Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Reality Volunteers - Why I quit my job as a fashion journalist to volunteer in the slum

When I left Paris a few months back, I only had a vague idea of what Dharavi would look like. I imagined a very dense area where thousands, millions of people lived in precarious accommodation. I thought that the streets would all be dodgy alleyways leading from one home to another. Even though I knew I was going to work in one of the biggest slum in Asia, I had no idea how big it really was. And I didn’t want to learn too much about it before going: I wanted my clichés to be shattered by experience.

Francois and our Founder Krishna Pujari

Discovering Dharavi

I was prepared to face overwhelming poverty. But what I found there was much more complex and fascinating. Just like the rest of Mumbai, Dharavi worked in a chaotic harmony: hectic traffic, overly crowded streets…to the untrained eye, it all seemed very dysfunctional. But if you stopped for a minute and looked carefully at how the cars, the pedestrians, and even the animals were moving up the roads, it looked like some sort of modern ballet, where everyone had a place and a role to play.

Much more than just a slum, Dharavi was a city in the city. And everyone seemed to be busy doing something: while some worked in plastic recycling factories, others ran little shops and restaurants, or worked in one of the main industries (tannery, pottery, bakery…). There were no beggars on the streets, but children on their way to school. There were no muggers in the alleyways, but people showering before heading to work. Where we all expect to see desperation and people struggling, I saw smiles and people making the most out of what they had. And even though a lot of them really wanted to find a way out of the slum, they all embraced life in Dharavi and what it had to offer.

Why I left my job

Some of my friends and relatives had expressed concerns about my volunteering in India. They were afraid that I would get depressed by what I would see, or that I would get sick by spending too much time in a slum. But as I leave Dharavi, I’m bringing home incredible memories, true friendships and a valuable experience working in a completely different environment.

As much as I loved my previous job and colleagues, I often felt very frustrated: writing for a fashion magazine, I didn’t have any opportunity to meet our readers and felt like I was stuck in an ivory tower, completely disconnected to reality. In Dharavi, I sat only a few meters away from the beneficiaries of Reality Gives’ programs. I was able to see the impact the NGO had on them, I was able to talk with them and I knew why I was doing all this for. With the help of the incredibly nice and devoted team I was working with, I was able to use my skills in a very different way. While I used to write about fashion designers and up-and-coming talents, I was now helping on the annual report of the NGO, designing application forms for the students and doing the layout of English lessons developed by our education and curriculum director. Inspired by how passionate my colleagues were and by the impact the NGO had on people’s lives, I worked as hard as I could, because I knew I was there for a short period of time.

A Day in Dharavi

Every morning, I would commute to the slum from the small studio apartment I was renting in Bandra – a neighborhood of Mumbai that looked like an Indian version of Brooklyn. Walking through the muddy streets of Dharavi in the morning was my favorite part of the day. I would go past old-fashioned barbershops, colorful temples, large veg stalls, and shabby restaurants. I would look at the cats gathering around the lady who sold fish, at the chicken in cages that were about to get cooked, and at the goats wandering around the streets. But what I loved the most was observing people as they were getting ready for their day. A lot of them were staring back at me: some looked amused, most of them looked intrigued. Occasionally, a man would come and ask me where I was from and what my name was. After a small chat, I would go on walking through the streets, breathing in the smell of incense and soap mixed with fresh meat, sewage and pollution.

The doorway of a house on Francois' commute to work

To reach my former office in Paris, I used to cross the Champs-Elysées walking along kiosks and luxury boutiques. In Dharavi, I had to walk behind a Hindu temple and a public washroom, and climb my way up the stairs to one of our community center. From there, I would work on my laptop, while the students on our Youth Empowerment program were studying in the next room. There were girls and boys, Muslims and Hindus, teenagers and housewives…all in the same classroom with one objective: learning as much as possible to get better life opportunities. And as they walked out of their morning English class, they would always greet me with a very sweet “Bye sir” that made me feel 10 years older.

While I used to spend 10€ on a salad for lunch in Paris, in Dharavi I would spend less than 30 cents buying delicious dosas (rice pancakes) with chutney from an Indian guy who spoke incredibly good English. I would share this with two of my adorable colleagues, in charge of the community center, who would bring chapattis and spicy veg from home. Then, after some chai, we would go back to work carefully seated under the fans.

