India has one of the highest number of street children in the world, and many charities both Governmental and private have tried to help these 20 million. But not all who work in these are twenty something IIM and NIT graduates. Nor are they those who quit a 5 year strong conventional, steady job at Google India, and an event management firm to pursue their cause full time.
Yet, that’s exactly what six youngsters from Kochi did. After a visit to an orphanage in 2006 gave them insight into the abysmal education provided to street children and children from orphanages, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They began the Make a Difference, or MAD project with a view to providing orphans and street children equitable education and consequently equitable opportunities as adults.
“During a visit to an orphanage in 2006, one child caught our attention, he was outspoken and said that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. We got busy with college after the visit, and when we returned two months later, that child was gone. He was sent to Coimbatore to do odd jobs after he flunked his tenth. The center couldn’t support him anymore.” says Gloria Benny, Co-founder MAD and former Google India employee.
MAD was born as a part-time venture by the fresh graduates to educate street children. Registered in November 2006, two of the co-founders, Gloria and Jithin Chacko quit their jobs to further the cause full time last year.
The organisation is volunteer based and recruits college students to teach children living in street shelters, poor homes and orphanages. “We targeted college going students because we belonged to that age group, and we knew that they were the only ones who had time on their hands. We believed that they could be depended on to teach these kids with as much passion as we had.”says Gloria.
In the beginning, MAD tackled the problem of language. “We found that language was the first barrier with these kids. If they could not speak in English, in Kochi at least, there was no way you could learn much in good schools. Consequently, they can’t get into good colleges.” says Gloria. Thus began the flagship program, Project Connect, which teaches 5 levels of English to the students. For the purpose, MAD uses Cambridge textbooks by Andrew Radford, provided to them free of royalty by Littlejohn himself.
Currently, the center has 3 projects – Project Connect, Project Discover – which provides students career mentoring, and 3 day-long MAD camps focusing on theater, public speaking and other confidence building activities.
Requests for MAD chapters in cities began soon after the launch in Kochi. While co-founder Sujith Varkey took it to Pune, thanks to social networking and their website, requests poured in from Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai among others.
So how does MAD keep a track of their volunteers and ensure quality? “We recruit volunteers only for each academic year, and require their commitment for the whole year. We have multiple screenings of volunteers to ensure that they have the time and also provide them with a toolkit on how to conduct a chapter in their city.” says Gloria.
Volunteers are made to commit 3 days a week to teaching the children and have credits to ensure that they meet the leave criteria as well. “Any volunteer who is found to be taking too much leave and fall to 0 credits are given a warning. Repeat offenders are asked to leave. This is to ensure consistency and quality in the children’s education.” says Gloria.
The Bangalore based organisation currently has 23 full time members working for them including two members working out of Delhi. The founders believe that there is no need to scrounge on quality even if the organisation is a not-for-profit.
“That’s one of the biggest stereotypes we want to break. Currently non-profits don’t attract the right talent because the planning team doesn’t invest in talent and they don’t think it’s necessary. That’s where we are different,” says Gloria. MAD pays its full time staff as per market rates with current staff earning anywhere between 3-5 lakhs each. “Unless you invest in manpower, the quality on ground will not be good.” she says.
Their primary source of revenue being fundraising, the company is currently trying to meet the 6 crore target they have set for the academic year April-March. “We will meet this target because we have a great fundraising team, and revenues from out merchandise line. We also partner with malls during mall campaigns” says Gloria.
20-30% of street children who graduated out of MAD’s program in Kochi have gone on to pursue engineering and commerce courses in various colleges. Runaway successes from MAD’s programs were sent to the USA to study in community colleges with the help of scholarships from the American embassy, and closer home, have joined the Indian army.
“Most non-profits who look at the problem in a narrow way by giving children mid-day meals and other incentives. Each child has different problems, some are abused, some children’s parents can’t afford their education, so a one point problem like say mid day meals won’t solve anything.” says Gloria.
The organisation currently have a dedicated research team to uncover the real problems that street children face. The organisation is also undertaking a project to solve the problem of documentation.
Currently 23 chapters strong, MAD teaches across 85 shelter homes with the help of 2,300 teacher volunteers pan-India. They are currently teaching over 4,500 street children with the help of teacher volunteers. “Our big, hairy , audacious goal is to ensure that the 176 million at-risk children in India are documented, and given equitable education and opportunity as adults.” says Gloria.