Manav Mitra blossoms to help needy children in Ahmedabad

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AHMEDABAD, GUJARAT – On the shores of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a new partnership has developed that serves the most needy in true Gandhian fashion. One hundred and sixty young children of the Sabarmati slum start their day with an all-religion prayer.

Then, they engage in daily learning activities by age group. After a few hours of instruction, the children are served a nutritious meal and sent home to get ready for their afternoon school.  This supplemental education helps keep these children on par with middle class children in India that receive private tuition in addition to their daily school.

This center, called Manav Mitra, is where I spent every day during the last month of my six-month fellowship in India.   The fellowship is a partnership between Ahmedabad-based NGO Manav Sadhna and a Salt Lake City based NGO called Dry Creek Charity.

As one of two original fellows in 2016, I have been able to watch Manav Mitra blossom from just a concept to where it is today.   Dry Creek Charity (DCC) prioritizes projects that support education, serve children, and strengthen communities.

Dry Creek collaborated with a local Indian-American family, the Shahs, who are originally from Ahmedabad.  The Shah family has a history of dedication and service to the underserved children of Gujarat. Having worked with Manav Sadhna in the past, Dr. Saurabh Shah, also a DCC board member, brought the groups together.

As the pioneer fellows, my colleague, Ben White, and I worked on several projects over the course of our six months. We began helping with a project called Paryavaran Mitra (“Friends of the Environment”).

Manav Sadhna gives this name to the rag-picking women of Ahmedabad, who make their living by picking trash off the streets. These women are often cheated by profiteering middlemen and ridiculed by society. The PM project works to change this by cutting out the middle man, and providing them with services such as healthcare, supplementary nutrition, and education.  The PM project has nearly tripled daily wages of over 150 women.

At Paryavaran Mitra’s newer center, we started to notice that when we’d gather the women together on Saturdays, the kids in the area were eager to join. Even on weekdays when the women were working, there were always kids hanging around the center. This led Manav Sadhna’s founder, Viren Joshi, to the idea that we should provide programming to these children, like Manav Sadhna does in five other slum areas. Thus, the idea for Manav Mitra was born.

In the beginning, there was no space for the children to gather so we started by just playing games and singing songs for an hour every morning at a nearby temple. Manav Sadhna had not had much experience working in the Sabarmati slum so we wanted to be sure that the community trusted us before jumping right into classes. Manav Sadhna was eventually able to rent a few very small rooms adjacent to the Paryavaran Mitra center and with the help of a local architect we began some remedial renovations. We cleaned out the rooms, fixed a few electrical issues, and held a volunteer day where 15 or so Manav Sadhna volunteers helped us to beautify the space.

Towards the tail end of my fellowship, we finally opened the center for morning classes. We were crammed wall to wall in three small classrooms but the kids absolutely loved it. Ben and I, with no teaching experience, were charged with teaching English to the oldest batch of kids (5th-7th standards).

The language barrier was certainly a challenge but getting to know those kids, and spending every morning crafting new English exercises and playing games with them was the highlight of the fellowship for both of us.   In fact, Ben has now left a high paying corporate position to become a teacher.  I have joined DCC full time as executive director.

The Manav Mitra center has come a long way since its inception just two years ago. In June of 2018, Manav Sadhna purchased the building and begin more permanent renovations. The rooms are being expanded, the roof is being replaced, and the floors redone. The kitchen has been equipped to now serve full meals. Three more rooms have been rented and will be redone to accommodate even more children in the future. The number of kids being served has grown from 135 to 160. Many of the children come early to the center each morning waiting for the gate to open. It truly is a special community. MS’ Founder, Viren Joshi said that in all of the areas Manav Sadhna has worked, they have never been welcomed so openly, so early on than they have been in the Sabarmati area.

Our current Dry Creek fellow is Amy Jensen. Amy was born in Calcutta and adopted into a Utah family. She grew up in Salt Lake City, earned a master’s degree in teaching, and taught for 10 years prior to going to India.

Amy has been transformative for Manav Mitra.  Her spirit is contagious, she advises the teachers and has developed a phonics-based English program.  This program is being implemented in all of Manav Sadhna’s centers. We feel very lucky to have found a fellow with her teaching experience and compassion. When I asked Amy how the fellowship has affected her, she said the following:

The Dry Creek fellowship has forever changed my life. I am living my dream by developing the English curriculum for these children. Not only have I been able to create a curriculum from scratch, but I also get to take part in broader teaching development at Manav Sadhna… What really is changing me are the sweet children and staff at Manav Sadhna. They really have become my family; they are loving and accepting of all faiths and backgrounds. The children are so happy and content and you wouldn’t be able to tell that they come from a slum community or that they are at a disadvantage in life. Another major part of this fellowship has been the spiritual, emotional, and mental changes I’ve experience. I am discovering meditation, learning about different faiths, and meeting people from all over the world. This fellowship is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you have an interest in teaching and are looking to grow and develop as a person, this is the fellowship to apply for.

This experience has been transformative for all the fellows.  Our fourth fellow Aedin Wright, will be leaving for India this fall.  We will be accepting applications for 2019 fellows on a rolling basis.

For more information about Dry Creek, the fellowship, and to apply, visit www.drycreekcharity.org/sabarmati-education-center/ . To learn more about Manav Sadhna, visit http://www.manavsadhna.org/.

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