Of chai, snacks, Bangalore sidewalks, conversations, music and awareness.
It’s 5:00 pm on a Saturday evening and work is just getting started for a group of 12 to 15 young people in the BTM area of Bangalore. Standing on a pavement, dressed in white t-shirts, they look more like friends hanging out and unwinding on a weekend. There is laughter, there are interesting discussions, and there is music. But walk closer and you will see the main reason this sidewalk is bustling with energy – it’s tea!
Welcome to the ‘I Support Foundation’ tea stall, one of the most pleasantly offbeat chai shops in Bangalore.
There is a small table set up neatly with two thermos flasks, some peanuts, a few earthen pots, and a banner saying ‘I Support Foundation.’ The stall owners welcome you with smiling faces and gratefully take your order – masala or plain tea, earthen cups or paper cups, some peanut masala to go – the choice is yours.
And while you sip, cheerful music from a guitar overcomes the loud honking of cars on the road as one of the team members, Utkarsh, strums along.
But this small arrangement is a lot more than just a fun tea stall and a bunch of youngsters whiling away time. Every weekend, volunteers of the ISF organization gather on the sidewalk. Their aim? To spread awareness about autism among as many people as they can with the help of this tea stall.
In a congenial environment created with tea and music, they talk to their customers about autism, its meaning, its presence in India, and more if the curious want to know.
Ask ISF’s co-founder Juhi Ramani about her motivation behind starting something like this, and she says, “My brother, 19-year-old Shivam Ramani, lives with autism. I was eight when we found out about his condition. I come from the small city of Raebareli in UP, and at that time, there wasn’t much awareness about autism. It took us five years just to be informed that he is autistic. Then, finding a good school for him was a very big challenge. There were schools, but autistic children need special care, so we had to be very careful in finding the best place where he could study. Growing up, my elder sister and I witnessed these struggles. Hence we decided to do something for such children.”
Thus began ‘I Support Foundation’, a joint venture between 25-year-old Juhi and her sister Bobby Ramani, with the purpose of working for the education and overall development of children living with autism, as well as for underprivileged children.
In January 2014, they started a school in Lucknow where children with autism and underprivileged children could get a chance to study together. Today, the school has 45 children, and a group of special educators and caretakers. Students receive assistance in the form of free education, computer training, career counselling, and sports training, along with basic necessities like clothes and hygiene kits. The caretakers include Juhi’s mother and sister as well. All expenses of the school are taken care of by Bobby, from her own pocket.
While her sister continues to work in UP, Juhi, an IT professional, started a chapter of the Foundation in Bangalore in November 2014.
With a team of about 40 volunteers who came on board with the help of her friends, colleagues and social media, Juhi has successfully set up an organised base in the city.
These are the different activities the Foundation conducts:
• Sessions about child sexual abuse for underprivileged children and parents of children with autism. Juhi and her team of volunteers go from school to school, talking to as many children, parents and teachers as they can, to make them aware about CSA and how to fight it.
“For underprivileged kids, we take sessions with interactive videos and explanations, and then provide them with a feedback form where they can write about any issues they might be facing and are hesitant to talk about to anyone. After this, we also have one on one sessions with those children and their guardians,” explains Juhi.
• Career counselling sessions. These are also conducted in the form of sessions at different schools where children get to learn about the various career options they will have after school or college and how they can prepare for them.
“We are doing this because many children remain uninformed about the kind of options they have, and hence miss out on opportunities. For such sessions, we visit orphanages too.”
• Football training for children with autism, and computer classes for all children at different low income schools, organised by the volunteers with their own laptops.
However, in order to fund these sessions and activities, the Foundation requires money.
Juhi and the volunteers initially pitched in from their own pockets, but in March this year, Juhi came up with a unique idea for raising funds. ISF started the sidewalk tea stalls with two purposes in mind – raising funds and creating a platform to make people aware about autism.
“Every weekend, about 10-12 of us gather at any one person’s place and prepare tea together. After that, we reach the venue, set up the stall, and get started. Plain tea is sold for Rs. 10 and masala tea for Rs. 15. And sometimes, people who come to the stall as customers, end up getting associated with us as volunteers,” says a proud Juhi.
They often set up the stall on different sidewalks in BTM itself, but sometimes shift to regions like Koramangala too to increase their reach.
“I came across Juhi through a common friend, and before being associated with ISF, I did not know much about autism. Working here is a very different experience. It is not like a task but more of a passion. I get to do what I love and, as a by-product, my work also makes a difference in society,” says Karthik, a volunteer who comes from a sales background and looks at the financial and business aspects of the Foundation.
“Whenever I have a commitment on Saturdays and Sundays, it is mostly a commitment for ISF,” says Ajitesh, another volunteer.
“Here I have realised that it’s not just monetary help that needs to be given to society, you can also give time and that makes a lot of difference.”
According to Juhi, ISF earns profits between Rs. 1,100 and 1,600 daily from the tea stall. The team conducts activities and sessions during the mornings, and sets up the stalls in the evenings. To date, ISF has visited 15 schools and interacted with about 5,000 children. “The best part is that the volunteers enjoy this a lot and are excited about being here every weekend,” says Juhi.
“It is very important to spread awareness about autism. People don’t know much about it, and it is very difficult for parents and siblings like me when people look at our loved ones differently. We have to bridge the gap,” concludes Juhi.