It’s that time of year again

Final exams start in a month!  At the Residential Program, we have adopted an intensive study schedule that even includes putting extracurricular activities like football (soccer) practice and computer time on hold until exams are over.  The kids have a shortened school day because their school is being used as a testing centre for the 10th standard board exams in the afternoons.  The upside?  This gives us even more time to study!  The downside?  This gives us even more time to study.  Here’s a glimpse into our daily schedule for the next month:

5:30 am-7:00 am – Wake up and get ready for school
7:15 am-10:00 am – School
10:30 am-11:45 am – Down time at home
11:45 am-1:00 pm – Lunch time, chores and play time for kids who finish early
1:00 pm-3:00 pm – English Study Time*
3:00 pm-3:30pm – Play time
3:30 pm-4:30 pm – Snack time, chores and play time for kids who finish early
4:30 pm-6:00 pm – English Study Time*
6:00 pm-6:45pm – Play time
6:45 pm-8:15 pm – Dinner time, chores and play time for kids who finish early
8:15pm-9:00pm – Reading time or optional study time
9:00pm – TIME FOR BED.

[* For those not familiar with the lingo, “English Study Time” is what the children named general study periods back in 2005 when they were brand new to AIC and didn’t know any English (hence, in their eyes, no matter what we were actually teaching them, the main thing they were trying to grasp was the English itself).  Despite being an awkward-sounding, and often inaccurate name (as the children use this time to study all of their academic subjects), “English Study Time” has stuck.]


We’re two days in and exhausted already.  There is always at least one person napping during our down time – staff and volunteers included.  We can’t wait for summer vacation!

Tushar, sleeping during study time

Zero tolerance

I just stumbled upon this article about corporal punishment in Indian schools.  The article, published a couple days ago in the Times of India, is based on a study conducted by the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights in 2009-2010.  Of 6,632 children interviewed as a part of the study, only NINE denied having received some form of corporal punishment at school.  


In other words, 99.86% of the children surveyed said that they had received corporal punishment at school.


The most prevalent forms of abuse including beating with a cane/stick, slapping children’s faces, boxing their ears, and – this is truly nauseating – administering electric shocks was even cited as a type of punishment received by children at some schools.

Teacher Vaishali helping her student with English numbers

Truth be told, it has not always been easy to get AIC staff on board with our “no corporal punishment” policy since almost all of our employees were themselves raised in a culture that accepts corporal punishment and even promotes it as an important teaching tool.  Even parents of AIC children, during discussions about their children’s behavioral issues, will respond with something along the lines of, “well you just need to beat him! Obviously he’s not going to behave if he isn’t scared of you! You have permission to hit him when he is bad.”  


A couple years ago, we implemented a Zero Tolerance Policy for corporal punishment in the Education Outreach Program, which means that confirmed instances of corporal punishment will result in termination of employment.  Bewilderment and frustration are often the first reactions that newly hired teachers have to our policy, since they have to refine their classroom management skills in accordance with the rules at AIC.  New teachers quickly realize that they had relied very heavily on corporal punishment (or the threat of it) to keep their students under control in previous teaching positions, and, without that, have very few alternative strategies in their skill set to fall back on.  

Story time – gotta love how excited they are!

To support the teachers and help them adapt to a policy that many find challenging at first, we have implemented a number of measures that include regular regular reminders of the policy and staff meeting discussions about how to deal with certain situations in the classroom, better communication and organizational procedures in the Education Outreach Centre, improved teacher:child ratios, the introduction of caregiving staff into the classrooms, professional counseling for children with consistently disruptive behavior, involvement of families when necessary to develop behavior plans, time for play, meditation and yoga built into the daily classroom schedule, and various other steps designed to foster an environment of respect, tolerance, kindness and learning.  


Although enforcing this policy is not without challenges, it is absolutely imperative that AIC be a place that is safe, both physically and emotionally, for its children.  99.86% is unacceptable. 

AIC Kindergarteners


Learning to love

Several weeks ago, we had a little “incident” involving the newest addition to the AIC Residential Program, Rahul. To make a long story short, Rahul did not come home from school with the other kids, and after much searching and worry, was located six hours away, on a train heading to Goa, by a good Samaritan who was suspicious that a young boy in a school uniform was riding the train to Goa by himself and thought to look in his school books for a phone number to call (good Samaritan, whoever you are, we are forever grateful). Rahul was left in the hands of the railway police until he could be retrieved, and when questioned about his actions, became angry and defensive and said that he had run off because he had recently gotten a haircut and some of his AIC siblings had teased him by calling him “taklu” (bald man).

[Yes, really. Rahul was so upset by a particular instance of lighthearted teasing and banter that is a constant among the kids that he decided to jump ship. Forever? Just until he cooled off a bit and spent a weekend at the beach in Goa? It is unclear what was going through his mind at the time.]

