A very interesting experiment is going on at the Chennai Middle School in Damodarapuram, Besant Nagar, Chennai . An experiment which is proving to be a solution to the twin problems faced by the corporation ; getting students for the many corporation schools where enrolment is dwindling alarmingly. And to take some action pertaining to an order of the Supreme Court which has made it the duty of the civic body to provide shelter and care for the homeless children.
To help them deal with this challenge , the Chennai Corporation decided to rope in the services of `Montfort Siragugal` a unit of the well known NGO, Montfort Trust, run by the Montfort Brothers with its headquarters in Rome. Under this scheme the NGO not only helps the Corporation identify deserving homeless children but also look after them in a hostel located within the school premises.
Most of the students currently on the roll are rag pickers, who are footloose orphans or whose parents are leading wayward lives, not being able to look after their children. Some of these parents also use the children for earning additional source of income for the family. Many of these kids who get a taste of money early in life are drug addicts and are prone to becoming criminals. While some girls are forced into prostitution at a young age, even the boys are not spared from sexual abuse.
The unique feature of this experiment is that the students are made to stay in the school; providing them with comfortable and dignified living conditions. Conceptualised as the Chennai Corporation`s Care and Protection Centre for children, the shelter home is located inside the school, in a couple of unused class rooms converted into dormitory type living quarters- with separate arrangements for boys and girls. The children are given free dresses and other daily necessities including three meals a day. Each child is provided a separate cot with the accompanying bed spreads etc. While the Corporation pays for all the expenses, the NGO manages the scheme with the help of its team of volunteers.
According to Mrs Victoria, a teacher in the school, the experiment was started on August,8, 2013 with just 11 students. Today there are 63 students , both boys & girls, aged between 5 and 16 living in the hostel and attending classes from 1st to 8th standard in the school located inside the complex and run by the Corporation. The children passing out of 8th standard are sent to other schools nearby or to schools run by the Montfort Trust.
The children are encouraged to participate in a whole lot of individual and group activities. Extra Curricular activities include exposure to arts & crafts, computers and other skills. Group activities include participation in sports, dance & drama programmes, elocution competitions, debates, poetry sessions, English speaking classes etc.
Though the children, in the initial stages find it difficult to adjust to the new environment where they have less freedom, they soon settle down to the routine and realize that the school is opening up a whole new world for them.
While the children are being taken care of, the parents of such children are also counseled and explained the importance of education in their children`s lives. Regular parent/teacher inter action takes place where the parents see for themselves , progress made by their children. Many wayward parents also change their own lifestyle to give a new life to their children. The constant effort of the NGO is to try and reintegrate the children with their family so that they continue to grow under parental care. The orphans among the children are taken care of by the Trust and sent to other Homes run by them where grown up children are given shelter and their educational needs taken care of. If some children show lack of interest in pursuing higher studies, then they are sent to Vocational Training Centres where they learn skills with which they can start a life of their own.
According to Mr.Kesavan , the Sanitary Officer in the Corporation who is associated with the `Shelter Home` project, the Damodharapuram school experiment was rated, as one of the best `Shelter Homes for Children` run in any State in the country by a team of officials from the Department of National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM), who visited Chennai recently. Encouraged by the success of the Damodarapuram school, the corporation has plans to start 31 more such Centres in Chennai. For better control each centre will have only 30 students and may be run by a team of dedicated Corporation staff.
It is heartening to see the children, many of them very bright, pulled into a system which offers them hopes of a brighter future.
Individuals or institutions wanting to extend help can do so by sponsoring extra curricular activities in the school or even offering special meals for children on special occasions. Any one interested in making the lives of the children happier can contact Kesavan on 7200013144, or Victoria 86082 68780.
This article has appeared in the 1st-15th February,2016 issue of Madras Musings.