I have been meaning to update our blog since the first year celebration post. But I fear in the invincible optimism of the Street Smart team, we tend to not appreciate how challenging the work is. Ergo, I decided to share some of these recent struggles that the staff and kids at Street Smart have been involved in.
Gopi is one of our older kids who train in block printing in what has become a very close-knit group of seven children. He has an unbelievably large family, comprising so many siblings that I lose count and ranging from a married, older brother to an infant at the breast and all ages in between. Gopi’s parents live in Meerut with some of the siblings while he, and the other siblings, including the oldest, married brother live in Parade Ground. The oldest brother runs a family begging racket of sorts wherein he sends out Gopi and his younger brothers to beg all day and uses that money to buy a little food and a lot of alcohol. Gopi’s parents are alcoholics too, as is his oldest brother and sister-in-law.
Now most of our kids live through such unimaginable circumstances but looking at them, you would never guess it. They are of such sunny dispositions that I am amazed every time I ponder over the realities of their lives.
One of the block-printing trainees, Rajkumar is an orphan and was homeless until about six months ago. He is about 15 and was heavily addicted to correction-fluid or whitener. The reason for this addiction was fear of being out on the streets and since the time that he was placed in a secure shelter with the help of a very good educationalist; his addiction seems to have mitigated. There is still of course a long way to go but Rajkumar has cleaned-up beautifully. He religiously saves money from his daily earning and recently bought a mobile phone to keep in touch with the “didis” at Street Smart!
Gopi and Rajkumar have slowly formed a very strong bond. Best friends and brothers, they have created a small family unit of their own. So one day, Gopi decides that he wants to save money too. But how can he? his brother takes all the money that he earns and if Gopi protests, the brother beats him up. So Gopi goes to Rajkumar’s shelter and sleeps there. He likes it and continues living there without telling his family or the staff at Street Smart.
When it was eight days since Gopi was seen by his family, the oldest brother and his mother charges in at Rein Basera. The group shouts at the staff members, demands that Gopi be returned to the family and accuses the team of misleading children and taking them away from their respective families. Everybody is called in and the police intervene to calm the group down. Gopi is brought forward and he tells everybody that he has been staying with Rajkumar. He also staunchly refuses to return home. The next day, Gopi’s mother, who has come to town on receiving news of Gopi’s disappearance claims that his father is dying in Meerut and asks him to meet him once.
Gopi buys this story and leaves with his family to the railway station. At Parade Ground, he spots his father at a little distance all hale and hearty. So when the family arrives at the railway station, Gopi runs away and comes back to the shelter. He is shaking with fear and tells the team to not let him leave with his family again. This time, Gopi’s family comes in with other families from Parade Ground and threaten the teachers, threaten Rajkumar, hurl obscenities and accusations at the staff and swear that no other child from Parade Ground will ever step into the program again.
Gopi has now been living with Rajkumar and still maintains that he will not go home. He has started saving like a few other children with him and frequently tells us that he also wants to buy a mobile phone soon!
As was promised by the Parade Ground families, no child from there has come to the program since that day. The teachers who earlier went to fetch the children cannot now go there because it is no longer safe. However, in the entire episode that has been related here, the Parade Ground families have come off as the villains and I want to clarify that this is not the case.
The adults living in Parade Ground are what our kids would have become eventually, had they not been introduced to a better alternative. Gopi would have continued to beg and would have eventually married, raised his own family and sent his children off to beg the moment they could walk. In the absence of positive guidance, the adults too have grown up with very unproductive ideas. And why should they think otherwise? When has the society ever done anything for them that is not first dipped in ulterior motives and personal gains? The idea of social service or “doing good” simply does not exist for them, and for a good reason.
So with the attendance at Street Smart dipping to an all-time low (read- ZERO), our project head Vandita, along with Neelu Khanna and other staff members initiated an outreach program where they resumed our initial sit-on-the-roadside-and-paint routine that we had started Street Smart out with. This time, the team sat on the side of the demolished Chakrata Road stretch where one can find a large number of glue-sniffing children looking for scrap metal from among the debris.
After sitting with them for a few days on the roadsides, there is a small bunch of kids trickling into Rein Basera. Sure, they come in for the free lunch and the warm water and the fresh clothes, but that is also how some of our ” now veteran kids” had started out when we sat at Astley Hall last year!
As always, the team trudges ahead determined! And as they do, it is good for the rest of us to remember that this is no easy feat.