Elizabeth Sholtys believes in giving and teaching street children more than just the basics. She treats them like she would her own children and this has earned her the love of 200 slum kids who call her Ashraya centre their second home.
“I finished high school from the United World College in Pune and was deeply involved in many social activities there. We volunteered in NGOs, orphanages, hospitals and more. But when it came to dealing with education of street children, the one common thing I noticed at most organizations I volunteered with, was the lack of expectations. People just thought – ‘Oh! They are underprivileged children. It is enough if they just understand the basics’,” says Elizabeth Sholtys, a resident of the United States who has been working for Indian children for the past 10 years now.
Elizabeth returned to the US having gained a sense of the kind of options available for marginalised children in the country, but not without the desire to do something for street children in India.
“I wanted to do something that would offer the best quality services to street children, truly the kind of quality I would want for my own children,” she says.
And one fine day, during her first year in college in 2005, she made up her mind, called some of her friends who had worked with her in Pune, and together they started the Ashraya Initiative for Children.
The work began with a residential program for four kids. Today, Ashraya’s centre is like a second home to over 200 children from three slums in the Yerwada area of Pune. They belong to the highly disadvantaged Waghris and Sikligar communities and Ashraya is changing their lives one day at a time.
The centre concentrates on the holistic development of these children and touches all aspects of their lives – starting right from the age of 1, up until they enter college.
The centre opens at 6:00 am and children start coming in to kickstart their day with a healthy breakfast. There are eight caretakers who cook breakfast for them and also help some children get ready for school because they don’t have water supply in their homes. Ashraya has tied up with rickshaw drivers who then drop the children to schools and bring them back to the centre after classes, where they have lunch and proceed for tuition. The centre has 12 teachers and two counsellors who help children finish their school work and also provide assistance with anything extra that they need. The kids then get an evening snack with milk and head back home.
“For many children, the food they eat at the centre is all they eat that day. They don’t get anything to eat at home on some days,” says Bharati Kewalramani, the Executive Director of Ashraya.
The organization obtains funds with the help of fund-raising activities conducted by Elizabeth and her friends in the US. The entire team is currently 40-member strong, all of whom are highly dedicated to their roles.
“The process of enrolling a kid starts right from the time when a young woman is pregnant. She becomes part of our health outreach program where we talk to mothers on different topics like nutrition, vaccinations, etc., and support them throughout the pregnancy. When a child is born, we help the mom with the provisions, medicines, hospital bills, etc., and then, when the child is one, he/she becomes a part of the play group at the centre. This is the pre-primary section where we take care of all the needs of children, right from ensuring they have birth certificates and IDs, to providing them with nutritious food. Later, we have them admitted to schools, after which they join the education program,” says Bharati.
The different programs conducted by Ashraya include:
• Residential Program: Under this program, the day-to-day needs of children are met with the help of counselling, medical care, providing clothing and personal items, etc. Ashraya provides a home like environment to children where they can feel safe and loved. During vacation time, the residential programme children participate in activities like trips, holiday camps, extra tuition, etc.
• Education Outreach Program: Here, the primary and secondary education of children is taken care of. Ashraya enrols children in schools, provides them with fees and supplies, and a tutor for about two hours after school each day.
• Health Outreach Program: Children are provided with all necessary medical care free of cost. This includes routine health check-ups, emergency medical care, immunizations, etc. Adults are also engaged in health awareness sessions so they can be empowered to provide their children with the best care.
Ashraya also partners with other organizations in the city to help with aspects of a child’s development that they cannot address at the moment.
“In 2008, the youngest child to come into our residential program was a one-year-old named Ramu. He had been abandoned and weighed only about 4 kg. He was so malnourished that he could not eat, walk, talk, or even lift his head. We took care of him under our health outreach program. Today, Ramu is nine; he speaks fluent English, Hindi and Marathi, and studies in a private boarding school. He and my children, whom I bring along with me whenever I come to India, are like best friends. Looking at him, I think if there hadn’t been someone to step in for this child, what would have happened to him. And it is stories like these that keep us moving forward,” says Elizabeth.
In 2014, two of Ashraya’s first residential programme girls, Geeta and Jyoti, received full scholarships to study at United World Colleges in Germany and India.
Two other children, Sanjay and Akash, graduated from secondary school and were enrolled in Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce for diploma courses in Travel and Tourism, respectively.
“One of our informal mottos at work is ‘whatever it takes’. We are committed to these children in every way. No matter what the issue is for the child, we will try to find a way to address it and try to improve the situation. It is not like a child comes to us and says that her father hits her mother at home, and we tell her that we can’t do anything about it. We intervene and make sure that she gets a safe and happy environment, no matter what it takes,” concludes Elizabeth.
Ashraya is currently raising funds to continue providing nutritious meals to the children. You can contribute here.
You can contact Ashraya by writing at: firstname.lastname@example.org