently-abled children from Mumbai’s slums, who would otherwise spend their lives within the four walls of their homes.
For Sunil Satpute, poverty was not an abstract concept. In the hutments he was evicted from, the long walks to the nearest water source, and open sewage pipes around residences, he had lived and experienced it.
Determined that no child see a similar fate, Sunil embarked on a journey to serve them, giving back whatever he earned. Along the way, he learned differently-abled children were often a drain on their parents financially, and could not get the care and treatment they needed. Sunil, thus, took upon himself to show them what the world looks like - and in the process, became their whole world.
Gharkul came into being in the Mumbai suburb of Santacruz. With a special curriculum, and vocation, special needs and requirements taken care of, 50 children come to Gharkul every day from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm. Classes are held in two BMC school classrooms that the organization has been renting, and the aim is to create a nuanced programme that does not deviate much from the mainstream one.
The curriculum has everything from English to Math to History, and a host of hobby classes like painting, sport, craft, quilling, etc.
Growing up in gangster Varadajaran’s turf in Mumbai meant Sunil’s neighbourhood was never safe. His father was an unemployed alcoholic, and his mother held odd jobs as a domestic help, working hard to ensure Sunil was kept safely away from any negative influence.
Sunil, now 47, procured his B.Ed degree from Mumbai’s Kirti College. “The atmosphere at home was so terrible, I had to be career-oriented. I ended up entering the social field when a friend couldn’t continue presiding over a social initiative, and asked me to step in,” he says.
Eventually, he joined the NGO Bal Jeevan Trust that predominantly worked for the education of street children. “I was never inclined to work in the corporate world, this was my calling,” he says.
Sunil taught children on the sidewalk under a tree. “I was disturbed because of the circumstances at home, and would find solace and happiness with these children,” he says.
Deciding to pursue this line of work, Sunil decided to get a formal degree, and after a gap of ten years, completed his masters in social work. He also studied law as he wanted to be able to provide legal help to those in need.
During an outreach programme to identify children that were not receiving an education, Sunil came in contact with some differently-abled children. “I learnt that these children spent their entire lives within four walls. The families would tell us that they couldn’t afford the fees to send them to special schools. I felt terrible,” he says.
He approached the NGO to accommodate these children, but the trustees did not wish to do that. “That’s when I decided to take matters in my own hands, and started Gharkul,” he says.
“It took me nearly nine months to lay the groundwork - the venue was the tricky part. I would go for meetings every day after work, meeting mandals, community halls etc. It was then that I learnt that the SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) had allocated a 225 sqft space for social work in all its buildings. I found one such building called Navratna, and convinced the management to let me use the space,” he says.
Sunil started Gharkul with seven to eight children, and initially they would simply come and spend time at the centre, where there were various means of recreation. “More and more children started coming in, but I had no funding to do anything more. At that time, I met two influential individuals, who were very impressed with my work and pledged to help me raise funds. One of them, a doctor, started taking donations from her patients - Rs 100 or Rs 50 even,” he says.
Bit by bit, the money, and even the children, started coming in and Sunil formalised his offering. As Sunil’s work started gaining popularity, the naysayers emerged, trying to jeopardise what he had created.
“Around 2008, just when we had started to stabilise, some people started spreading rumours that I was siphoning off funds. At a point, the children’s parents also got influenced and were on the verge of withdrawing. Even the secretary of our building started questioning my work. I was depressed and wanted to shut down. But my wife told me that the kids are all that matter. They need you, and you have to pull through for them,” Sunil recounts.
“My wife stood by me when no one else did, and she was the reason I kept going,” he adds.
Re-energised, Sunil started dreaming even bigger. All of Gharkul’s children are slum-dwellers living with autism, Down's syndrome, learning difficulties and other special needs, and Sunil was determined to turn Gharkul into a full-fledged school.
After relentless pursuit, he garnered funds, permissions, and a venue to expand into a fully-functional institutional centre for the disabled. “We have trained staff, five special educators, four helpers, three therapists, a clinical psychologist and counsellor, and the educators provide each child individual attention,” Sunil states.
Powered almost entirely by individual donations, Gharkul also has a corporate partner - Mumbai-based Soldier Farms India Limited. The company covers a part of the Sunil’s organisation’s expenditures as a part of its corporate social responsibility.
Sunil turned the company’s donation into a corpus fund and uses the interest to cover a teacher’s salary. With the winnings from a recent contest conducted by Mumbai-based startup CHEEP, Sunil plans to fund the maintenance and repair work of their classrooms.
“I have worked with both kinds of children - underprivileged as well as special underprivileged children. But, the innocence and affection in the specially-abled ones is unparalleled. When I see them smile, when they hug me - these children have pure love… They are my inspiration to keep going,” he says.
One of the children who passed out of Gharkul is 24-year-old Dinesh Lokhande. Born to daily wage workers, he wasn’t sent to school for a major part of his life because his parents could not afford the fees. In Gharkul since 2007, Dinesh discovered his passion for painting and drawing, and now he wants like to start his own shop.
A dream that the humble humanitarian harbours, as he nears retirement, is to start a residential home for the children. “The children can live there under my watch and care. My other responsibilities will end soon. So, I want to get involved in this fully, and hence, embark on my final journey surrounded by these children and their love,” he says.