When 16-year-old Hepsiba boarded her first flight from Chennai last week, she could hardly hold her excitement down. She was flying to Rio, Brazil, to participate in the Street Child Games, along with her team. She made India proud by winning a gold for the 100 metre dash, a silver for 400 metre girls’ run, and a bronze for the 100 metre hurdles race. Two of her five teammates also won medals. Ashok won a bronze in boys’ shot put while Sneha won a bronze in a 4×100 metre relay race.
They spent two weeks there, interacting with children from other cultures, learning about them and sharing stories.
Hepsiba and her teammates, Usha, Ashok, Sneha and Silambarasan, beat all odds to get to Rio.
Sneha dropped out of Class 9 and worked at a mosquito-net weaving centre. Her mother quit working, while her father is an alcoholic. Hepsiba lived with her mother, a widower, on the same street as the Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai. Soon, their lives were disrupted when they were sent away from the street. They had to seek refuge at a shelter for the homeless.
It was while she was here that she was discovered to have great potential as a sprinter by the NGO Karunalaya. The NGO had organised a local sports competition, and Paul Sunder Singh realised that these children were natural athletes. They were immediately put under training with a coach, Prabhakar Suresh.
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Singh decided to take her and the four other street children to the Street Child Games. While they funded a part of the trip, the organisers, Street Child United, pitched in for the rest. However, getting them a passport was quite a challenge, as none of them had a permanent address. Yet, they persisted. Hepsiba got her passport just days before she was to fly.
Today, with three medals, Hepsiba is all smiles and cheer.
“I now have friends from Burundi, Pakistan, Egypt, Britain, Argentina and Brazil. It makes me very, very happy” she said.
In a speech to the assembly at the Games, Usha called on the need to have better protection for children. She said, “Everyday we fear the police. Police are supposed to support and safeguard us, but we don’t experience this. To protect children from violence at the hands of the police, street children need to be invited to speak at police training so they can understand and empathise.” Her speech moved the audience. She received applause and nods from all the teams at the venue.