Royal City School

Every other week or so, I tried to make time to go the Royal City School, an institution based in the northern part of Dharavi, that Reality Gives supported by training 16 teachers. There, I would sit and talk with the school support program director. We would discuss upcoming events at the school, teachers and children’s attendance, but also her passion for Alexandre Dumas. Quite often, a small child would pop his/her head in the office, smile at us, and run back in the corridor with a backpack twice his/her size. All the students wore school uniforms and looked incredibly cute. They were full of energy and actually needed to be as the school curriculum included the study of no less than three languages (Hindi, English and Marathi). After a last glance at the painted classrooms, I would leave the school and take a rickshaw home. On my way back to Bandra, I couldn’t stop smiling at the view of Mahim Bay and at the thought of what I had seen and experienced during the day. The pollution, the traffic, the noise…nothing could ruin this moment. Dharavi was a place of hope. And working there was truly incredible.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Reality Volunteers - "I learn a lot from the kids – probably more than I teach them"

After studying at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, Shraddha became a teacher and has been inspiring apprentice yogis for over 2 years now. She recently decided to share her wisdom with young beneficiaries from Dharavi through weekly yoga classes in one of our community centres. After one of those classes, we sat down to discuss her job, her new students and what yoga can bring to your life.

What do you like most about your job?

"I love that it helps people to improve their health, in some way or another. And I try to teach my students more than just exercises. Yoga is much more than that: it’s a way of living your life, by following principles of truth and non-violence, for example."

Shraddha putting her aspiring yogis through their paces

How did you discover yoga?

"I have a genetic health problem: my bones are very weak. And according to doctors, I cannot or at least should not do any exercise. So I decided to study the philosophy of yoga and I also learned how to teach it. It helped me a lot, so now I’m helping people."

Is that why you decided to come teach yoga as a volunteer in Dharavi?

"Yes! I really wanted to do something for people who don’t have any opportunity to do yoga, and who are not keen on doing it, at first. I’m sure the kids are bored to death when I tell them “Say the truth”. But they do come back! (laughs) I really want to influence people’s lives in terms of health. When I was young, I never went to something like this, where I could build my personality. In India, you are not taught model values. And as you grow older, no one teaches you how to behave. But yoga can help! And volunteering here is great: I learn a lot from the kids – probably more than I teach them."

Any future yogi in the class?

"Yeah, I think so, definitely! My goal for them is to see the students practicing yoga not only here in class, but in their everyday life. I want them to try and follow the principles of yoga, and to believe that it can really help them a lot."

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Reality Volunteers - "India is Going to Exceed Your Expectations!"

Last month, Reality had a small party to say 'farewell' to Eloïse, a volunteer from France, who has travelled around India and Asia extensively and spent several months with us here in Dharavi. After indulging in a delicious chocolate cake, some of which we managed to get on her face (an Indian tradition, not an accident!), we had a  chat about her volunteering experience with us in Mumbai.

It's not a true occasion unless you have cake!

When did you first travel to India?

"When I was 15, I went on a special trip to Kolkata with my class for ten days. It was an 'initiation to humanitarian action'. I really liked it, so I went back to India in 2012 for a year-long exchange program in Pune, for my bachelor’s degree. I was a little disappointed by university and the education system, but I wanted to spend more time in India. So I decided to come back and work with a social organization this time."

What was your impression when you visited Dharavi?

"I had heard a lot about Dharavi before and my friends had told me about the tour, so I knew what to expect. But I was still very impressed by the industrial and commercial areas. That’s something you cannot imagine, even when someone tells you about it."

What were your missions at Reality Gives?

"I was supporting the Executive Director and also helping Joe with the marketing and fundraising. I was mostly doing office and admin work but I also had the chance to get more involved in the activities at the Community Centers, which was really great."

What was the most difficult thing you had to face in Mumbai?

"The most difficult thing was probably the heat, and finding an apartment in Bandra. Flat hunting is really not an easy task in Mumbai. But in the end, I shared a really nice apartment with a great roommate."

What is your best memory from your volunteer experience?

