Many Mumbaikars plan an annual weekend to Khandala in the monsoons. Driving through fog, playing in waterfalls, trekking through its hills, snacking on bhutta and hot chai – it’s got all the ingredients for a perfect weekend getaway. My 2 days there over the August 15th weekend this year included all this and more. Yes, if you visit the NGO Social Action for Manpower Creation’s (SAMPARC) orphanages, as I did when there, you’ll realize that Khandala has more to offer.
So, 4 of us took off early on a rainy, Saturday morning towards the hills. Our journey would have been incomplete without a pit stop for breakfast at the usual Neeta buses stop – so of course we stopped and enjoyed some hot, though rushed, Upma and Poha. What we didn’t realize is that breakfast was awaiting us at SAMPARC too. But as we were in Khandala, it felt more like holiday than work, and found no difficulty in tucking into another hearty meal! As we did, we chatted with Mr. Amit Banerjee of SAMPARC to understand more about their work.
Set up in 1990, SAMPARC works for orphans, destitutes and children of sex workers. From caring for 7 children in 1990 to 600 today, this organization has come a long way. They also have centers in Gujarat, West Bengal and Rajasthan. Their key focus areas are education for underprivileged children in rural areas, residential schools for orphans/children of sex workers, a hostel for tribal children, a vocational training centre for rural school dropouts and a medical centre for rural poor. They are also involved in programs on legal rights, women’s empowerment, income generation, agricultural training and housing projects in the areas that they work in.
Our first introduction was to the programs based at their Malvali center itself – where we ate breakfast (and were also staying the night). Beginning with the vocational training center, which is run specifically for school dropouts. These are boys who could either not cope up with the educational system or were forced to drop out due to family circumstances. They were undergoing electrical welding and computer MS-CIT training that would help them get a job and earn at least a basic salary. On the other side of this center was a tailoring training unit set up with a similar purpose, for girls with a similar background.
Our next stop was to their Bhambarde school and hostel in Mulshi Taluka. Though set up in 1998, it is the first school in the area EVER; which means that the children here are first-generation learners. Of the 246 children who study here, 134 live on the premises itself. Mr. Amit Banerjee recalls, “The state of education in rural India is pretty sad. Although the government strives to impart compulsory education to all children below 12 years, thousands are deprived of even elementary education. Even today, because of the lack of schools, toilets in schools and poor transportation, poor and tribal children in villages do not get an education. This is why we set up this school and hostel. In fact, the villagers asked for the same.”
We spent some time here, meeting the children from standard 5 to 10. Some of them even did impromptu dance and song performances for us. What we found most impressive about this school was its use of technology in educating the children. One of the rooms had a projector setup which screened a Kaun Banega Crorepati format of an educational game. It was so amazing to see this being used in a remote, rural school. They even had power backup for the entire school! Post lunch and tea, we headed to Bal Asha Ghar in Nandgaon. We felt like Lord Ganesh as we entered, as the boys were practicing for Ganesh Chaturti and so screams of “Ganapati Bappa Morya” filled the air. Once again, in addition to the premises, we got a glimpse of the kids’ talents; and were impressed by their Yoga and Karate skills in particular.
After a good nights’ sleep, we started off day two with a trip to the famous Bhaje caves. See, didn’t I tell you Khandala had more than Bushy Dam on offer? Then headed to their girls’ orphanage, which is located at the foot of these caves. This is known as the ‘Mother’ of all SAMPARC organizations because this is where SAMPARC activities took off with just 7 orphans, back in 1990. Friendly, polite, disciplined, neat and clean, this orphanage was a school principal’s best dream come true! And I really do not exaggerate when I say this. While we were watching a play that they had prepared for us, Mr. Banerjee pointed at a few girls, at random, and told us a little about their past. From abandonment, to rape, to disownment – every girl in this orphanage has a tear-jerking story. But thanks to SAMPARC’s efforts, this does not reflect on them one bit! When you meet them, it’s hard to believe that many of them didn’t speak or make eye-contact when they were first brought to this center.
It’s clear that SAMPARC is transforming – not just changing – lives. It’s no surprise then to find that these children, as ones in the past have, grow up to work in the hotel industry or as teachers or computer engineers. What’s also heartening to learn is that there have been no police cases or criminal reportings or any instances of such a nature – truly showing that the stains from their troubled backgrounds have been removed. And SAMPARC knows this because they keep in touch with all of its students. And quite effortlessly so, because most of them keep coming back to the organization on their own. Just to meet Mr. Banerjee, or the staff who they consider family, or to introduce their spouses and children to the world they were brought up in.
The next time you are driving down to Khandala or Pune, I would strongly advise you to make a pit stop at one of their schools/orphanages too. You really come away thankful that people like Mr. Banerjee and his team exist. Such a dedicated bunch who are working so hard to give abandoned children a better life! God alone knows where life would have taken them if not to SAMPARC.