Smile on Their Faces:A Gift of a Lifetime

-Sadiksha Upadhyay

Sadiksha Upadhyay talks to Renu Bagaria, the founder of Koseli School, about her journey in establishing the school and her hopes for the future of the children there.

What is the story behind Koseli?
Ever since I was a child, I wanted to do this. I used to go to school and my maid’s daughter, who was my age, wouldn’t. So that’s how it actually started. I was very young when I thought about this but did not do anything for a long time. However, I started working on this about 15 years back when I sponsored some children to school. For 10 years, I observed those children and they did really well academically. So, seven years ago, I quit doing whatever I was doing and started this school. We started as an evening program at the premises of Shikshant School for the street children, but since they had too many requirements than just education, we expanded it to a full day program.

Do you only give education or do you also fulfill their basic needs?
This is a home for them; except that they don’t sleep here. If a child comes to the school who is hungry, who has wounds and diseases, and who is not wearing clothes, and if you tell them, “Oh, you go to the class and study,” that doesn’t work. So what we do is, we first take care of their hygiene. They come to the school at 8:30 a.m., they take a bath and change their clothes, and their clothes are washed in the school. So lot of diseases and allergies in their body are already taken care of. Then they are given a good wholesome meal, daal bhaat, soyabean, etc. because the stomach should be full if you want to study. When these three basic requirements are met, then we tell them, “Okay, it’s time to study.”

Currently, how many children do you have at Koseli?
We have 120-plus children. However, the problem is we still have so many waiting to get in. I have around 120 children inside but I have more than 200 children waiting outside. There are still so many children we still need to help.

Are you funding this project all by yourself?
This is such a big project, I cannot do it all by myself. We have people who help us in certain ways. Our kitchen is run by a group of housewives who contribute all the kitchen supplies every month. And somebody helps with the rent. But we do not have a structured funding. We just about manage. However, we are coming up with a fund raising program on March 28. We are inviting Anupam Kher to do a play, ‘Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai’, and we hope we will be able to raise funds.

What is special or different about Koseli?
The different thing about us is that, at Koseli, the requirement for all children is to be happy. It’s like a family where we take care of their food, clothe, hygiene, medical, and emotional needs, and everything else. But we do not uproot them from where they are from. In the evening they go back to their homes. So, in that way, they can understand the difference between from where they are coming and the school, and at the same time, have that emotional bonding with whomever they are living with. Plus, all the needs that are not being met at home are being met here. So that is what sets Koseli apart. And, after a few years, the children get so attached to the school that they themselves start understanding the importance of studies themselves. Then we don’t have to tell them they have to study.

What message are you trying to portray to society?
We are not focusing on education. We are not looking at making our children literate. What we want is to integrate them back in society so that they can be a part of the mainstream society. They being slum dwellers has to stop. If you educate a child and fulfill his/her needs, the child will not go back to begging. So our main aim is to integrate the children back into society.

What were some of the difficulties and challenges you had to face?
The biggest challenge comes from the parents. If the child is 3-5 years old, they are interested in sending the child to school. But, the moment the girl is 7-8 years old, the parents do not want to send her to study because she can work at home. If it is a boy, and if he is about 10 years old, then, also, the parents aren’t willing to send him to study because he can work and earn. So, at Koseli, we keep the parents as far as possible. We just invest in the child and explain to them that they have to study to make their future.

Secondly, the challenges come from the children who are more than 10 years old and who have been on the streets. They are not able to adjust in the atmosphere where there are rules because they are in the habit of being free. Tempo ma khalasi bhayo, 20 rupaiya payo, mo:mo khayo, sakiyo—that is the type of approach they have. But, if they come to school, they do not get that 20 rupees and do not get to eat that one plate of mo:mo any time. So they keep running away from school. And we hold ourselves responsible when the children are running away from the school. So, we try to find out why the children are not coming to the school, or why they keep running away. We chase them and we usually find them in their normal hangouts and bring them back.

Do you think Koseli is making a difference in society?
Yes, I can see that Koseli is making a difference. The children who were begging on the streets when I brought them here are now interested in studying. We have about 25 children who have passed out from here and are studying in other schools at higher levels. If it hadn’t been for Koseli, they would still be on the streets. So, it gives me such a sense of pride and happiness when I see them. We had one child called Chandra who was a dishwasher in a hotel. When we brought him here, he said that he was supposed to be in class six. But later we came to know that he didn’t even know how to write A, B, C. So we brought him down to nursery, taught him from basics and then promoted him to class four in two years’ time. After that, we trained him as a chef because he was really good with his hands, and now he is working as a chef. The children who have passed out from here still come and meet me all the time. They tell me about the problems they are facing and whether the school can enroll someone they know. I can see that kind of concern in them and the willingness to support others because they got support. They are doing really well, and every time I see them, I feel proud.

How often do you enroll a new kid in the school?
Mostly, the children come in the month of Baisakh, but currently we do not have any space to take in more children. We have built more classes but do not have enough funding. Nevertheless, if the child is really needy, we take them in anyway. However, firstly we should have space, and secondly, we see how needy the child is.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I did not plan this and I do not intend on planning the next 10 years. I take each day as it comes. My dream for the future is that Koseli will be run by the children who studied at Koseli because only they will understand Koseli more than anyone else. They will understand what the children needs and why Koseli should be continued.

How can volunteers or other financial supporters help you?
Anybody can walk in anytime and we also have a website where you can do online donation. Or, if you want to volunteer your time, you can just call up and discuss your interest and volunteer. About donations, you can give cash or cheque or make an online donation. Or, you can also sponsor a child.

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