"There are so many! I loved working at the community centers, where you can see it all happening. The best memories are probably all those events during which the beneficiaries of the Reality Gives programs gave speeches, thanking all the members of the organization. The graduation ceremony for the YEP students, for example, or the award ceremony for the end of the sports season. Blessy, one of the football girls, told us that she really liked football but that she liked bonding with her teammates even more. It was all very touching."

Any tips for upcoming volunteers?

"I have a tip that can apply to anyone who comes to India: just keep an open-mind, relax, and be positive. India can get very tiring with the heat, the noise, the traffic… Especially Dharavi because it is very dense. But you shouldn’t worry too much, because India is going to exceed your expectations anyway."

Monday, 13 July 2015

Reality Gives' Programs - Meet Viji

Vijaya Kumari, 33, is a recent graduate of our Youth Empowerment Program (YEP). As a mother of three and having only had the opportunity to study until 8th Standard, we sat down with ‘Viji’ to understand some of the story which led her to enroll.

Viji’s journey with Reality began when her daughter saw a pamphlet (distributed by Reality staff amongst the communities we serve in Dharavi). Her daughter convinced her to enroll, telling her it would help children with their homework (all attend schools where the curricula are taught in English) and give her confidence in communicating with all kinds of people. She tells us, “education is the most important. My children want to be educated; they have dreams. For them to complete their dreams, that's why I work hard for them”.

Over the 15 weeks Viji flourished. Picking up new concepts and ideas quickly,
I liked the teachers who were very friendly” she shares, “they made me feel as a family with the other students. It is a new life, I made new friends, and I got a new chance here”.

“YEP has been helpful in both my personal and professional life” Viji continues, “I want to be a fashion designer. [Since graduating] I got the chance to study in a college that specialises in tailoring and fashion designing. The YEP was helpful in that I was more confident and English was useful to get admission”.

Confidently looking ahead to the future, Viji informs us that “after one year in college, my ambition will be completed - I’ll be a fashion designer”.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Reality Gives' Programs - A New School Year

Last Monday schools across the country opened their doors and welcomed back students from their summer holidays. Over at Royal City School, it was no different.

students paying revent attention to writing names on the front of their text books 

With four new teachers joining the staff (more on them later), there was a wonderful sense of expectation and excitement in the air at the school. We were struck by the (what must be universal) nostalgia about the promise of a new, unblemished textbook, a brand new pencil case filled with brand new stationary, and a rucksack bigger than the child wearing it. A great reminder of the common humanity we all share.

A small child. A huge rucksack. A universal symbol of childhood nostalgia.

Sitting down with the new Standard I students, we asked them how they felt about coming back to school. “GOOD!” a chorus of tiny voices replied. “There is lots of fun in learning and writing and being with my friends” 6 year old Sujana  confidently announced (who then could not stop laughing, giggling and wiggling in her seat as she posed for a photo).

Happy to be back!

The smiles, laughing, giggling and wiggling didn’t stop there. Kemal, Ayesha, Sana and Damodar our new teachers share this sense of excitement and positivity surrounding the new school year. Damodar (our first male teacher) told us, “the quality is so high and the experience being here is exciting. The other teachers are very supporting and I am excited to share and learn with the children. We can learn together”.

Parents eagerly waiting for their children at the school gates

Similarly to our other teachers, Kemal, Ayesha, Sana and Damodar grew up dreaming of being a teacher. “I remember my first teacher, Ms. Bharti”, Kemal tells us “she had such beautiful writing. From that moment I knew I wanted to be a teacher”.

With this great influx of enthusiasm, the school’s head, Lakshmi said “I feel very positive about the coming year. In the previous academic year we learnt a lot. We have implemented lots of new things and we really can’t wait to see the fruits of our labour and ultimately, benefits the students”.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Reality Gives' Programs - "We are all together with friendship"

Whilst the core of Reality Gives’ work focuses on core educational programs, we augment these with a number of other activities run through our community centre to give local children the opportunity to explore their creative side, to develop a skill or hobby, and, essentially, to have a childhood. One of these activities is cricket.

The cup has now become the annual end of season event for PFF 
Project Front Foot, fuelled by the enthusiasm and spirit of Vic Mills and executed by the dedication and professionalism of coaches, Harshad and Bhavna, began in October 2009, and has been growing ever since. The PFF season now ends with the Annual Friendship Cup (now in its second year). The tournament sees the PFF boys come together with Salaam Bombay, Cricket India Academy and Indian Gymkhana to do what they love best, play cricket. 