The deeper issue here is that Rahul, having lived by himself on the streets for more than half of his life, had never had to learn to resolve problems. He had never had to learn to compromise, make peace with others or sort out his differences. Consequences meant nothing to him and his future was never clearly defined enough to bank on. He had no particular investment in any particular place and no strong ties to anyone.

Adrift on the streets, if Rahul became angry about something his friends said or did, he had the freedom to walk away and never come back. If he got into an argument with those he was sharing a shack with, he moved on and found someone else to bunk with. If he burned his bridges in Mumbai, he moved to Pune or Goa or somewhere else for a while.

This isn’t just about Rahul, of course – so many of the kids who come to AIC’s programs react to conflict in similar ways in the beginning. Even though Rahul has been at the AIC Residential Program for a year now, this situation is a reminder to us all that it takes time to learn to be a member of a family, to put your trust in others, to cherish deeper bonds with other human beings, even though they sometimes entail conflict and anger and sadness and other unpleasant emotions that must be worked through. After a lifetime of neglect, heartbreak and hurdles, it takes time to learn to love.

Today was a day full of love at the Residential Program – special snacks, heartfelt notes about love and appreciation for each other adorning the walls and a family game of soccer to round out the evening. The perfect opportunity to take some time out of the daily grind to remind and be reminded of how important we are to each other.
The AIC family is a work in progress, as are all families, I think. Reminding each other that we care, and assuring each other that every single member of the family is cherished, loved and absolutely irreplaceable, is an ongoing effort. And although it is time-consuming and sometimes challenging (heck, I’m pretty sure we’ve all contemplated jumping on a train to Goa at one time or another out of frustration, Rahul’s just the only one who had the guts to actually do it!), ultimately, these kids are developing bonds of family and friendship that will last them throughout their lives.

A challenge

I am very excited to be able to share news about a fundraising opportunity for AIC this year!

We have been offered a challenge.

An extremely generous donor has come forward with the offer to match, dollar for dollar, contributions raised by AIC’s global fundraising efforts after an initial $50,000 fundraising goal has been met. So, once we have raised $50,000 this year, every additional donation beyond that will be matched one-to-one, up to a maximum of $80,000 in potential matching funds in 2012.

[EIGHTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!]

This means that this year, your donations to AIC will have more of an impact than ever before: $130,000 in donations will be increased to $210,000 for the AIC children and community members through the matching funds.

This is a tremendous opportunity, particularly in a global climate of economic hardship, and we feel very fortunate. Now, let’s take advantage of this gift and get the word out! Please help us by sharing this post, retweeting/sharing/linking/whatever-you-do-best and encouraging those you know to become AIC supporters as well. Donations can be made in the US, Canada, the UK, Austria, India or from anywhere in the world online – all go toward the matching funds project. Let’s make this happen.

Thank you from all of us at AIC

Luckysingh and Sahil (who is now a happy, healthy student in AIC’s nursery school, post-heart surgery)

An adventure

Last week, three of our Education Outreach Program girls – Anu, Pooja, and Rajni – took their first trip to the mall! Now, you might ask – why the mall? It seems like an odd place for an outing, but malls and shopping complexes are coming up all over Pune, including FOUR expansive, modern malls within walking distance from the Waghri/Sikligar slums that have opened within the last year alone. Many of our Education Outreach children (like Anu, Pooja and Rajni) or their family members can be found begging outside of these sorts of shopping establishments when they are not in school, but due to heavy mall security, are never permitted inside to see for themselves what all the fuss is about.

So when the girls’ school teacher heard about a company-sponsored drawing competition taking place in the nearby Phoenix mall one afternoon, she jumped at the chance to take them on an adventure for the afternoon. With a little help from Claudia didi, the girls were thrilled to meet their teacher for a day of drawing, exploring, and even a bite to eat.

Claudia didi accompanied Anu, Pooja, and Rajni into the mall, and the girls were absolutely in awe of their surroundings; they kept looking up at the lofty ceilings and shiny, bright lights and almost falling over backwards. Once they met up with their teacher, the girls rode an escalator for the first time, which you can imagine was quite a thrilling experience for all three!


Left to right: Poonam (Res Program), Anu, Rajni and Pooja


The girls were registered for the competition and received their drawing kits. They were so excited to have their own sets of crayons and pencils that they almost forgot to start drawing when the contest started! Competing children were given two hours to draw, and our girls drew their school and the Indian flag.


The girls received certificates for their participation in the drawing competition and then headed to the bathroom, where they had a blast using automatic sinks and paper towel dispensers and the bathroom attendant got a kick out of showing them how to use everything. Finally, they were treated to a veggie burger and soda at McDonalds! While they were eating with their teacher, their other teacher showed up and joined them. The girls were so excited to have all three of their didis (two teachers and outreach director) sharing lunch with them that they were almost too distracted to eat. After lunch, all three girls – balloons and goodie bags in hand – piled into a rickshaw and headed back to the slum, where they showed their new toys to their friends.


