How a panipuri vendor led to the creation of an NGO: The story of Elysium Smiles
Inspiration strikes when you least expect it. That was the case for Subhash and Komal Udhwani who found it nearly seven years ago from a panipuri vendor outside their home in Navi Mumbai. Having noticed that he brought his eight-year-old son along everyday, the couple grew curious.
The vendor explained that he had nowhere else to take him other than his own stall. Komal then decided that she would take the vendor’s son under her wing and teach him Maths and English. Quickly, she noticed that a lot of people in her society were interested.
From taking on one child, she went on to teaching her entire society. It wasn’t long before they set up Elysium Smiles, an NGO with a specialised focus in educating children from under-privileged and marginalised backgrounds.
“Elysium means a state of great happiness. As its name suggests, Elysium Smiles Foundation is formed to bring happiness to the lives of people to make it a better place. Its mission is to address social issues especially related to the underprivileged strata of our society,” says Subhash who is one the trustees of the organisation.
That eight-year-old who Komal took under her wing, went on to complete his 9th standard and join Amazon as a delivery assistant. For the Udhwanis, the eureka moment came in 2017. They figured it was time to move Elysium Smiles out of the confines of their society in Navi Mumbai.
In order to do this, they relied heavily on word of mouth. This got them in touch with many more children who needed help. Like for instance, Shilpa Gayekwad. Once a bright student, Shilpa found herself shrouded in fear after she was involved in an accident. Having slipped into a burning hot pan of oil, Shilpa sustained numerous burn injuries. The marks across her skin affected her confidence as she was unable to go to school normally, fearing judgement from other students.
Elysium Smiles helped Shilpa regain some confidence. It quickly stepped in and got her in touch with a senior surgeon who would help do corrective surgery on her burn marks. After this, it supported and helped her complete her 11th board exams, get into college and even secured a home on rent for her in Mumbai.
Shilpa isn’t the only one who Elysium Smiles has helped. Today, the foundation caters to the needs of a large group of children from different age groups – ranging from third standard to those ready to enter college. It’s looking to help nearly 1,000 such children in the next two years.
Identifying those in need
Elysium Smiles learned that word of mouth can only take the foundation thus far. In order to reach more children like Shilpa, Elysium Smiles also relies on Government schools and colleges. These institutes can reach out to the foundation to help with a student’s education needs. Once a request is placed, Elysium Smiles selects a student on the basis of their family income or condition at home. Thorough background checks are done through means of field investigation, checking their previous year’s marksheet, medical reports etc, to determine a student’s eligibility.
“We specifically go and select those kids that are coming from the bottom most strata of the society. The families typically have less than Rs 10,000 monthly income where the parents might be out of job or earning very less, physically challenged or will be a single parent,” says Subhash.
Once selected, Elysium will support the student’s education. While the couple began sponsoring education with an initial investment of 1 lakh, as of now, Elysium Smiles has established an annual outlay of nearly 18 lakh to help the 600 students currently enrolled in its care. To support finances further, Elysium Smiles is also supported by Elysium Capital – a firm run and operated by Subhash.
According to Subhash, to sponsor more children in the future, the foundation also plans to join hands with private companies in order to garner funds.
“It doesn't often end with donation,” says Subhash, “These kids call you for each and every thing. Dedicating time and attention to each of the 600 kids is equally important,” he adds. Besides the children under its care, Elysium Smiles often find themselves in a position where they need to change the mentality of the parents.
“Beyond supporting financially we had to counsel the parents to allow continuity in education, it is yearly exercise and takes personal involvement, regular meetings with parents, involving teachers and sometimes threat of stopping of grant for any other eligible kids from that family,” Subhash explains.
Though the job requires rigorous commitment, for the Udhwanis this is only motivation to keep going. Elysium Smiles also visits students personally. They visit schools and tuition centres these students study to stay in touch with their progress overall. Elysium Smiles has also gone beyond just supporting the educational requirements of the children in the care. Of late, it has also assisted in any medical emergencies that the children require it. Elysium Smiles has sponsored bills and surgeries of nearly 10 families in need.
Edited by Akanksha Sarma