A unique project giving quality education to children with no access to it

Topics School education | Kumaon | children

Project Navjeevan provides free and quality education to children who had no access to schools or had a very scrappy option at home in the state’s hilly terrain.
Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two,
Lord I’m three, Lord I’m four
Lord I’m five hundred miles away from home

The scene would have gladdened the heart of American folksinger and songwriter Hedy West had she been present there at the Purkal Youth Development Society (PYDS) school in Uttarakhand’s Purkal village on a cold November morning in 2019.

A small group of children — aged nine to 12 years — sang “500 miles” at the top of their voice before an audience that watched transfixed. Nothing could be more heartfelt or closer to the truth. This group of singers had left behind their parents and families a year ago in their remote Kumaon villages to find quality education as part of a unique project — Navjeevan — taken up by the school. In many cases, the children were literally 500 miles away from home, if not more.

In 2018, G K Swamy, founder of PYDS — considered by many locals as the best school in Dehradun — decided to spread his net wider to offer free and quality education to children who had no access to schools or had a very scrappy option at home in the state’s hilly terrain.

The school’s team set out in search for parents — who would part with their young ones to join PYDS — all over the remote mountains. The child had to have spirit, the hunger and the strength to leave his or her parents and live in an alien boarding environment. In almost all the cases, the children had never ventured beyond their own or at best the next village.

Swamy was fully cognisant of the fact that he was asking for a lot. In a country where child labour and trafficking are common problems, he was asking parents to part with their children and send them away to Dehradun, akin to an alien country for many parents who like their children had not wandered further than the next village.

Convincing the parents that their intentions were noble could only be achieved by organising a visit to the campus. If they saw it for themselves, their fears would be allayed.

Following the visit and completing all other formalities, 21 students were inducted in the first batch. The PYDS team hired five full-time staffers for these children. A remedial curriculum for the group that allowed them to cover topics in math, English and the sciences speedily was introduced.

Although most of the children were light years behind their age in terms of learning, almost 14 students are ready for their grade level within a year and will be integrated with the regular CBSE Class 5 or Class 6 batch in the school.

Like with any group, the Navjeevan one too has its stars. In these cases, the PYDS team working closely with these children has been “blown away” by their ability to reach where they have considering where they began, strengthening their belief that grit and hunger can fill any hole.

A few students are ready to enter a class below their age and a couple need to repeat another year in the Navjeevan class that is remedial and helps them bridge their learning gaps. A new batch will be brought in for the coming academic year.

The staff dedicated to the group has been trained to keep a sharp eye for students who may fail to adjust as Swamy and others are of the view that the emotional state of the child comes over and above his or her academic prowess.

Even as they advance in their studies, the Navjeevan team keeps a keen eye on the children who are thriving and those who appear to be wilting.

What’s even more heartening is that during the holidays — and currently during the Covid-19 crisis — the Navjeevan children proudly demonstrate their learning and achievements by teaching their younger siblings and other children in the community, a testimony to how far they have come in just one year.

When this writer visited the Navjeevan group, their rosy red cheeks gave them away even before they were introduced and started to chatter. Within eight months of being in close proximity, the group had forged bonds with each other beyond normal, with one or the other perking up to answer questions addressed to others within the group.

Each child could read the other’s mind, knew the other’s background and history and even the intensity with which their mates were missing home and family. For now, this is the only family they know and the only one they need as they work towards a new life and a rosier future.

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