August 2nd, 2017
Bengaluru abounds in construction workers who have migrated to the city from various parts of Karnataka. While these workers toil hard day and night to fulfil the dreams of our new homes, they are unable to build any future for their children. Amidst travelling to and fro from their place, these construction workers are unable to fend for them in the truest sense of the term – providing education for them is a far-fetched dream. As a result, a lot of these young minds get lost in the darkness; without having the opportunity to see the light of education.
Saraswathi Padmanabhan and her husband, Shyamal Kumar have decided to paint a different picture altogether for the children of the construction workers. Their initiative, Diya Ghar, aims to fill their lives with the ray of hope and learning. Speaking to The Logical Indian, in an exclusive interview, Saraswathi chalks out Diya Ghar’s journey and how they have ventured to make the lives of the children of the construction workers.
The seeds to Diya Ghar were sown long back
‘What inspired you to take up this initiative?’ The Logical Indian had asked Saraswathi. She smiled and replied, “Honestly, I had never given that so much thought. But now that you are asking, I think I have always been exposed to the culture of social service since my childhood.”
“Our birthdays were celebrated in a unique fashion; we were taken to children’s homes on those days and celebrated them with the children there,” she explained. “I think it is from there that the desire to serve the society, especially underprivileged children came inside me,” she added.
Also, her parents have been actively involved with community service and that had a telling impact on young Saraswathi. Growing up in an environment like this, social service came naturally to her.
“My first job was in Mumbai where I worked for two years with street children ministry which was associated with the Bombay Baptist Church,” she said. “When we moved to the USA, a part of my time was also spent in working with the children of the prisoners. This was again an initiative by the church. We arranged programmes for the children and were involved in several other welfare initiatives.”
However, this was not her full-time commitment, Saraswathi said. After their short stint in the USA, the couple returned back to India. In Saraswathi’s words, “We knew that God was calling us back for a special work.”
Nurturing their dream to bring about a change
After the couple came back to India, one thing they were clear on their mind was the fact that they would want to bring about a change in the lives of underprivileged children.
Saraswathi hails from the background of management and accounting, she had worked as an auditor in a USA-based firm. However, she changed her field completely when she started learning to counsel from United Theological College, Bengaluru. “I wanted to bring my counselling skills into my work with the underprivileged children,” Saraswathi explained.
But they did not start the NGO right away. Saraswathi was working with an adoption agency for a year and later she was also teaching counselling part time in colleges. “I took a break from teaching when we were blessed with our first son and then two wonderful daughters,” she said.
In their ten-year-long stay in Bengaluru, the couple had always wanted to work with the construction workers and their children. “Couple of years ago, there was a settlement of construction workers near Shyamal’s workplace in Bellandur. We used to go there accompanied by our domestic help because we did not know Kannada. Every Saturday, we used to pick up the children from their shelter, give them milk and biscuits and teach them songs,” she said.
The couple has been involved in several community services but their plan was to take this to the next level after few years. “We were waiting for your youngest to grow up a little more, but by the beginning of the last year, we both felt that God was directing us to start with this venture – and we were no one to deny His wishes,” she explained.
The inception of Diya Ghar
The couple started when they sold some the ancestral property that belonged to Saraswathi in December to start off with Diya Ghar. After finishing off with her teaching assignments, Saraswathi enrolled herself in a Montessori training centre. She said, “ We were sure that we wanted to use the Montessori method of education to the kids in Diya Ghar because of the good foundation it gives.”
“These children with whom we intended to work with had several issues like that of malnourishment and developmental delays – the Montessori system is very beneficial because of the emphasis on cognitive development along with physical development. Undoubtedly, it is expensive to set up Montessori pre school and to have skilled teachers but after seeing our own kids benefitting from the system, we would not have settled for something else,” she sounded determined.
Saraswathi pointed out that this was a unique feature of Diya Ghar, as there are hardly any NGOs who are carrying out Montessori training for children.
“Getting across to the people have been difficult, I agree. In fact, we have had mixed responses from them. Some of them have been very welcoming and trusting and have agreed to send their children to Diya Ghar. Some, on the other hand, have not been so open.”
On being asked the reason, Saraswathi was candid enough to say, “Well, they are all mostly migrant workers – one day they are here, after some days that might shift to somewhere else. They earn on a day-to-day basis and sparing a thought about their children’s education is a luxury.”
“But we have a wonderful experience last year of seeing a child from our organisation walk through the gates of a government school – that in itself gave us a lot of validation for the work we were carrying out. God willing, we would have three more children who shall go to First Standard next academic year,” she smilingly added.
Diya Ghar’s long-term plans involve getting connected with a number of other NGOs in the city so that even if the workers shift their base, their children’s education goes unhindered.
“Also we have mostly restricted ourselves to the preschools because those are the foundational years for a child which needs to be taken care of – hardly any other options are available for such young kids. Anganwadi is not a good alternative; they are too few and are starved of resources,” Saraswathi explained.
Diya Ghar has the facility of picking up the children from their homes and dropping them back. This, Saraswathi feels, has been a major boost for the parents to send their wards to their institution.
The kids are picked up at 8:30 and brought to school. They are given a wash and changed into their uniform. Then follows prayer and breakfast. The learning process starts off from that time on, till 12:30 when they have home-cooked lunch from Saraswathi’s place. The kids take a nap, and after that, they are kept busy with various activities like that of colouring etc. By 4:15, they have milk and snacks and then they are changed into their home clothes and sent back to home by 4:30-45.
Diya Ghar: the path ahead
“The name Diya Ghar bears the significance of bringing the shining light of education in the lives of everyone, especially those who are underprivileged. We believe that every child is special and it is our duty to give them a wonderful childhood shielding them from negligence, malnourishment, emotional and sexual abuse,” Saraswathi said.
According to her, the biggest difference they have been able to bring about is to provide a safe haven for the construction workers’ kids who used to otherwise accompany their parents to the sites, which is hazardous. “Also we have been able to make them realise that their kids also have potential and are destined to a life better than theirs – this feels like a great achievement for me; we have been able to bring hope to their lives,” she said.
One of the hurdles that Saraswathi faced is that of getting trained Montessori teachers for the children. “ But later I realised that it was not the skill that was so important, it was the urge to do something for these kids that was the driving force. Skilled professionals often have different careers in their mind. So, after that, I started looking for people who were keen to serve, invest in these children – their training part is taken care of by me,” she added.
“Diya Ghar has strengthened my hope that we can make a difference in each life,” she said. “Every seed that we sow, we might not be able to see the fruits it bore, but I feel, we have been called upon to do this service,” she added.
The Logical Indian Community appreciates the work that Saraswathi and Shyamal are carrying out with the children of the construction workers. In her words, Saraswathi feels that she blessed because she has had the opportunity of working with ‘God’s own children’. We wish all the very best to this inspirational couple for their future endeavours – we hope they touch much more through their initiative and brighten up more lives.