"We are all together"

A great day of cricket resulted in Salaam Bombay taking home the trophy for the second year running, but more importantly, lots of tired, happy boys going home in their whites, which would more accurately be described as ‘browns’ owing to the amount of dust they’d accumulated from a day of strenuous effort on the pitch (chasing a ball down in the outfield is no mean feat given the soaring temperatures and the unforgiving midday sun).

Everyone's a winner!

Sitting in the limited shade of Shivaji Park we asked a few of the players what the game meant to them. “When we are there we are all together, we are all best friends” Ritesh shared. It suddenly clicks, “That is why it is the friendship cup, because we are all together with friendship”. And ultimately, that’s exactly what this day is about.  Its not about who takes home the trophy. It’s about boys of different ages, castes and religions putting on their whites and being totally united by their passion for sport. It’s about a level playing field.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Reality Gives' Programs - “Of course we will win. I'm the player of the month!”

Their interest in cricket piqued by the recent World cup, newly arrived volunteers Lydia and Eloise paid a visit to Indian Gymkhana, Matunga - home of Project Front Foot. Here's what they found...

On our arrival at the Indian Gymkhana ground we received a warm welcome from the boys (aged between 12 and 14) who were really excited to start the practice and show their skills in front of our camera, especially as the Cricket World Cup was currently running (and at that point in time their Indian heroes were still in with a chance). As we got to know from the children, the practice is held three times a week, from 9 to 11, and matches are arranged on the weekends. 

Practising the 'forward defensive', an important part of any batsman's arsenal - as Eloise
and Lydia learned during their time over at PFF

Although we missed the usual 15 laps of jogging (phew!), we saw their warm-up program which included body, leg, back and arms stretching. Workout over and the boys were finally ready to put on their pads, helmets and take up their bats. As the coaches explained to us, some kids were practising playing off front and back foot while others worked on batting and bowling. They also gave us the chance to catch some balls.

Although we did not really know the rules of cricket it was a lovely morning and it was great to meet all the boys and coaches who are participating in this great project. We experienced a lot of smiles, enthusiasm and motivated boys.

Catching practise

Thanks a lot to everyone, who made this morning so interesting. A special thanks to the coaches, who had a lot of patience with us and our non-existent knowledge of the game. We learned a lot!'.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Reality Volunteers - "There are so many things that I will remember!"

Yesterday Reality said goodbye to Shneeka Centre, a volunteer from the US who has been with us for 4 months. Before she hopped on a plane to Northern Island we sat down with Shneeka for a quick chai to reflect on her time volunteering in India...
Can you give us an overview of your role at Reality?

"I was a coach with the Girls’ Football program".

What were your first impressions?

"My first impressions of Mumbai were great. I immediately loved how friendly everyone at Reality Gives was and how kind the Dharavi community were. Right from the start, the football girls have been awesome to work with. They are always so happy for practice and for matches. They are incredibly excited for the opportunity to play football and to be a part of a team".

Shneeka was rarely out of her Reality Gives' 'COACH' jersey during her time with us

What have you been most proud of in your time here?

"I am definitely most proud of the moms’ football sessions we have started. Peter and I started holding Saturday afternoon fitness sessions for moms from the Dharavi community. The moms have been fantastic to work with. Many of them have not been given the chance to participate in sport since they were younger so it is really great to see them laughing and enjoying themselves while getting exercise.  We have had a nice turnout so far and I hope it can continue to grow".

What will you remember most?

"There are so many things that I will remember! I will remember all of the people that I have met and worked with. I will remember how excited the football girls are for practice and how excited they are to have the opportunity to play. I am hoping I remember the Hindi that I picked up too!".

What have you learned?

"In my short time here, I have definitely learned a lot. Probably the greatest thing I have learned is how wonderful Dharavi actually is. Yes, of course there are negatives, but there are so many encouraging and inspiring aspects. People in the community are so helpful and caring. Even though their situation is less than ideal, everyone is always helping one another and so generous with the little they have".

So often behind the camera or off running around the sports field, Shneeka has been something of an unsung hero these past few months. All of us at Reality would like to thank her for the wonderful energy and positivity she brought to the team; for what she did and the way that she did it.

