An urge to serve the society pushed Meena Nijhawan to educate underprivileged children in Nodia through her Sankalp Saksharta Samiti school.
In the year 1993, Meena Nijhawan, a resident of Noida, started teaching her domestic help. Little did she know that this move would one day help her transform the lives of at least a thousand children.
“Since I come from an army background, I have always had a great urge to serve society, an urge that would often make me restless. When my husband retired from the army and we were able to finally settle down in one place, I began teaching Padma, my domestic help,” recalls the now 71-year-old Meena.
In 1995, Meena and Padma came across four underprivileged children wandering the streets near their home. They decided to bring the kids home with them, and bathed them, fed them and even got them to promise to pursue their studies.
To Meena’s surprise, the four children kept their word and started making their way to her house regularly, to learn.
Before long, word spread and Meena’s house became a place of learning for children of ragpickers, rickshaw pullers and domestic workers. Moved by the passion of the children, she began to dedicate all her time to teaching them, naming her humble effort ‘Sankalp Saksharta Samiti.’ In addition to teaching the children, she also began to bear the cost of their books, stationery and meals too.
“The growing number of children made me happy and nervous at the same time, as I did not have enough funds. My father asked me if the packets of salt lying in his closed factory could be of any use to me. I then started selling the salt in Delhi by randomly knocking on the doors of strangers and urging them to support the children’s education,” remembers Meena.
Meena’s determination to ensure the children were given a quality education was unwavering, even in the face of her husband’s staunch disapproval.
Dealing with the children too, came with its own set of challenges. Many of the children had been at the receiving end of harsh and inhumane treatment, either at the hands of their families or their communities. This made it difficult for them to trust Meena, and often had them resorting to petty theft and abusive language.
“Slowly I realised that while teaching the children was important, it was equally important to sensitize their parents. I began to visit them and talk to them to help them understand these things better,” explains Meena. “After all, my purpose in life is not just to provide the children with a good education, but to help them become responsible citizens.”
Meena’s efforts at transforming lives through education did not go unnoticed and she was soon offered support by Smile Foundation.
Since the number of students she taught continued to grow at a rapid pace, Meena welcomed the support of the organisation without a second thought. “With Smile Foundation’s support, we were able to provide elementary education to children in Sankalp School and later, we even mainstreamed them into the nearby formal schools. We eventually shifted our focus to bearing the costs of the school fees of the mainstreamed children,” shares Meena.
While the external support helped Meena reach out to more kids, at home, her husband was urging her to give up her activities to devote her time exclusively to the family. But given the hundreds of children, and their families, who relied on the school to provide them with quality education, Meena decided to stand firm for the cause.
Today, at 71, even age fails to deter Meena from her work of mobilizing street children, giving them an education and sensitizing their parents about the importance of education. She has even roped in a few of her acquaintances to participate in the school and teach children.
Meena has also started adult classes in a school close to her home, where at least 50 women from the local slum clusters, are given a free education.
“Every year, we organise an Alumni Meet at my place, wherein ex-students come and share their experiences. It’s overwhelming to see the children I taught working as successful professionals. Some have even settled abroad and many have established their own business. One of my students even wishes to establish Sankalp schools in the villages of India!” exclaims Meena.
Meena is truly an embodiment of the term ‘One-Woman Mission,’ given that she has spent more than 20 years working tirelessly to achieve her goal of transforming society by providing free education to children who otherwise, would never have seen the inside of a classroom.
Smile Foundation is a national level development organisation directly benefitting over 400,000 children and their families every year, through more than 200 live welfare projects on education, healthcare, livelihood and women empowerment, in over 950 remote villages and slums across 25 states of India.
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