A Woman Returned to India After 40 Years, and Started Changing the Lives of Street Kids in Dehradun

A 7-year-old girl was found begging in Dehradun in 2011. She had only one arm and leg, and was the sole breadwinner in her family. Today, she has a prosthetic leg, is a brilliant student of Class 5, and writes beautiful songs. All thanks to one Dehradun-based organisation.

While working with an organization for the education of underprivileged children in Dehradun, Shaila Brijnath came across an eye-opening reality.

“I had just returned to India after living in London for 30 years. Here I was told to work with some very young children who were suffering from addiction – they were as young as six years old. But when I started working in the area, I was shocked to see that the condition was worse than expected. We were finding children as young as two and four who were victims of substance abuse because their parents were addicted,” she says.

There was illness and illiteracy, children left alone without proper care, and teenagers taking to begging for the sake of their addictions. Getting these children to school looked extremely difficult.

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“Education does not take place in isolation. If a child is hungry, unwell or cold there is no point in trying to teach him or her. We have to look at the matter as a whole,” Shaila says she realized.

The situation had a profound impact on her and she founded a non-profit organization called Aasraa Trust in 2009. Aasraa works towards empowering street and slum children through education and vocational training, and by providing them with nutrition, medical care and shelter homes.

What started as a small set up with a group of 35 children has now grown into a large organisation that works with 1,000 children in 11 centres around Dehradun.

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Shaila Brijnath (left) and Neelu Khanna (right) with the kids. Neelu is the Secretary of Aasraa Trust and she co-initiated the Street Smart project with Shaila.

Shaila started the Trust with the help of some funds she received from friends and family members. The first step was to enrol the 35 children, living in a slum under Bindal Bridge, in a government school.

But here again Shaila found a huge gap in the way conceptual learning was being provided, without taking the children’s background into consideration.

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Determined to provide a level playing field to every child, no matter where he/she came from, she gathered a small team and started a makeshift school in an abandoned building near the bridge. The idea was to spread awareness about education among children belonging to underprivileged families, and provide them with informal training to get them ready for mainstream schools.

And the motivating factor for the kids to join? A glass of milk with Bournvita and a banana right before the classes started.

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“We used to teach children from Classes 1-6. It was a beautiful setup. There was a small courtyard for children who came with their younger siblings, so they could keep an eye on them. A sewing class used to be conducted in one room for those mothers whose elder children were studying,” says Shaila, who continued with these classes for about two years. By this time, Aasraa had 130 children.

Later, when the landlord took the place back, the Principal of St. Joseph’s Academy in Dehradun opened the school doors for all the children associated with Aasraa Trust, and gave them space to continue their classes for about three years. After some time, Aasraa also started supporting a local government school, Rajkiya Purv Madhyamik Vidyalaya, in running its residential unit — the Trust pays for the salaries of cooks, wardens, etc., and other day-to-day expenses. Many students from this school now also attend Aasraa’s after school programmes.

Over the years, Aasraa has seen some extraordinary success stories:

Chandni

Chandni

“One of our students, Chandni, was 7 years old when members of our outreach program found her begging on a street corner. She had only one arm and a leg because of an unfortunate birth defect. And yet, she was the only breadwinner in her family. It took several months of convincing her family before she could finally join out residential program. Today, she is a student of Class 5 and is performing brilliantly. This child has an indomitable spirit and a radiant smile. We also found that she is an amazing singer and loves to compose her own songs,” says a proud Shaila.

Watch Chandni’s heart-warming journey here:

The organization’s mission is to level the playing field for children coming from extremely impoverished backgrounds – those who have never seen books or stepped into a school. Aasraa has successfully placed about 180 children in mainstream schools after the initial preparatory program.

“We are trying to create a model that can work. Our outreach programme focuses on finding children from underprivileged communities and raising awareness. Then there are local centres for children to take their first step into education. These centres run at different times in order to meet the needs of every child,” says Shaila.

The two important programs being run by Aasraa, as of now, include:

Street Smart:

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This is a precursor programme to mainstream education. In this programme, children are prepared for enrolment in schools that have classes in art and crafts, music, Hindi, English, maths, and computers. About 500 children presently participate in Street Smart. This includes an outreach programme where the volunteers approach children from underprivileged communities, speak with them, convince their parents, and try and get them to Aasraa centres. There is also a programme meant to rehabilitate child beggars through education and vocational training.

Additionally, they have mobile learning centres as well – these are two revolutionary classrooms set up inside buses that are equipped with high tech audio visual learning material to take education to those children who cannot reach school.

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Wings of Doon:

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This is an after school tutorial and homework support programme for mainstream school students. The aim is to enhance conceptual learning and help children reach the same level of understanding as others of their age.

Currently, 450 children are enrolled in this programme.

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Aasraa Trust is the only centre of education in Dehradun that is approved by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) to provide children of Classes 3, 5 and 8 with open education. This helps children who have never received any formal education and cannot enter schools in age appropriate classes.

Aasraa also runs three shelter homes where children receive all-round care — from medical assistance and nutrition checks, to education and vocational training.

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Shaila has slowly expanded her team to 70 members and they are running 12 projects in the city. Most of the teachers at Aasraa are working part time. The Trust is involved in teacher training too and is planning to get more permanent teachers on board. It is now funded by different organizations like Counselage, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, etc.

Shaila had left India at the age of four to live in the US for 10 years, followed by London for 30 years.

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Now that she is back, this enthusiastic 52-year-old is determined to change several lives in Dehradun with her unique organization. Here’s wishing her and her students a very bright future.

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