“I got teary when my son told me he wants to join IIT to become a software engineer. Never in my wildest imagination had I thought that he would get to study in an English-medium school,” says Mahadev, a vegetable vendor in Noida.
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Mansi: But don’t you think that no Right is absolute? If your singing disturbs me, then I have the right to object. Ma’am are fundamental rights conditional or unconditional?
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The discussion, in broken English, between the 10-year-olds, about the Constitution, continued in a small room of a Government Primary School in Gejha, Noida.
Beside the lively conversation about Indian democracy, the class five students from underprivileged backgrounds have also been a part of eleven other co-curricular activities like math and science quizzes, environment-related workshops, public speaking, atlas games, and essay writing among others, that were carried out in the academic year 2018-2019.
Though conducted in the school, the program was organised by Books For All (BFA), an NGO that aspires to empower underprivileged children through fun learning activities and even libraries.
The origin of BFA dates back to 2009, when Pravin Bhasin along with his wife Kanchan visited Gejha’s school near Sector 93 Noida to collect their voter ID Cards.
In an exclusive interview with The Better India (TBI), Pravin says,
Classrooms sans benches, whiteboards and other basic facilities pushed us to speak to the teaching faculty of the school. We helped them get floor mats for students to sit on during the winter months. The mats were not enough, and I wanted to do something more concrete and impactful.
Pravin, an engineer by profession, was then a work-from-home consultant, and that allowed him to dedicate quality time to his initiative. He and his wife founded BFA.
So why open a library?
“Books are a child’s best friend, and also excellent teachers,” says the 73-year-old. “Reading books from a very young age helps develop the mind, communication skills, creativity and imagination. Reading opens a plethora of doors to new things, information, hobbies and interests.”
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He was further encouraged by an article on John Wood who, after quitting his Microsoft job, launched Room to Read, an initiative along similar lines.
Pravin requested the school to provide him with a room where he could set up the library. While he awaited permission, he reached out to his neighbours, relatives and friends to donate books.
In the beginning, the response was slow, but once it picked up, BFA received close to 400 books!
After finding out about Pravin’s initiative, parents of the school children too donated chairs, tables, benches, whiteboards, stationery and so on.
The volunteer-based organisation decorated the classroom with books, charts, posters to create an energetic environ for the children.
A full-time librarian was also appointed on a payroll basis. The volunteers pitched in for her salary.
He officially launched the library on January 30, 2010. The NGO also got several volunteers comprising mostly of homemakers and teenagers studying in private schools.
However, Pravin soon found out that the children in the primary section who were keen on reading beyond their regular curriculum couldn’t even finish one sentence in English.
Their basic understanding of English was worse than class one kid studying in a private school. I was concerned as to how these kids would compete with the outside world without basic knowledge, says Pravin.
Most of the school students belong to the migrant families making them first generation learners. Hence, they have no other means to study besides classrooms.
With permission from the school, Pravin and his team of volunteers started remedial classes to help the kids with basic writing and learning during school hours.
“It is so inspiring, and at the same time, sad to see how excited and committed the kids are to learn new things. Lack of resources and opportunities often deprive the brilliant minds of the stimulus they need. Many of them are unaware of their capabilities, talents and interests which is also a reason that stall their professional growth,” Deepa Senghar, a former Indian Railway Service official tells TBI. The 54-year-old is one of the core team members.
Seeing the positive response for his initiative, Pravin retired in 2015. He and his team have now opened seven such library-cum-classrooms in Delhi NCR. Corporates and well-wishers have donated funds.
Around 20 volunteers dedicate around six hours per week to students studying between class 1 and 8. 2,000 kids are impacted every year through BFA.
To ensure the all-round development of the students, they are engaged in extracurricular activities like singing, dancing, public speaking, sports, waste management, and so on. It is through such activities that the volunteers identify the true potential of the children.
Every student is talented, and as soon as we identify it, we help them hone their skills. We also encourage them to take it up as a hobby. You might never know what skill may affirmatively impact the kid, says Deepa.
Sponsoring the Kids
BFA also sponsors the education of a few select children based on the donors. For instance, eleven children from the government schools have been shifted to English-medium CBSE schools and all the expenses are being borne by donors. Around eight of them have been shifted to private Hindi medium schools.
The sponsored kids require a tremendous amount of hand-holding as the new environment, teachers and curriculum can be overwhelming. The volunteers dedicate extra hours to these kids after school and help them cope up with the syllabus, says Pravin.
The sponsorship project is moderately successful, believes Pravin. Of the total sponsored kids, three of the girls scored above 75 per cent and a couple above 65 per cent in the recently announced CBSE class 10 results.
BFA maintains complete transparency as it sends progress reports to the sponsors every six months. During the PTA meetings, BFA volunteers accompany the parents to get a progress report directly from the teaching faculty.
To ensure that the children set a professional goal post-schooling, BFA also provides counselling sessions to them. Depending on their likes and dislikes, the students are given opportunities mostly to develop their vocational skills.
People from different professional backgrounds like engineering, army, travel and tourism, health, and fashion are invited to give talks to the children.
In one of the sessions presided over by members of Indian Army Wives Association, around seven children were inspired, who now are undergoing a vocational training course with the association.
Making An Impact
In my nine-year-old journey, I have seen a drastic change in these children in terms of behaviour, communication and knowledge. Now the kids want to form their own identity, and for that, they are ready to work harder and stay committed. Till now I had only heard that education plays an integral role, now I am actually witnessing it right in front of my eyes, says Pravin.
The Better India spoke to two students – Nisha Vishwakar and Rajkumar Chaudhary, to know their take on BFA. Here’s what they had to say:
Nisha, Class 11, Noida Kanya Inter College
In 9th I got a sponsor and was shifted to a Hindi-medium private school. In terms of teaching, there is a huge difference between the two schools. Here teachers are more involved and approachable. BFA is the reason why I started reading books, and every novel has a lesson, says the 17-year-old.
Nisha wishes to become a teacher so that like her other children are not deprived of a good teacher. She also wants to become a Collector to provide good governance to people.
Rajkumar, Class 9, Noida Education Academy
After studying in a Hindi-medium school till class five, learning in English in my new school was difficult. For an entire month, I attended extra classes at BFA and in my first exam that was conducted in English, I got Grade A. I have around 50 books that I borrowed from BFA. Reading books has improved my vocabulary.
Elaborating on his love for kho kho and exercises, he says, “I never knew I could run so fast until I joined my new school. Now I love sports and play in my free time.”
Rajkumar aspires to join IIT-Kharagpur and become a software engineer. He wants to fight against the hacking system.
Rajkumar’s father Mahadev, a vegetable vendor, never expected his son to get higher education, let alone study in an English medium private school.
Rajkumar is the first person in our entire family to get education post class eight. His determination to become an engineer makes me very proud, Mahadev tells TBI.
Nisha and Rajkumar are two of the hundreds of kids whose lives have changed for good after their entry in BFA. Pravin and his team wish to expand the initiative depending on the funds and books.
If you wish to help Books For All, you can write to them: email@example.com or call at +91 93135 84600
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)