This is one of our most significant interventions currently, with a far-reaching impact on the lives of young children. As you are aware, since 2011 Vatsalya has been operating a school named Vatsalya Shiksha Niketan. The school caters primarily to poor communities in rural areas and so most of the children who attend our school have parents who are daily wage laborers, casual laborers, truck drivers, etc. The parents leave for work in the morning around 7 or 8am and come back towards 6 or 7pm. This means that their children are on their own for most of the day. We have seen two evident outcomes of this situation:
The school-going capacity of these children is largely dependent on the day-to-day situation of the family. Very often the older children will be retained at home to take care of household chores, looking after younger siblings, accompanying one of the parents to the fields, grazing cattle, etc.
Since parents are away for most of the day, the food these children get throughout the day often provides less than 50% of their daily nutritional requirements. Practically, these children are on their own throughout the day, not only without enough food, but also without responsible adult supervision, safety and security.
We have been discussing this matter with parents for years, trying to influence their views and encourage them to send their children to school so as to facilitate their normal healthy upbringing and end the vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance. We could not change much though. We realized that we were giving them a solution to their FUTURE problems without really addressing their PRESENT ones. Considering various possibilities and alternatives, we devised a school program for these children which has found many takers in the communities we serve. Our Seven-to-Seven School has received a very positive response and is seen as a great solution to many problems. The children arrive in the school at seven in the morning, receive a full day care at Vatsalya campus and return back to their own homes in the evening at seven. By that time their parents are back and are able to provide them with loving care as well as dinner.
As part of the Seven-to-Seven model, the schedule and curriculum of Vatsalya Shiksha Niketan is modified to include some enriching and interesting activities that keep the children happy, active and involved. During the ten to twelve hours that they remain under Vatsalya‟s care, the children attend regular classes, receive skill- training, play outdoor and indoor sports, are served three fresh meals including milk and fruit; medical and health care is provided and they are engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities to enhance their learning and knowledge. The Seven-to-Seven program has the following schedule:
This is a big transformation from operating purely as an academic institution. Vatsalya Shiksha Niketan is now functioning more as a Community School which is focusing not only on the all-round development of the children but is also engaging with parents and community members, more actively than before, in order to provide complete care and opportunities for the children‟s comprehensive development and growth. Our approach has always been that of an integrated development and collaboration; however, the different functions were carried out as part of different programs in the past. Now, it is all under the single umbrella of Vatsalya Shiksha Niketan/the Seven-to-Seven School.
One very encouraging aspect of the Seven-to-Seven program is that the parents, despite being poor, are willing to contribute to the cost. It is a very small percentage that they pay; however, there is an understanding of and appreciation for the service and support they are getting. The total cost per child per year comes to Rs. 40,000 of which the parents are expected to pay Rs.4000. Almost 70% of parents could deposit this money within two months of the beginning of the academic session. The concept of „free service‟ has its charms; however, it puts a great burden on society. We are happy to have begun the process of moving on from it. It still remains a challenge; however, we can say that the rate of success has increased significantly.
Kishor comes from a nomadic Lohar (Blacksmith) community. Traditionally, these people are known to be the proud descendants of the Rajput King Maharana Pratap (1540-1597), who pledged never to settle down in a home until their sovereign won back his lost kingdom. Maharana Pratap died before he could regain this and so generations have passed; but this tribe known as Gadiya Lohar continues to live as nomads. With so many industrial products on the market, there are few takers for their handmade iron products and so they earn their livelihood mainly by rag- picking, selling goods at traffic signal crossings or at times stealing. Kishor comes from a family of this Lohar tribe.
A very delightful and heart-warming exclamation made by Kishor, after 15 days of attending Vatsalya‟s Seven-to-Seven school was: My life is set up! Sleeping on such mattresses and eating such fresh and sumptuous food was for being dirty and irregular in school and so he spent much of his days playing in the streets or selling g‘oods to passers-by on the highway. Now, Kishor says, he takes a bath every day, wears the uniform provided by Vatsalya and eagerly awaits the school bus. Kishor has confided to us that, after learning about the Seven-to-Seven School, he and his family worked extra time in rag picking and the money thus collected paid his school-fee.
We have 26 children from this Lohar community this year and most of the children share a similar story.