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20-YO’s Lockdown ‘Shala’ Is Ensuring 120 Poor Kids Don’t Miss Out on Schooling

Abhijeet Pokharnikar, a student of Bachelors in Computer Application in Pune, started ‘Dada Chi Shala’ during the lockdown to ensure that children of sex workers, Banjaras and those working at brick kilns continue their education

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Many of us turn a blind eye towards the children of street dwellers often seen wandering around and begging at the traffic signals. But Abhijeet Pokharnikar, a social worker pursuing his Bachelors in Computer Application from Pune, did otherwise.

From 2018, he has worked with Sindhutai Sapkal, a social worker known for her immense work in raising orphaned children. “While working for the cause, I learned about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) and one of its goals was providing education to the underprivileged,” Abhijeet tells The Better India.

In July 2020, as the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions eased, he along with two college friends reached out to children of brick kiln workers to educate them.

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For almost a year now, the activity has evolved into Dada Chi Shala, meaning ‘elder brother’s school’, that teaches 120 underprivileged children. These children belong to the Banjara tribe — a nomadic community, sex workers, garage labourers, brick kiln workers and slum areas. The school is spread across areas, including Saras Baug, Chhatrapati Shivaji Nagar, Market Yard, Tilekar Nagar, Vishrantwadi, Pirangut and Kudal in Sindhudurg district, Pune.

Entering Mainstream Education

Abhijeet with underprivileged kids.

“We started with teaching a handful of students in the Deccan area, and as the days passed, we realised the conditions were bleaker than we imagined. There were not many NGOs or social groups attending to their educational needs,” the 21-year-old says.

Moreover, many students dropped out during the lockdown as they could not access smartphones to attend online classes. “Many communities also do not possess adequate documents like birth certificates, Aadhar cards or finances to access mainstream education for their children,” he explains.

Abhijeet says that he decided to address the educational needs of the students. “The UNSDGs emphasise providing education to the underprivileged children, and I thought of addressing the issue. In December, about 60 volunteers conducted a city-wide survey to identify 4,727 children falling in the category or deprived of education,” he says.

He adds that a plan was chalked out to teach them in their localities. “We started teaching the children on Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 9 am and 12 pm. We aimed to make them fluent in languages and learn the school syllabus of other subjects like Mathematics and Science,” he says.

As more volunteers joined, they started reaching out to children in different areas of the city.

Snehal Bhosale, an IT professional, teaches children in the Vishrantwadi area. She says, “I’ve known Abhijeet for almost seven years now and joined his cause in October 2020. I teach students four times a week and I’ve always wanted to help children from the underprivileged section of society and contribute in small ways by providing them with books or other items. But teaching offered better help.”

“The lockdown allowed spare time to teach and the children have made significant progress in these months too,” she adds.

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Free Education For All

Sanjana Lad, a Class 6 student, says she discontinued her studies as she had no access to a smartphone to attend online classes. “My parents work as labourers and we are poor. But didi has helped me with my academics. My younger brother and sister also attend classes because of her good teaching skills,” she adds.

However, Snehal says that the volunteers faced many challenges and continue as they try to improve the lives of these children.

“Many girls are not allowed to study as the parents feel that their daughters will have no use for education after marriage. Many children sell scrap to earn money and are least interested in studies,” she says, adding the addicts and people involved in gambling, trouble, discourage and influence the children towards this lifestyle too.

“Many experiences are demotivating and demoralising. At times, the parents need more convincing than the children. Moreover, the volunteers spend from their pockets,” she says, adding, “Our struggles continue.”

But one year on, the shala is thriving with around 107 active volunteers teaching the children. They are also trying to arrange the required documents for children to enter mainstream education and provide the kids with school books too.

Abhijeet says that though he aims to ensure that all the underprivileged children in Pune receive formal education, his ultimate goal is to offer free education to these children without needing any documents.

If you are in Pune and want to volunteer and help Abhijeet with his cause, call 7020396723.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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