Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Interview of Make A Difference

I had the pleasure to interview Jithin Krishnan from Make A Difference! MAD does an amazing job helping disadvantaged children to get access to a better education and therefore a better future. You can go to MAD's website by clicking here.

Tell us a bit how you got the idea for this project!

In 2006, a few college students visited a center by the name of YMCA Boys Home in Cochin, India to just spend some time with the under-privileged children there. When asked what the children wanted next time such a visit happened, the college students were in for quite the surprise. The children there said they wanted books. At that age, what we wanted was SO superficial. Yet, here were these children, who wanted a window to a better world, knew what the window was, but had no access to it, and no hope of gaining access either.

These children study in vernacular medium schools, and when they pass out by age 15, the education that they've gone through is absolutely no use to them. Why? Because to progress in life, academically or professionally, they need English. One of the things that you don't gain out of a Government school education in India. Back on the streets, with nothing to fall back on, their dreams and ambitions go for a toss. They just wasted 10 years of their lives going to a school and subscribing to an education that did not do them any good.

Anyway, these college students decided that something had to be done about it. So they went back next week and started a library at YMCA Boys Home. That was the starting of MAD. (These college students were my seniors in college. I got involved later in the year.)

Soon, we realized that just a library would not solve the issue. We had to bridge the gap between them and a private school education. So we set about designing a syllabus. After three attempts, we finally settled on the Cambridge English curriculum, and that is how our English project operates currently. Our children go through The Cambridge English curriculum and write the First Certificate in English Test at the end of five years.

Coming back to what it was back then, after a year, we realized that there were more gaps to be filled. Along came the Placements project which provides children exposure to professions by field visits and talks by professionals. Then came the life-skills project wherein we do camps to build on creativity, confidence etc. There is also a full-fledged library project that was kicked off last year, and an Infraspire project that provides infrastructure to children in our centers.

As I said at the WSYA presentation, the journey is not yet complete. We keep coming up with projects to impact our children more and give them a better chance of pursuing their dreams, whatever those maybe!

Were there obstacles on your way to make this project possible? If yes, what kind?

Obstacles? There were several! Yes. The first obstacle that we initially used to face was that we were young people. (As unbelievable as that is!) People used to tell us that since young people are never serious about anything, that we wouldn't succeed or that we'd fold in a few months. Credibility, hence, was a major issue the first three years. Especially when we were smaller as an organization.

An associated issue of course was that we had trouble fund-raising. Although we get the Cambridge curriculum at a subsidized rate, it still has to be paid for. The cost of putting one child through the English project per month is around Rs. 176 (About 3 Euros). And we work with 3500 children. Things though, are slowly, but steadily, turning around. We've been around for five years now. And people do understand that we mean business when we tell them about what we do.

Hopefully that will keep improving.

Do you get support from other organizations / institutions?

Make A Difference, for the most part, is an independent organization. Zoho, the office supplies provider, is our major sponsor. Other corporate houses such as Google also pitch in with contributions that have kept us going through the years. MAD also recently was awarded the YouthActioNet Starbucks grant for young people who have social projects. But as MAD grows, we're moving more towards autonomy and micro-donations and retail to support ourselves.

What is your best moment / memory you have from this project?

The best memory? That's a real tough one. Have lots. But, if I had to tell you about one, I'd tell you about one of my first students in MAD. Rajesh.

He was a very quiet kid, never used to talk much, never used to participate in anything, and never used to open up to anybody. Took quite a lot of prodding and pushing on our part to get him to open up to us. And one day, he sat down and told me all about his father who couldn't support his children, and who had sent him away to the Home because he couldn't support a family anymore. He talked to me about how he knew that he'd end up like him one day. At 15, Rajesh had already gave up on life a bit. He was pretty sure he'd flunk out of school at the final board exam and that'd be the end of that. But. He did want to study.

So we started giving him and another kid from YMCA (I used to teach at the same place as MAD started for one and a half years, before I moved to Chennai) tution on other subjects also. In the run-up to the exams Rajesh kept telling me that he was sure that he'd fail, and I kept telling him that he'd do just fine.

On the day that the results of the Board exam came out, Rajesh somehow got to a pay-phone (I don't even know where he got the money to make the call!) and called me and yelled into the phone "I got through!" One of the most proud moments that I've had. Let me assure you, there is no such thing as the satisfaction a teacher gets when a student gets well.

Rajesh, eventually got into a school near his actual home, and today, lives with his father and is continuing his education.

How do you get new members/volunteers?

We have volunteers. We have an online portal where people who'd like to volunteer with MAD register. ( Every year, at the start of the academic cycle, the HR head of a city calls up all the people who registered from that city, and invites them to the recruitment drive. We also do viral campaigns to attract more volunteers if there aren't enough registrations from a city.

Once at the recruitment drive, the attendees are put through three rounds. Those who make it through end up as MAD volunteers. Now. If that sounds very rigorous, well, it sort of is. Why? Because we take volunteering VERY seriously. If somebody is going to class and teaching our children, we need to be absolutely sure that they're capable, committed and believe in the work they're about to do. Can't make compromises there! Hence, only about 10% of people who register with our website end up as volunteers. Currently, we have about 1000 volunteers.

Who are usually the active members of your organization? (Students, workers, young /older people...?)

MAD is a youth volunteer network. Our volunteers are mostly college students and young working professionals. Last time we did a head-count, the average age of a MAD volunteer was just around 20.

But, let me clarify, there is no such thing as an 'age limit' in MAD. MAD is for people who are young at heart. They can be whatever age they want to be. But, they need to bring that extra MADness to the table! :D

Do you have any plans on how to spread your actions in the future?

We HAD plans to expand. Now, we have a process to expand. But, MAD doesn't expand to towns/cities where it wants to. We wait till we have enough registrations from a particular city to set up that city's first core team *. Then somebody from MAD's expansion team (A team of experienced MAD volunteers) visits the city, interviews the core team, briefs them on what they need to do, and how, and basically incubates that chapter.

Currently, MAD is functional in 19 cities. This January, 2 cities will be added to the list. The academic cycle ends in March. So March-July, we'll do a further expansion drive. There are another 18 or so chapters waiting to be incubated.

* Core teams: Every chapter has a team of part-time MAD employees who are called MAD Fellows (From MAD Fellowship). They handle different departments of the chapter's functioning such as Human Resources, Public Relations, Operations or Corporate Relations. MAD Fellowship is for those volunteers who want to do more, and play an active role in shaping the progress and growth of the organization.

1 comment:

  1. WHY don't the government schools offer any English? Well anyway I think MAD is much more effective than it would be if it existed. Those field trips and all projects sound so good.

    The website looks nice, it can be a good meeting place for the volunteers from different cities.