Orphaned at birth, Vinayak Deokar was adopted three months later by a 60-year-old couple who toiled in a stone quarry. Naturally, he grew up worshipping his parents.
Yes, finances were tight, but even at their age, they tried to give him the best they could. The family soon moved to the slums of Vishrantwadi in Pune.
He was in Class 10 when his father passed away. The grief was all-consuming, especially for 16-year-old Vinayak who was preparing for his board exams.
The results reflected his pain as he failed the exams.
The death of his father, coupled with the failure in academics and the deep financial crisis, pushed him to drop out of school. He took up menial jobs to support his widowed mother.
Around this time, his mother, his strongest and only pillar of support, was diagnosed with cancer. Thinking there would be no one to care for Vinayak if she passed away, she got the young boy married. He was 16, and his wife was 13.5.
He was absolutely shattered when his mother soon lost the battle with cancer.
Vinayak sold lottery tickets and even worked as a waiter to sustain his wife and three children.
Four years ago, this Pune man, who has been working for social development since 2002, began a free English-medium school for the children of underprivileged widows, divorced women, commercial sex workers, and terminally ill patients.
Today, the school provides free education for children until class 4. It caters to nearly 270 students, over 30 of whom are children of prisoners.
If someone had told Vinayak that he would be impacting many lives, he would have laughed it off. Because the journey has been long and quite arduous.
He trudged down memory lane in an exclusive interview with The Better India.
After years of menial jobs, he made a debut in real estate. While it was difficult for young Vinayak to make a name in the market, within three years, he had set up his own firm.
At 28, life hit him with a ton of bricks yet again.
“I was diagnosed with a serious heart valve condition. My youngest was only a year old, and my daughters were in school. I slipped into depression at the thought that just when my life was falling into place, I was diagnosed with this condition. I drowned myself in alcohol for a year, until I met a four-year-old boy.”
The young boy, Tushar, was suffering from a life-threatening heart disease and wasn’t given much time to live. A surgery costing close to Rs 1 lakh could save him. His mother was begging and pleading people to fund her son’s expensive surgery.
“I was rattled. I was still an adult. How could a young boy who had hardly lived his life be in so much pain? I decided to do everything I could to help him,” recalls Vinayak.
Rushing door to door, standing outside temples and other public places, he started collecting donations. Within four months, from smaller collections like Rs 11 and Rs 100, he raised Rs 1.2 lakh. Tushar underwent the surgery and was gifted a second life.
This marked the turning point in Vinayak’s life. He shares, “I decided to make the rest of my life count by dedicating it to the service of others.”
And so, in 2002, he founded his NGO, Jeevan Mitra Pratisthan, inaugurated at the hands of Anna Hazare, also attended by actor Jackie Shroff.
While his wife was skeptical about his decision, she now supports him whole-heartedly.
Jeevan Mitra Pratisthan started by raising funds from individuals, corporations, and entrepreneurs to cover medical expenses for poor patients suffering from cardiac and renal ailments, cancer, and other terminal illnesses. Within 12 years, the man raised close to Rs 6.5 crore.
A few years later, he also started a monthly support scheme of Rs 300 for 100 widows.
Using his network of approximately 14,000 friends on WhatsApp, he helped conduct more than 1,000 free cataract surgeries.
Today, every place in Pune that he walks into, whether a hospital or a shop, he is held in the utmost regard, because of his work.
A doctor gave him Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It took him almost two years to read it, as he used a dictionary to make sense of the big English words in the book.
“It was like a chemical locha (imbalance), the good kind. Bapu inspired and shaped my life,” says the Gandhian.
He adds, “The idea of venturing into education also stemmed from my own experience. After my father’s death, I became the man of the house and traded my education for odd jobs to take care of the family. Also, I couldn’t afford going back to education due to the lack of money. And I thought about the children of widows I helped, ailing parents who couldn’t afford to send their kids to school. I also remembered meeting the wife of a prisoner at Yerwada. She had turned to commercial sex work after nobody gave her a job, following her husband’s conviction. She was worried about the future of her son. I did not want these kids to go through the same suffering I did due to the lack of education.”
He visited the surrounding slums of Vishrantwadi and interacted with widows and divorced women. With no financial security, these women were struggling to raise their kids. Education was a luxury, a distant dream. Vinayak changed that.
Today, 270 kids from difficult financial backgrounds are cared for at his school. From uniforms, stationery, shoes, raincoats, and medical expenses, everything is funded by the primary school which is registered under the Maharashtra State Board. The school has 18 paid staff members, including 14 highly qualified teachers and four support staff members.
Vinayak aims to add class five to the school from the academic year beginning in June 2019.
If you are intrigued by how he managed to raise funds for the school, he answers, “I still remember when I walked up to people asking for guidance and funds. They said, ‘Are you mad, Vinayak? Education is a business now. If you want to start a school for profits, do it. Why do you want to run a free school?’ And that’s how the idea of selling raddi (old newspapers) came to me.”
Within a year, he raised Rs 12 lakh solely through the sale of raddi.
The school now runs through donations from well-wishers. Vinayak also encourages people to celebrate their birthdays by funding the education of one child, which costs Rs 15,000 per year.
“I appeal to educated people who are financially sound to fund the education of these underprivileged kids. Rs 15,000 a year is nothing compared to the lakhs that people spend on education in big schools. If we want to see a change, we need to educate the poorest of the poor.”
He ends with an important message, “It is a sad reality today that education has become about earning a big annual package once you complete it. We train our children by telling them to run behind money. We assess its value like that of land or the share market. We hardly give any thought of improving the character of a person. As long as such an idea persists, there is no hope of ever knowing the true value of education.”
To be a part of this movement with Vinayak, donate to his cause and sponsor the education of a child.
You may make your donation in favour of:
Name: “Jeevan Mitra Educational Society”
Current Account number: 0668102000010502
Branch: Vishrantwadi, Pune – 411015.
For any queries, get in touch with Vinayak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)