“We realised that the daily wage earners’ children, who go to government schools, have no one to help them with schoolwork,” begins Siva Swamy.
“They don’t understand what’s being taught in school and can’t complete their homework, so then they dread going to school,” he says.
Swamy and Mahalakshmi, a retired couple in Coimbatore’s Pachapalayam, run Kalvi Thunai – a free education centre for underprivileged children.
“We focus on ensuring the day’s lesson is revised and that they complete their assignments,” adds the 74-year-old.
Founded in 2014, Kalvi Thunai offers after-school support to students from classes 4 to 12, helping with homework, clarifying difficult concepts, organising extracurricular activities and outings, and offering students the support and guidance for holistic development.
The NGO started with an initial investment of Rs 40 lakhs from the couple, who bought and renovated the education centre building. They have now donated it to Kalvi Thunai, ensuring that its work will continue past their lifetimes. The centre has 136 students and 11 paid teachers.
Over 1,000 students have gone through the centre, of which at least 350 now have jobs.
All round development
After spending several years working, Swamy and Mahalakshmi moved into a retirement home in 2010. To spend their time post-retirement, the couple had a simple idea – to give back to society.
Mahalakshmi, who also works as a Samaritan, counselling people with depression, started teaching their domestic help’s children, and the couple saw them improve with time. Inspired, they decided to plunge into social service, buying the building and setting up the education centre. “I realised that the focus needs to be on education for deserving children,” says Mahalakshmi. Soon the number of students started increasing, and they began employing teachers too.
In the early days, the couple’s biggest challenge was convincing potential students to come and study. “Everybody wants Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth), they don’t want Sarasvati (Hindu goddess of knowledge),” says Swamy. It took some counselling to show parents and kids the importance of studying instead of making them go off to work. “They just need a push, a little helping hand, since their parents work from morning to night and can’t help with their studies,” adds Mahalakshmi.
As word spread and more students joined, the centre started building a structure. Today, it divides its work into two batches – one for kids in classes 4 to 8, and the other from classes 9 to 12. The older batch is further divided based on science and commerce streams.
The main focus is on making the subjects accessible to students, which makes the study process enjoyable and something they can look forward to. “Because of the way maths is taught in schools, children start hating the subject. We make sure they start liking it,” says Swamy.
To offer a holistic experience, the centre also uses several ancillary learning techniques. Every Friday, the centre has storytelling sessions and an audiovisual programme for the younger batch. Once a month, these happen for the older batch. This covers a range of topics, depending on the things they’re studying in school.
Every month they hold a cultural event, like Yoga day in June, celebrating Kamaraj’s birthday in July, and celebrating Independence Day earlier this month. The centre looks after the kids in other ways too, gifting them new clothes for Pongal and offering them healthy snacks every day.
Besides classroom education, Kalvi Thunai also focuses on extracurricular activities. They organise summer camps where they take students on trips to important places around the city. For instance, they’ve taken students to a farm and spoken about organic farming. “It’s just like the experience you’d get at a regular school which will charge Rs 2 lakh or Rs 3 lakh. We’re trying to do that for free,” says Swamy. They organise one-off sessions too, like the one about menstruation for the girls, arts and crafts sessions, game sessions, and more. “Focusing on extracurricular activities widens their universe,” he adds.
They claim to have a cent per cent pass rate for students of classes 10 and 12.
Along the way, another challenge was ensuring former students came back to school after the COVID lockdown was lifted. Many of the older children had got odd jobs like working at a petrol pump or a roadside shop, that paid around Rs 5,000 a month. “Once you start getting that type of money in hand, you don’t want to go back to studies,” says Swamy. Through speaking with the students and their parents, and explaining the long-term benefits of investing time in education, Kalvi Thunai was able to bring 30 students back to class.
Setting up for success
For students who’ve completed class 12, Kalvi Thunai also offers vocational training courses and soft-skills development. During the day, when schools are on and the centre is empty, they teach courses like spoken English, customer service, and the basics of computers like MS Office. Other courses include Tally, Aari embroidery, Corel draw, and photoshop.
The centre also offers chartered accountancy foundation courses, which can cost around Rs 50,000 in the city. At Kalvi Thunai, students can access this course for Rs 4,500.
Parallel to these, they’re taught soft skills so they can integrate better into an office environment. “They lack the etiquettes of working in an office. We teach them about office culture,” says Swamy.
Vignesh K is a former student of the tuition centre and the first in his family to graduate. He went there during classes 11 and 12 and attended the spoken English course. “I’m from a middle-class family and I was studying at a Tamil medium school. My English communication skills were weak and I couldn’t afford the tuition classes, but this type of free centre helped me,” says the 23-year-old. Through the centre’s guidance, he could build a strong foundation and focus better on his education, eventually finding a job. Today, he works in the technology services division at L&T.
With all the varied activities, it costs Rs 1 lakh per month to run the entire operation. Funding comes from partnerships with CSR units of companies like Bosch and Wipro, and through private donors.
As Kalvi Thunai faces new challenges today, like finding professional help with managing their website and social media, they continue to educate, inspire and build the confidence of their children every day.
Edited by Yoshita Rao