LIFE IN A SLUM
I was born and brought up in the slums of Mumbai. And growing up wasn’t easy – my family lived in a 10×10 ft room. 8 people lived in that small room. And we struggled for the smallest of things — like having space to change our clothes, going to the toilet, having enough water in the house, having enough to eat, etc. People in my community work as laborers and help get the fresh fish out of the boats once it docks — it’s a menial job, but helps feed the family.
Because of the fishing industry, I started earning quite early in life. I used to go to the nearby port, collect fish that would get accidentally dropped, and sell it in a market — it was profit without any investment. Many of my friends went astray once they discovered this way of making money — drinking, gambling, and dropping out of school followed. Thanks to my dad, who is a very strict person, I got saved from that future. He warned me that if he sees me again at the fishing port I won’t be allowed to live in the same house.
WHAT MOVED ME
The situation in my community really bothered me. I remained restless because I saw that many of my friends were not able to complete their education. Eventually, they were forced into early marriage. And by the age of 20 years, they even had children! Many parents in my community still believe that marrying children will stop them from going astray as it makes them more responsible — but there is no truth to this. I have seen it. It only gets worse from there. Since the boys and girls who marry early have no education, the additional responsibility after getting married means they have to do any job that is available — which is mostly ‘menial labour’ work — and it’s barely enough to provide for a family.
THE START OF OSCAR
I wanted to do something about these issues, but I did not know how. One day I saw that the children in my community were smoking. They saw me and went into hiding. I was very disappointed to see them smoking, but decided not to scold them. Back then I was taking training as a football coaching and told them to join me for a game of football in the evening. I had little hope that they will come, but to my surprise, they agreed — I thought of using this as an opportunity to counsel them. I never expected these boys to show up, but they did! And it was a problem because I didn’t have a football. In those days, it was expensive to buy a football. And with my salary, I couldn’t afford it.
As soon as the boys saw me, they asked me where was the football? I told them that I didn’t have it, but I promised them that I will surely arrange it in our next meeting. Nevertheless, we continued without the football and engaged in some fun activities and games. That day, I realised one thing that day — that children are truly special. That all they want is appreciation, love, and understanding. And with just that, we can change their future.
For the next meeting, I bought a football — the money for which was crowdfunded by myself and the children! I can say that this was my first ‘crowdfunding’ effort.
Our programmes have evolved from the time we started in order to address the changing needs of children, youth, and the communities we work in. The Education Programme ensures that children who are facing difficulties in their studies receive the right guidance. We encourage children to use computers, skill them in technology that will be helpful to them in the future. Our children already know how to make a presentation, and how to create an excel sheet. Imagine the things that they’ll be able to do once they graduate?
At the heart of OSCAR Foundation is a policy – ‘No school, No football’. If children want to have fun, engage in different OSCAR activities, be part of the Football Programme, then they HAVE to go to school. In fact, we verify the attendance of all children and only after we know that they are going to school are they allowed to play football.
We give a lot of emphasis on the development of youth in our communities. The Youth who are part of OSCAR receive appropriate career guidance and opportunities through the Young Leaders Programme. Today, we have more than 130 youth role models in the community who have completed their education with our support and are exploring new and exciting opportunities. Youth who used to work as labourers, selling tea, are now ready for leadership roles.
I am really proud to share that 40% of participants at OSCAR’s Youth Programmes are girls — girls who would have either been married off or confined to household work!
There were many challenges that I faced when we started OSCAR Foundation — we didn’t have space, we didn’t have funds, we didn’t have a lot of things. But we had HOPE. OSCAR was officially started in 2009 with just 18 children. Over the last 10 years, we have reached out to more than 3000 children across India. We are working in Mumbai a city where 20,000 children are believed to be out of school. We are working in Karnataka where more than 1.7 million children are out of school. We are working in Andhra Pradesh where 20% girls drop out of school. Our goal is to reach 30,000 children and youth across India by 2030 and give them an opportunity to get educated, to develop their skills, and dream bigger.