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FILLING COLOURS TO THE SHADOWY LIVES
Passionate about investing in the lives of children, 46 years old Saraswathi Padmanabhan, a trained Montessori teacher and Counsellor is giving motherly love to the children of the migrant labourer community in Bengaluru through her dream home ‘Diya Ghar’. Saraswathi says, “It’s always fascinating for me to connect with these children. Wherever I worked I tried to find opportunities where I could work and support children.”
True to its name ‘Diya Ghar’ is today emerging as a ‘lighthouse’ into the gloomy lives of thousands of deprived children. The organisation is changing these kids’ lives by providing them day care services, the foundational Montessori or preschool education, with two wholesome meals a day and safe transport from their settlements to school and back.
Saraswathi and her team are running 3 preschools and Day Care centres serving 135 children until March 2020 and also set up Community Centers in 2020. Over 1000+ children mostly 2-6 years old in 22 Centers attend classes every day and receive nutrition, child care and medical care. So far, over 400 little ones have “graduated” from Diya Ghar and joined elementary schools in Bangalore or back in their villages. After preschool, Diya Ghar also recommends and helps to enroll children in any affordable private or government school where the organisation also supports up to 60% or some amount of the school fee if any migrant parent can’t give the full fee.
Growing up in Chennai, Saraswathi used to visit children’s homes on her birthdays with her parents. Her parents and grandparents used to support these children, which had a lasting impact on her.
Talking about the idea that originated to start such an organisation, Saraswathi candidly replied to me, and said, “My first job was in Mumbai and as part of a volunteer group, I used to take care of street children there. Later, I moved to California and did my MBA there and started working as an auditor. Again, I used to volunteer there, but this time I worked with the prisoners’ children. For job purposes eventually, I moved back to Bengaluru with my husband who's one of the trustees in Diya Ghar. I studied counselling and started working with an NGO for a year. After my son’s birth, I started teaching counselling so I could give time to my child also. There was a migrant labourers community behind my husband’s office. On weekends, my husband and I used to visit and distribute clothes, and books to the young children and spend quality time there. After the birth of my two daughters, I continued to teach counselling part-time.”
As Saraswathi’s three children were very young and going to the Montessori school, she did 6 months of Montessori training and eventually, with her experience and deep understanding of child development, she initially opened the Montessori preschool in 2016 with merely five kids of labour workers.
Saraswathi further said, “Primarily it was tough to manage and run the organisation along with my own three young children. For my organization, I rented a place close to my home and initially started just for half a day. First six months I was the only teacher and the lady who was taking care of my children helped me at my centre also. Almost for a year, we gave homecooked breakfast and lunch to these migrant children. I only brought these migrant children from the community and dropped them back. Later, we hired teachers and trained them. And then I started a full-day program.”
When I asked Saraswathi how she makes the parents agreeable especially for pursuing education as it becomes a tendency for them to lead an easygoing life and earn their livelihood through begging, she said, “These migrant families come from North Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Orissa. Earlier there were trust issues and these families felt scared of sending their children to Diya Ghar. So it was extremely hard to convince them. But there were mothers who wanted to send their children to school as they went to construction sites and there these children struggled and were neglected a lot. So initially a few migrant parents came along with their children to school and gradually they started to build confidence in us.”
During the pandemic Covid-19 time the preschools were closed so Diya Ghar centres were started inside the communities. The organization also trained community mentors to teach the children within these communities.
With 97 team members, the organization’s goal is now to expand and serve 5000 children every day with quality food, medical care, and education. Diya Ghar partners with many NGOs and various IT Companies like Mphasis and Oracle. These NGOs run bridge programs with Diya Ghar for the communities. IT Companies also volunteer and do activities like card making and pot painting with children. Azim Premji Foundation, Titan, Rotary Bangalore IT Corridor Charity, and many other renowned brands support the cause.
In the end, Saraswathi mused, “The need is huge. These children are vulnerable and the migrant community has unfortunately been unseen. But so many people are supportive and generous. They are open to supporting and sponsoring the child or their education. We need more reinforcement from society and people should recognize the need around.”