Children have a pureness that no religion or economic status can tarnish. This is something I encountered at close quarters in my whirlwind tour of ASSIST’s projects. In the Transitional Educational Centres that I visited, the innocence of the kids was heart-warming, while at the same time driving home the sad realities of a childhood spent in rural poverty.

A Little Background
The following kinds of kids usually miss out on a formal education:

  1. Tribal children: In communities that have a migrant, nomadic lifestyle, the kids have no anchor rooting them to a spot. Sending their kids to school isn’t a top priority for many such parents.
  2. Children of workers in quarries and mines: Such kids are either taken to work so they can earn some money for the family, or are expected to help with a younger infant in the family. In both these cases, the children aren’t sent to school.

Where ASSIST Steps In
ASSIST, an NGO in Chilakaluripeta, Guntur district, is an organization that has community-based projects. Give funds are used for one of its projects, “Transitional Educational Centres” (TECs), which are schools meant to help rural poor kids transition into formal education. They are run for children of tribals and migrant workers, or children who are prone to being pushed into child labour.

There are three kinds of TECs:

  1. Centres which have only schooling: This is for the primary classes. After their primary education, the children attend the nearest government school.
  2. Centres which have schooling as well as a hostel
  3. Centres which have just a hostel facility; children go to study in a nearby school

The structures of these TECs are typically very simple, to match the children’s living conditions at home. Harsh as it may theoretically seem to someone reading this, the idea behind this is to not raise the kids’ standards so much that they do not feel like going back home.

On a 400 kilometre road journey in a span of two days, here’s what I saw. It was an enriching journey, and the dozens of pictures I took and the footage I shot on my mobile do not do justice to the richness of my experience on this trip.

ASSIST-Dande-ColonyIn Vetapalem is a settlement of the Dande community of tribals, many of whom have semi-permanent housing with thatched roofs, straw/wooden fences, and sometimes even thatched walls. The people here are migrants, but the TEC at this colony, I am told, has transformed the community over its lifetime. Children are taught up to the 5th standard, and the teachers tell me that this has actually helped root the kids at one place. Even if the parents have to move to other places to work, the children are left with at least a grandparent or a guardian so they can attend school.

The TEC here is a single structure with a thatched roof, partitioned into two rooms. Children of lower classes are taught in one room, and the children of the higher classes (4th and 5th classes) in the second.

The centre is supervised by two teachers, a couple with a kid, who live nearby. Students are fed mid-day meals cooked at the teachers’ home. A community representative helps ASSIST in liaising with the residents of the colony.

Beneficiaries: Potluri Venkateswarulu, an alumnus, joined the school in 2000, when he was in the 1st standard. He is now pursuing a degree course from Chirala. His sister, Potluri Lakshmi, also studied in this school.

Rapuri Srinivasulu: This one is an enthusiastic kid who studied here upto the 5th standard. He is now in the 8th standard, and goes to a government school, but insists that the ASSIST school is better, and more fun and happier than his current school!
When you take into account the fact that girls marry early in villages, you will realize that ASSIST has educated an entire generation of Dande Colony residents. Kanuri Srilakshmi, who joined the TEC in 2000, is now married with two kids, who themselves will be ready for school in a couple of years.

ASSIST-MarkapurThis facility had a campus-cum-hostel for children of classes 1 through 10, spread over 10 acres. The primary sections are taught here, while students of higher classes go to the nearest government school.

There are hostels for all these children, with bathrooms, dining halls and an RO plant. A borewell was also set up here. The teachers live on the same campus, and basically serve as guardians of the children, too. The estate is super-spacious, green, and conducive to an active, healthy lifestyle for the kids.

I interacted with the primary kids in their own classrooms, where many of the little ones were extremely eager to perform – with a recitation, a reading from their textbook, a song, or a dance! (Here, I was moved, in particular, by one girl who sang a folk song about child labour. Sung from the child’s point of view, it talks of how the child wants to play and go to school but is instead sent to work. I don’t think the girl who sang it was fully aware of what it meant.)

A typical classroom in a school (TEC) run by ASSIST

The high school students have a lot of study hours here. A bunch of the 10th class students at Markapur are funded by Give donors. In my interaction with them, they seemed happy to be here. It was lovely to know about their dreams for the future.

Many of the kids in this TEC are from a village called Ananthavaram, which is known to be exceptionally backward and lacking in water supply.

Then, there was one parent, a farmer, whose son made it to IIIT Nuzividu – a stupendous achievement for a child from a background of poverty and illiteracy and total dependence on agriculture.

Most of the kids here are from the migrant and culturally rich tribe of Lambadis. There are about 200 kids here. I interacted with almost the whole set (except for a dozen who stayed put in their hostels) at one spot on their campus. This was a fun experience, and the kids were adorable, to say the least. There was lots of song and dance here, too. A few girls sang and danced, a few boys joined in, and lots of boys entertained the gathering with dialogues from Telugu films.

To me, the Bollapalle centre was personally the most heartening, partly because the kids and I bonded so well, and partly because it was a glimpse into the Lambadi culture, which I realized is in dire need of conservation. The children sang some lovely folk songs from their community. They were blessed with sweet voices, and a couple of them had striking features, too. It was wonderful to get to know them.

Other Projects
ASSIST’s projects are all about what it calls “community intervention”. Facilitation, not donation, is their model of working. The organization is quite large, and with about 150 full-time employees spread out in 10 area centres supervising a total of 263 villages, it functions on a large scale. Their projects are all carried out at an institutional level.

These are some of the other projects I saw in my field trip, some of which had Give donations.

Borewells have been extensively drilled in villages and habitations with water scarcity. In Dande Colony, which had the TEC I described first, there were at least three drilled.

Toilets Constructed In Schools
ASSIST undertakes the task of building sanitation blocks in government schools that are in need of them. In Vetapalem, I was taken to a school that, by the looks of it, defied all the norms of a government school. The teachers had taken the care to pave a pathway inside the compound, plant a garden, and get a Saraswati Devi statue installed in front of the school block. The school buildings were very well-maintained. Little wonder, then, that the toilets that ASSIST gave them are being maintained spic and span. This, without the help of an ayah. The teachers tell me that they have taught the children to use the toilets well and to keep them clean with a little disinfectant after every visit. The media may not like this story, but the children have a large role to play in keeping their toilets clean!

I saw other Give-funded sanitation blocks at the villages of Mutukula and Sathakodu in Pullalacheruvu Mandal, Prakasam district.

Vocational Training For Adolescent Girls And Women
At the Vetapalem area office is a training centre that is used to impart tailoring skills to young girls. The girls come in from nearby villages, and this training enables them to earn their own money. The girls I met were cheerful, bright, and eager to show me their work.

And – singing and dancing seems to be a norm in these places – one girl was eager to dance!

Weavers’ Societies
Chirala (Prakasam district) is famous for weavers. ASSIST is now piloting a project to organize weavers into societies in order to better represent their interests – sort of like self-help groups. Funding of looms and marketing is on the agenda. I met two kinds of weavers – a young, able-bodied couple who work with an automated loom, and an old couple who work on a handloom. The latter earn significantly lesser than the former.

TEC at Piduguralla
This TEC is targeted specifically at children who are pushed into child labour. It is fully residential, and for children of class I to class VII.  This project is funded by a foreign organization, and has a systematic approach to eradicating child labour in the area of Piduguralla.

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