How it began at The Akanksha Foundation

Akanksha began in 1991 with a simple idea. There were thousands of slum children who needed and wanted to be educated. There were thousands of college students who had the energy, enthusiasm, and time to teach. There existed pockets of available spaces located in schools that seemed ideal teaching environments. The simple idea then, was to bring together the three – kids, student volunteers, and spaces- in schools for children from low-income communities, run by college students.

The implementation of this simple idea was slightly more complex. Over 20 schools said no to a request for space to teach the children. Reactions ranged from “What you are doing is too revolutionary for our private school” to “those children will give our children diseases.” Finally, Fr. Ivo D’Souza, Principal of the Holy Name School opened his doors and the first Akanksha center had found its first space.

The next challenge was to find children and convince them to attend. Akanksha’s founder, eighteen-year-old Shaheen Mistri, recalls being asked by parents what a young girl who didn’t speak Hindi could possibly do with their children. “Come see,” she offered. So parents and fifteen kids were brought by bus to the first Akanksha center.

The truth was that Shaheen didn’t really know exactly what she was doing. What she knew was that she wanted to make a difference, that she loved children, and that she believed that every child deserved a space and time each day where they could just be children. So she recruited her first batch of college student volunteers, convincing them that “together we can make a difference.”

With volunteers, kids, and a space in place, the next question became what to teach. The volunteers met on Sunday mornings and thought of all the things they enjoyed doing when they were in school. The first very basic Akanksha program emerged from these meetings – clay, paint, counting real objects, lots of songs. The aim – to provide these children with a good time – was clear. A good time that would make a difference.

So Akanksha started. There were many days when there were just five children in class, when parents said no, when the children spent more time bathing in the basins than sitting in class, when clay ended up on the ceiling and the songs were hard to hear. There were days when volunteers asked, “but you said we were going to make a difference. What difference are we making?” And other days where they just knew that one day it would make a difference.

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