It’s 4 pm. The blazing sun is getting ready to set while Diksha, Neetu, Deepika, Riya and Tanvi, among 60 other kids, are rushing into the hall. There’s chatter and excitement. They are all coming here after a long day at school and yet seeing them one would think this is their first class for the day. They enter the hall, leave their bags down and settle down waiting for Isha didi to arrive.
This transpires every day at the Jivam foundation in Sirsa, Haryana.
For the 23-year-old founder of the organisation, Isha Godara, the idea of empowering students was sown when she was a school student herself.
Speaking to The Better India, she says, “I was all of 11 when I met a girl on a farm in my village. She happened to be one year older than me. We got talking and I found out that she was a very good student. She had secured second place in the class examination and was also very good at painting and sports.”
While all this was working in her favour, Isha says that her family’s economic condition did not allow her to continue attending school.
As a young child, the inequality of the situation troubled Isha. She wanted to help but wasn’t sure of what she could do to make things better.
She let this thought stay with her all through her growing up years. It was only in September 2020 that Isha finally found a way to make a difference.
‘It doesn’t matter what your age is when you want to do good.’
After completing her Class 12 examination Isha chose to pursue a degree in finance from the University of Alberta, Canada. “While I went to study finance my heart was always on social issues. Wanting to find solutions to existing problems was something that took a lot of my time. Even at University, I would actively participate in not for profit activities to promote equality and education.”
She says that the community she belongs to does a lot of philanthropy work but it is all restricted to feeding people and finding them shelter and clothing. “No one has been working on education and that is why I chose to start Jivam foundation. I wanted to break free from the culture of dependency.”
“Educating people will help them be better equipped to find a means to earn,” she adds.
She continues, “People from Harvard and MIT are not going to come to Indian villages to solve our problems. What we can do is educate the children in the villages and empower them to find workable solutions to their problems. I intend to empower them to become problem solvers.” Looking inwards is what Isha emphasises.
Currently, there are around 100 kids benefiting from the programme.
The brainchild of Isha and her brother Abhijeet, the foundation started as a small initiative. “We began by teaching a few children who lived close to our home. They did not have access to computers, private tuition or classes. Therefore, during the lockdown, they were willing to come and learn from us,” she says. The word spread and more students started coming in. The duo also realised that access to quality education was not a problem only during COVID-19.
Opening A Whole New World
While the pandemic put a dampener on the education of kids in rural India, it also brought to the fore existing issues that needed attention. “We saw that the schools in our area were not equipped with basics, which sometimes even meant no teachers for particular subjects,” says Isha. While Isha and Abhijeet did not have a scalable solution for this problem, they decided to find ways to improve the system in their village, to begin with.
Diksha, an 11-year-old student at Jivam says that coming to the foundation instilled her with confidence. “I was able to deliver a speech that I had prepared before an audience of over 300 people. This confidence is something that Isha didi has helped me work on.”
And Isha says that a lot of the confidence she has comes from her feminist grandfather.
“Despite being from a very patriarchal society in Haryana I have always marvelled at how forward-thinking my grandfather was. Whether it was to promote gender equality or pushing women to take on bigger responsibilities on a bigger platform, he was always paving the way,” she says.
Speaking about the classes, Isha says, “Initially we started teaching the kids in our home garden but as the numbers grew we needed a bigger space. We have now renovated the community centre in the village and conduct our classes there. At this centre, we have more than 60 students who come every evening for classes.”
What the foundation did was expose the students to various career choices. Isha says until they came to us there were only three career options before them — studying medicine and becoming a doctor, joining the armed forces or becoming part of the police force. “What we managed to do was expose them to so many other career options. We invited people from various professions to come to share their experiences with the students,” says Isha.
She continues, “None of our talks are long and boring. We invite speakers to interact with the students more than just talking down to them.”
Fuelling Inquisitive Minds
Riya, another student at Jivam foundation says, “I can finally ask as many questions as I want to. Isha didi never shouts at us for getting our doubts cleared. In school when I ask more than one question, I am often shouted at. I have now stopped asking any question in my school.” Responding to this, Isha says, “How can we expect children to have an inquisitive mind if we curb their enthusiasm?”
At the foundation, asking questions is encouraged. Every question, big or small, is answered with the same patience. Students from Class 3 to 7 attend the after-school classes offered at Jivam foundation. They spend their evenings from 4 pm to 6.30 pm at the foundation. “We augment what they are taught at school and have found, from our experience, that there are very big learning gaps. There is also a lack of oversight from the parents so we are trying to cover the existing gaps,” she says.
Another student adds, “The science teacher in my school only makes us copy the answers from the board. We have so far never understood what we are being taught.” But here, along with a strong focus on their academics, students are also exposed to sports, art, public speaking and other such soft skills. From empowering the students with basic arithmetic and reading skills to allowing them to express themselves, the Jivam foundation has provided a much-needed platform.
When Isha and Abhijeet started Jivam foundation in 2020, she says that it was a challenge to convince parents to send their kids.
“People were sceptical of what we were trying to do. They were unsure of why we wanted to do something without charging them for it. They were unable to understand the concept of us volunteering our time for this. They assumed we were either involved in money laundering or were planning to get into active politics and hence were getting into philanthropy.”
But their efforts started to spread through word of mouth as the initial students started coming in. “Now we have more girls than boys at the foundation and we are thrilled about that statistic,” she says.
Isha also very proudly adds that the entire initiative is self-funded and she has chosen not to borrow any money from her family. “One of the conditions my parents laid down for me was to raise my own money and make this happen. I got a grant from my university that helped me start this. I also used some of the money I had saved while studying in Canada.”
In conclusion, she says, “If you wish to make a difference do not let your age or financial status come in the way. You can always find ways to fund the initiative. Age is merely a number.”
If you wish to help the Jivam foundation, please click here to access the website for more details.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)