Children’s Welfare Home – Innovations for Life Development’: a home for street children
In Andhra Pradesh, a homely community for street children has become a state-recognised success in providing education, shelter and a sense of belonging, to around 80 boys and girls. CHILD Ashram was founded seventeen years ago, by a railway clerk, Ramachandra Sarath, who had a compelling motivation to help change the lives of the children he saw living on the railway platforms.
“I saw it as my responsibility as a citizen,” says Sarath. Initially, he tried to get the children admitted into children’s homes, but they were refused. He began thinking about opening a school for street children, so they could receive an education and aspire to a better future. Sarath applied for leave from his railway job, and started studying Sociology and Education. “I decided that we needed to go back to the olden days, where rural teachers were like family. We needed a school for street children where we all live like a family.”
However, the first days of the Ashram were difficult. They had no money, and little support from the local community. The Ashram began as just one hut. Gradually, Sarath managed to get donations from villagers, and many times over the last seventeen years, his wife Sunita has pawned her wedding jewellery to raise funds for the Ashram.
But to begin with, the children brought from the railway platforms refused to stay at the Ashram. “They would tie the teachers to the beds, take goods from the Ashram to sell in the market, and run away,” says Sarath. “I was laughed at by everyone. They told me that the children were vagabonds”.
Sarath thought long and hard about how to encourage the street children to stay at the Ashram. “I realised that we had to provide something that made the children want to stay, that made them feel special”. Now each child joining the Ashram is given a new set of clothes and a haircut, made to feel that they belong, and that they have an important role to play in the Ashram. New children quickly realise that there are others who share similar experiences, and informal peer-group counselling is encouraged. Since then, every child brought to the Ashram has chosen to stay.
Today, CHILD Ashram is non-hierarchical, and practically run by the children themselves. Sarath’s role has become that of a facilitator. The children are divided into patrol groups, following the Boy Scout system (Baden Powell was Sarath’s inspiration). Each group is composed of children of different ages, with a patrol leader taking the role of head of the family, and is responsible for looking after the younger children.
Every evening, the patrol groups meet to discuss the day: any needs, complaints, difficulties in classes or with their teachers, and evaluate what could be done better. Later in the evening, the patrol leaders come together with Sarath or another facilitator, to feedback on the children’s views of the day, and discuss and implement any changes that should be made.
Food is grown by the children in the Ashram’s kitchen garden, and any excess produce is sold and bartered in the nearby village. The children take responsibility for determining the food requirements for the week, and helping with the cooking.
Classes last half the day, and children are encouraged to progress at their own pace. The rest of the day is spent working the garden, doing science practicals, and learning Scout survival skills. Many children arriving in the Ashram have never been to school before, and are illiterate.
However, through encouragement and support, the children are now achieving outstanding results in their high school exams, and are supported by the Ashram in whatever future studies they choose. One former street child, who had never attended school prior to coming to the Ashram aged 12, is now studying Electrical Engineering. Another works as a Police Sub-Inspector in Hyderabad.
Some of the children are choosing to return to the Ashram after their studies. Carmella, aged 19, was the first girl to come to the Ashram, after both of her parents were killed. She is now studying nursing, and plans to return to work in the Ashram after completing her studies.
Venkanna and Madhavrao, both aged 17, came to the Ashram as young boys, and have grown up there. Having completed their High School exams, they have decided to work as volunteers alongside Sarath in the Ashram, while studying part-time for a degree in Social Work.
CHILD Ashram has evolved as a sanctuary for children, from the dangers, threats, and deprived opportunities of life on the streets or the railway platforms of India. The children themselves play a central role in influencing the Ashram’s development.
“We want to purchase more land to grow more of our own food, and become more self-sustainable,” said one boy.
Another boy expressed problems retaining teaching staff. “Their salaries are too low,” he said. “We need to try to increase our teachers’ pay”. Many of the children were keen to take on former Ashram children as teachers after they qualify.
This philosophy underpinning CHILD Ashram is one of constant reflection, development and improvement, led by the children themselves.
The result, tucked away in rural Andhra Pradesh, provides former street children with dignity, self-respect and the opportunity to choose their own futures.