I stepped off the bus in Mysore to find myself standing in front of a line of extremely bright, green, wealthy houses along the streets which juxtaposed the extreme poverty that one finds on every street corner of the city. Kids were begging, few were elder siblings taking care of their younger brothers/sisters – it was a disturbing contrast.
Operation Shanti is located on the outskirts of Mysore. A half an hour ride from the main city, it is quite the task to reach the organisation especially when one is not acquainted with the language. Being a Sunday, it was all the more isolated. A well-made, less bumpy road thankfully made the ride less tedious. Keeping in view the privacy of the kids living in the organization, one cannot enter without prior appointment.
Questions forefront started bothering me. Like what prompted a foreigner like Tracy to serve street kids in India. She could have probably just had her yoga experience in India and left?
In the words of Tracy herself, “The kids’ mothers were going through trauma seeing them go haywire and directionless. They genuinely asked if I could do something more and give these kids a shelter where they can be nurtured. It was not an easy task but I did accept and gave them my word. It was disturbing to see these kids in unhygienic conditions. I wanted to help in whatever way I could.”
Planted with trees, cats running free, and filled with the chirping of birds, Operation Shanti definitely is a heaven for these kids. Tracy walked me towards the hostels through this wired and gated muddy path from the entrance. I was welcomed by a bunch of girls on the ground floor. These girls were speaking fluent English and were well-mannered, very much unlike street kids. “When these kids come, they are violent, not concentrating, fighting, and arguing. It is really tough to mold them into a structure or discipline.”
As Tracy puts it “to tackle these kids,” there is a counselor who is recruited, who comes on Sundays to work with the kids. Mr. Venkatesh, who is the present counselor of the organization says “The street kids are violent because they lack living in a social community. They are brought up very rough, and would not know how to behave. This does not happen with village kids because they stay in a community and are exposed to love and affection.” These kids are taught behavioral, communication and life skills before enrolling them in a school.
The first floor of the building is allocated to the boys. Coming from a family consisting of three brothers, I already had an impression before entering their dorm. I presumed that like most boys’ dorms, even this would be untidy and chaotic. But, I was mistaken. I entered this huge hall with murals and paintings on the wall, to find a few very neatly made beds. Shoes segregated into white and black and neatly organized on the shoe stand, glasses and plates shining on the utensils rack. What a similarity to the way the organization is being run – structured and disciplined.
“We also have tutors come in to help the kids. They have tuitions for two hours every day where help is given with all their school subjects. Few kids are really smart and they tend to have a very sharp memory.”
Many parents are apprehensive about the company their kids move in. Tracy was on the other side of this situation. She had to go through lot of explanations, arguments, unnecessary obligations when it came to enrolling these street kids into a good school. School authorities were not accepting to give admission, even though few schools did; pressure from the parents made the school staff reconsider their admission.
“I never really went out of the way to get approval. I started enrolling my kids into the nearby schools. When they started performing and getting good results, the schools which rejected got back and gave an admission. We have kids studying in different schools now.”
To keep them active and exposed to different cultures, there is prayer in the morning, Bharatanatyam (a classical dance) for the girls is on Sunday, Karate for the girls and boys twice a week in the morning, and fitness and yoga five mornings a week. The campus consists of a library and computer center where the kids can access a variety of books and also use the internet for browsing. “I don’t impose any religion on them. They are free to choose what they want. Few go to a Christian school and others to a Hindu one, so we have all cultures here.”
With a mission to give an equal opportunity to everyone, Tracy has taken a leap of faith despite challenges because of differences in language, country, and culture, to serve the poorest of the poor. As she says, “It’s about them, not me.”