Started with two students in 2017, this NGO has sent 1,000 children to school
Although the literacy rate in urban areas at 87.7 percent is higher than in rural India at 73.5 percent, children living in unprivileged communities often fall through the cracks of the Indian education system.
According to the 2011 Census of India (the latest year for which data is available), there are 13.7 million slum households across 63 percent of the country's towns. About 22.72 million children (age group five to 18) living in urban slums are out of school.
Jaipur-based Smile For All society (SFA) is trying to get these children back to school. An initiative by Bhunesh Sharma and his wife Neha Sharma, SFA is an NGO (non-governmental organisation) dedicated to providing private school education to underprivileged children.
Smile For All is an NGO dedicated to providing private school education to underprivileged children
The organisation, which was registered two years ago, is currently running a public inclusion programme, "Happiness subscription".
“We are currently functional in 200+ cities spread across 25 states in India and have active welfare programmes in Bangladesh,” Bhunesh tells SocialStory.
Using Happiness Subscription, patrons donate Rs 500 per month. The funds are used to pay the school fee of underprivileged children.
“We have 623 happiness subscribers, and have enrolled more than 1000 kids in private schools. 100 of these through RTE, and the rest through private funds,” states Bhunesh.
Emphasising on the expansion plans, Bhunesh says, “We want to secure at least one million happiness subscribers in the next five years. We are also keen on expanding SFA to South East Asia and Africa. We are also working on a strategy to include skill and vocational training and cultivating hobbies for children enrolled in Grades VIII and above.”
The story of SFA began around the year 2017. One day, Bhunesh, who is an educator and partner at edtech platform Unacademy, met two children while waiting at a traffic signal. However, the children were not begging for charity like others, but were asking him for a pen to write.
Bhunesh drove his car to the nearest kiosk to purchase a pen for the children. This incident inspired him to tutor them.
The following year, these children shifted to a different slum, but Bhunesh continued to teach them. Soon, others joined the classes.
Bhunesh took out a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh and enrolled 40 kids in school via Right to Education (RTE). Of these, 15 were enrolled in a private school. As the word spread, other parents approached Bhunesh for help in sending their children to school.
For Bhunesh, taking the loan option was not sustainable in the long run. In February of 2019, Bhunesh and Neha launched SFA, with an aim to encourage public participation and work towards transparency in the child welfare sector.
The couple then started dedicating their evenings to teach children from the slum areas. At one point, Neha was tutoring about 80 students.
Smile for all society
Setting up an NGO is not without challenges. Bhunesh recalls, “Many parents are reluctant to send their children as they were concerned about fake NGOs who lure the children in with promises of education and then traffic them or train them to beg. Their concerns were genuine as the world is a scary place especially for the less fortunate.”
To counter this apprehension, Bhunesh and Neha tutored children in the slums where the parents could be at ease.
ABCs of running an NGO
With about 4,000 volunteers, SFA has managed to reach out to and conduct education surveys in 100 slum areas throughout India.
The core team and band of volunteers of SFA work to raise awareness about the plight of children in slums, and the importance of quality education and literacy amongst underprivileged populations.
The team also counsels families, assuring them that their children will be safe and accepted into the new school environment.
Bhunesh says, “Contrary to what Indians are made to believe there are many families without an Aadhar card. Smile for All also aids in getting families registered on the Aadhar portal as without an Aadhar Card admission to any school is not permitted by law. We facilitate in securing documentation like income proof, Aadhar card, and date of birth certificate for the children and parents. It is all part and parcel of ensuring the child is enrolled in school.”
Apart from this, SFA takes care of the fees and other expenses including school uniform, books, stationary, for those parents who genuinely cannot spare money for these items.
“We are also engaged in enrolling children into private schools either via RTE or paying their school fees through Happiness subscriptions. Most of the time, we have had to negotiate with and request principals to accept students by lowering their fees,” he adds.
The team is now in the process of upgrading its evening classes from open-air to learning centres with permanent structures.
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