All the best with your next adventure Shneeka. See you back here soon!

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Reality Gives at Royal City School - “Thursday was the first day I have ever felt like I was important, and that my families’ happiness and learning mattered”

Last week Reality Gives staff, volunteers and supporters joined forces with an incredible team of India First employees, and 8ft ‘Doreamon’ and ‘Chota Bheem’ mascots (popular children’s cartoon characters), to deliver Royal City School’s first ever annual sports day.

"Our children got an annual sports day as any child should deserve to have"

With races for children from Kindergarten to Standard II and even the mums and dads competing, it proved to be an incredible experience for all involved. Reflecting on the day Letizia De Martino, Reality Gives Executive Director shared, “In our vision we say that we want to build a world where underprivileged communities have equal access to opportunities and resources. I think today we did it! Our children got an Annual Sports Day as any child should deserve to have”.

Over at the school, the children are still grinning from ear to ear - “I like it because I can run” Standard II student Vikram told us “I have never seen so much space”. Fellow Standard II student Sanjana told us, “The ground was very big and nice. I loved it. It was too huge. I loved passing the pipe (the relay) and the medals and the running” whilst her classmate Vivek told us “I didn’t win a medal. My mother did. My mother won a gold medal for running. I feel happy”.

The races weren't just for the kids!

It was such a good experience” Sujatha, one of our senior teachers told us, “The best day. The organisation. The parents’ preparation Everything. The mothers ran so fast. ‘How do you run in a sari’ I asked one. ‘Just watch. It is no problem’ she said!”.

The day was a great example as to what can be achieved when great organisations come together. Thanks so much to India First for funding and facilitating the event!

The parents too are still abuzz with the thrill and excitement of the day. One father shared with our Quality Improvement Director, Annabelle “Thursday was the first day I have ever felt like I was important, and that my families’ happiness and learning mattered. Thank you, it is a day we will never forget”.

Thanks so much to the team of staff, volunteers and other dedicated individuals who made this day so memorable for so many. Special thanks to India First Life Insurance, without their funding, organising and boundless energy this dream event would never have come true!

To help us continue to give these children the opportunities and 
experiences they deserve, click here.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Reality Gives - Hopes for 2015

The beginning of a New Year is often a time for reflection, for taking stock, and for looking to the future, which is exactly what we are doing here in Dharavi.

We asked some of our staff, beneficiaries and minor celebrities (Pubalan) what their hopes, dreams and resolutions were for 2015. Here's what they had to say...

Over at Royal City School, Educational Programs Director, Lakshmi shared that "in 2015 I look forward to becoming computer savvy and all teachers speaking nothing but English from the moment the first bell rings in the morning to the end of the school day".

Standard I Teacher, Krishna told us "My wish for the New Year is to return to the school after giving birth to a healthy baby, and to keep up with current affairs". "I want the New Year to be good for everyone" added her student, Afsanjaha.

Afsanjaha, Standard I Student, Royal City School

Elsewhere in the organisation Computer Teacher, Ravi said "I wish to learn advance computers – like tally, software, DTP and to improve my English fluency. I wish to teach all my students in English only. For my students – I wish that they learn computers and English and continue their studies" and his colleague, Banu wants "to visit my native place (the village she is from in Tamil Nadu) with my whole family and meet my younger brother who is away from us for four years".

Karthika, from the Girl's Football Program shared her wish to "write a letter to Peter (our former Sport Programs Director who is moving to the US) and to learn Dance as well. I do not want to fight with her brother in the year as it causes lot of nuisance to my parents and I want to do a job and help poor and needy people". 

"My wish listen is to be number 1 on trip adviser" Reality Founder, Krishna told us, "it will help us to get more funds through our tours for our projects. I also wish to do some programs in the recycling area of Dharavi", whilst Reality Gives Executive Director, Lethy said "in 2015 I wish Reality Gives will touch more and more lives. Helping young people in Dharavi to flourish to their full potential".

Thumbs up to 2015 from Reality Give's beneficiary,  Pubalan

Finally, the last word, as it so often does, goes to Pubalan, who wishes "to learn good things and make good friends. I want to grow trees to save the earth". It seems 2015 is going to be quite a year!

Click here to support Reality Gives in helping some of these hopes and dreams come true.