The initiatives of the Madurai-based Little’s Trust for Children to enable children rescript their lives with dignity and sense of direction, are impressive and inspirational, writes Allen Worwood
It all started in 2002 with giving a friend’s children tutoring lessons. Now it is 2010 and Little’s Trust for Children reaches out and helps over 600 children in 15 villages (through centres in each village) on the outskirts of Madurai.
Parvatha Varthini, the Managing Trustee of Little’s, summed up the organisation’s goal very aptly. “If someone is hungry, you don’t feed them. You teach them how to fish.” Little’s is not a charity, nor is it a one way street. It is a metaphorical ladder, propelling children into life with the chance to succeed. The organisation believes in helping children to become independent, and this is achieved through education, confidence building, and raising their awareness of the rights that every child is entitled to.
Parvatha Varthini is a sociologist, and through teaching and consulting, she became very aware of the many widespread problems within the Indian education system. Huge hurdles, such as the inequality between rich and poor, the lack of quality teachers, and the weak student – teacher relationship were all painstakingly obvious to her.
When asked about the new Right to Education Act (RTE) her response was insightful, “It is a start.” Parvatha Varthini is satisfied with what has been achieved, but there has to be more changes in the future. Her view is that ‘on legal terms it is good’ but to her the problems within the system are still lingering – everyone might have education but it is still unequal; there are still the problems of sexism and elitism, and also the distribution of resources is one of the main differences between the quality of teaching in schools.
Parvatha Varthini’s main irk with RTE is that it only applies up to the age of 14; she strongly believes that education should be free up to the age of 18 and has been raising this issue since 1991. The possibility of the government cutting the defence budget to increase the number of schools, facilities and teachers to make this viable is, however, still ‘a distant dream’ in her eyes.
A Different Vision
The organisation’s main focus is on grass roots education for 6 – 16-year- olds in the poorer areas of Madurai. The aim is to teach them in a friendlier, more pro-active way, unlike the ‘industries’ that are the Indian schools, content to simply churn out machine after machine. As well as educating them, the people at Little’s give children the confidence needed to live their lives the way they want to, through peer learning, stronger teacher-student relationships, and extra curricular activities. All of these gestures and more can only serve to help the children grow, as well as learn. They are keen to help children who are slow learners, so anyone that is struggling will be taken out of the class and given specialised teaching. Once they have caught up, they are put back into their classes to carry on as usual. Little’s has a passion for Little’s has a passion for concentrating on individual talents, and through Parvatha she can organise specific tutoring for unique skills. As well as having a different approach to education, the Little’s volunteers are consistently making sure the children understand the social issues that affect society, and giving them the knowledge that they can make a difference.
The base of Little’s is located in Nagamalai Pudukkottai, with most of the children from the village being taught there. The care centre is a non-government funded organisation, relying mainly on the donations from friends of Parvatha Varthini, and she herself puts a significant amount of money into the organisation. This is because some of the lectures Little’s volunteers give can touch on very sensitive subjects, for example, child labour and trafficking. This can be extremely controversial, so it is better for them not to rely on the government to prevent potential clashes.
A Personalised Approach
Little’s self-sustaining quality is one of its major strengths. Most of the volunteers are former students themselves, and once they are too old for the centre, Little’s can offer to help finance their college studies, while in return the student would volunteer at the centre. This is an intelligent way of hiring help while giving Little’s a personal, familiar feel.
Leading by Example
I was able to talk to two of the volunteers here, Rajaram, who is studying Commerce and joined Little’s in 2005 to become a co-ordinator, and Abirami, who used to be a primary school teacher before beginning volunteering here in 2002.
Rajaram is responsible for bringing dropouts from other schools to Little’s. His role also involves talking to parents about keeping their children in school and persuading the children that going to school is actually worthwhile. Many dropouts lack self-belief and Rajaram has to motivate them to want to learn once more.
Abirami mainly teaches the children Maths and Science and she finds it a lot easier to teach the children at Little’s than at her former school. She said that this is due to the fact that the atmosphere is a lot friendlier and relaxed because the syllabus is not the same.
Abirami’s favourite part of her job is watching the children grow and develop, knowing that she has helped them to realise their potential.
Quality Education, not just Free Education
They both share similar opinions on RTE. Rajaram and Abirami are both disappointed that the Act focuses on just the syllabus, when the two of them feel that the Act should focus more on materials, facilities and the standard of teaching. This opinion is very common with the people that I have talked to, the point being that the quality of education is just as, if not more important than simply having it for free.
Little’s Child Stars
I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to some of the children at Little’s, and it was truly a pleasure to meet them and learn about their lives. Each one of them is a star, and all of them have genuine direction in their lives, a rarity given what many children in India have to go through.
Karthick is 17 years old and has been at the centre for six years. He found out about Little’s through a friend of his, and as soon as he arrived, he noticed the differences between Little’s and other centres and schools that he had known about previously. Little’s was “a lot less strict” than the places he had been to before, it wasn’t simply children sitting at desks having syllabuses drilled into them. At Little’s each child has a role and everybody is a part of the family. Karthick has been inspired by Little’s and now takes part in various awareness programmes on the streets of Madurai, such as street plays and seminars, to raise awareness about the problems within society. He will be teaching at Little’s in the upcoming months, while also enrolling himself in college. He was involved with the S.F.I, a student’s organisation that helped to push through the RTE.
Another student who is completing her education at Little’s is Malarvizhi. She is also 17 years old, but has been at the centre for two years longer. Her main interests are poetry, drama, and reading. Malarvizhi believes that being at Little’s has given her a chance to pursue these skills, as well as making her aware of child rights. Now Malarvizhi wants to educate other children, and make them aware of the rights that they are entitled to as well.
I asked her Little’s means to her and her response was simple “Without Little’s Trust I can achieve nothing.” I believe that everyone here echoes her sentiments.
Lastly, I was able to meet a few of the children currently at Little’s, Anita, Pavithra, and Sudha. They are all exceptionally talented in such diverse ways, and all have promising futures ahead of them. Sudha has been at Little’s for eight years, Pavithra and Anita slightly less, and they all said that the main thing they gained from Little’s was confidence. Since being at the centre, they have gained the self belief that, as women, they can do more than just cook and clean, they all know they can make a real difference in the world today.
These people are the results of years of extraordinarily diligent, silent work by Little’s, and they are the motivation for Little’s to continue to inspire young minds in the future.