Mumbai NGO Utilizes Public Spaces to Connect Volunteers with Children Who Want to Learn

Angel Xpress Foundation connects people who want to do constructive social work with less privileged children who want to learn. The volunteers teach municipal school children in public spaces like parks or promenades for 2-3 hours a day.

On one of her regular morning walks, Mumbai resident Anubha Sharma stumbled upon her true calling when she spotted a group of elderly retired men teaching street children. She was on a long break from work, and had already tried volunteering at some organisations because she wanted to give back to society. “But I never felt like I was making a real difference,” she says. However, watching the elderly men with the street children moved her. “I asked them if I should bring some breakfast for the children, but one of the elders said I should teach them something instead.”

She was hesitant at first but still turned up every morning to interact with the children and teach them. Soon, she realised the children attending municipal schools had major gaps in knowledge compared to regular school-going children of their age. One day, on a chilly January morning, when she was teaching the children, one of the kids huddled up next to her, feeling cold. The children would come in simple frocks or shirts and trousers, ill-prepared for the cold. She then put up a Facebook post asking for donations of warm clothes for the street children. “That post went viral and someone put it on BBM,” she says. “I had 3000 people calling me in the next 10 days.” That’s when she realised that so many people, including herself, wanted to help but didn’t know how.

This realisation led her to start Angel Xpress Foundation (AXF), along with Beena Advani, a teacher who believed that if enough educated and affluent people started doing constructive social work, the impact could be tremendous.

Anubha Sharma and Beenaa Advani

Anubha Sharma and Beenaa Advani

“I started the Foundation as an attempt to create an opportunity to bridge the gap between people who want to give back to society, and underprivileged children who want to learn,” she says, adding that people don’t have to go out of their way for it. “We formulated a plan where learning centres are created in public spaces like parks, promenades, malls, or held in free areas of schools or corporate offices.”

AXF started out with 18 children on the Bandstand promenade in Bandra, Mumbai, with encouragement from the Bandra Bandstand Residents’ Organisation.

Volunteers at AXF only have to spend two or three hours with the children, says Anubha.

Volunteers teaching classes.

Volunteers teaching classes.

In four years, AXF was able to put a proper system in place. “All you have to do is pick a neighbourhood park or community hall, and call a few underprivileged children who don’t have access to education,” she explains. “You only have to spend a few hours of the day to teach them English or maths, along with meditation, art and craft, and other such activities.”

Today, there are about 200 women who take time out from their schedules to help over 800 children. They come from various backgrounds – finance, business, art. Some of them are still working, some have quit, and some are housewives. “It is very fulfilling, which is why some of our volunteers stick on for three to four years,” she says. The entire impact is recorded through year-end assessments sent to all the centres and volunteers.

AXF supports new volunteers by helping them out with curriculum, training and assessments.

Billabong High School, Malad, organised a sports day and various activities like zumba for the kids.

Billabong High School, Malad, organised a sports day and various activities like zumba for the kids.

Debika Ajmani is the centre head for Juhu, where she mobilises volunteers, gets funding through corporates and friends, and spreads word about the centre. She has helped new volunteers familiarise themselves with the system. “I started out by teaching maths twice a week and soon took charge of the centre,” she says, “I’m at the centre five days a week, three hours a day, sometimes even weekends.”

Besides residents, Anubha also approaches schools and corporates to take up the cause, especially companies that have a mandatory community service program as part of their CSR.

Anubha adds, “We also involve parents and children through schools. It helps these children understand the reality of life in India by interacting with the street children.”

Debika once brought her own children to one of the centres. “That day my 14-year-old daughter came up to me and said, ‘Mom I’m so proud of you’. That, and encouragement from my family, keep me motivated to continue.”

Besides teaching, some volunteers also take the children out for movies and provide them with food, new clothes and toys.

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According to Anubha, over time, the children show a visible change, starting with their attitude towards life. “For instance, at first they would all be very pushy, wouldn’t maintain lines or wait for their turn,” says Anubha. “But gradually, they learn that their turn will come, that they will also get their share. This has made a huge impact on their lives. They behave a lot differently, perhaps much wiser now.”

Adds Debika, “They even understand the importance of hygiene and keeping their surroundings clean. There’s an improvement in their behaviour, as they love and respect each other.”

When the children are exposed to opportunities, their talents shine through. “There were some girls who were really good at art and have been picked up by an art school. Some were good at dance and now they have received scholarships for dance,” she says.

Some volunteers have even picked out the brightest students to focus on mentoring them to excel in certain subjects, such as maths, so that future opportunities open up.

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Debika joins in, saying, “We create in them the ambition to achieve academically through higher education and aim to have careers.”

Some of the children even come back to the centre to teach young kids. For Debika, the satisfaction of seeing these children realising the importance of education keeps her grounded.

She recounts, “It’s wonderful when kids come up and say, ‘Didi, I like the way you teach us maths and the way you listen to us.’ In their schools, they don’t teach students with much attention to individual students. They’ve begun loving maths now.”

Anubha worked in the financial sector for almost 20 years, but had quit because she didn’t find it fulfilling enough. She now devotes all her time to AXF. “When I was young, most of my actions were driven by the thought of people taking small steps to create a better world. If it is in your power to help someone, then the most sensible and noble thing to do is to exercise that power.”

To volunteer or support the cause in Mumbai, write to [email protected], or visit www.angelxpress.org.

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