All in all, it was a successful, eye-opening adventure for the girls, and a fun afternoon for the adults who got to share in their wonder and excitement.

A safe place to play

This week at AIC, we launched a playgroup for children aged 2-3 years and their mothers! The playgroup eliminates a gap that had previously existed in AIC’s services for this particular age group: children from 0-2 years attend regular Mother-Baby classes, but after graduating from that program, are not eligible for admission into the AIC Nursery School until they turn 3. The playgroup provides mothers with the opportunity to continue to learn about critical areas of childcare, including health and hygiene, nutrition, and the role of play in stimulating brain development, and allows toddlers the space and resources to fine-tune their motor skills, social development and independence.

We are proud to say that, with the creation of this playgroup, children of the Waghri and Sikligar slums are now completely covered by our tightly-woven net of interconnected, age-appropriate services and program, beginning before they are even born (through our comprehensive antenatal care services), and continuing until they reach adulthood.


Walking through the Waghri and Sikligar slums, it is glaringly apparent that none of the children have safe play areas or toys to play with. It is not uncommon to see little ones toddling along busy roadways, playing with an exposed wire dangling from the web of cables through which the communities tap their (illegal) electricity connections, playing with (and putting in their mouths) glass bottles, metal cans, sharp/rusty/filthy/choking-hazard-sized items, playing dangerously close to open fires, peeking down from open rooftops, etc. Once they stop nursing, many toddlers are left to be supervised by their well-intentioned-but-easily-distracted older siblings, who are often barely even school-aged themselves.


The children are completely in awe of the shiny, colorful toys that our local supporters have generously donated; watching them play and discover new objects is a treat for their mothers and the AIC staff!

Will this playgroup solve all of those problems overnight? No, certainly not. However, for one hour every morning, the children and their mothers now have the chance to gather in a safe, clean, comfortable space for the little ones to play with toys and make friends while their mothers connect with other mothers and receive the support and guidance of our trained staff.

And while it may not alleviate the crushing poverty into which these children are born, a safe place to play goes a long way toward giving them a shot at a brighter future.

[To our friends in Pune – if you have gently-used toys that you are interested in donating to help us keep the playgroup well-stocked with fun, engaging materials, please email samantha@ashrayainitiative.org. Thank you, thank you, thank you!]

Back from the blogging hiatus

Happy 2012, everyone!

You may have noticed that our blog has been rather inactive for several months. We have a lot of catching up to do – everyone has been so busy doing what we do that there just hasn’t been enough time to write about the doing, if that makes sense.

But it’s a new year now – what better an opportunity to dust off the blog and get everyone up to speed on life at the AIC projects in Pune, right? To get started, here are a few things – big, small, festive, random – that have been going on since the last blog entry:

First off, there are new didis in Pune! And while they’ve been posting updates and photos on Facebook and Picasa, for months now, they’ve never really been formally introduced on the blog. Meet Samantha didi, Residential Program Director.

Aaaand Claudia didi, Education Outreach Program Director (with a silly Ashwini and a coconut).


Diwali diya (earthen lamp) painting – an AIC Residential Program tradition!

The Diwali party at the Education Outreach Centre

Arts and crafts on the Education Centre terrace!


Excellent turnout at the Annual (second year in a row means we can call it “Annual,” right?) Holiday Party!
(Many, many thanks to Denise, Annie, Melanie, Sherry, Sue, Julie, Linda, Carrie, Jenny, Christy, Rohit, Poonam, Daniella, Debbie, Patty, Martha, Mary, Vijay, Naina, Sharan, Matthew, Sunita, Tony, and of COURSE, Idania and family!)

The nursery class students and their very festive Christmas tree

And another nursery class photo (I can’t resist) – chalk drawing on the terrace

Masti (mischief) in the schoolyard – Karan, Sahil and Sanjay

Ramu, no caption necessary.

Our student, Bhavana, at the top of her class for the second year in a row – we love seeing report cards like this!


* * *
There is much more to come, including an exciting announcement about fundraising this year. More soon!

Ganpati Chaturthi

Last weekend marked the end of a big celebration here in Pune called Ganpati Chaturthi. During this two week festival, many families in Maharashtra bring home statutes of Ganpati (Lord Ganesh). Ganpati stays in the home for anywhere between one-day and two-weeks, and during that time, is carefully decorated with flowers and colors. Here at AIC, we had our very own Ganesh, which we decorated over the course of the holiday. At the end of the holiday we took our Ganpati to the river for a traditional visurgen. During visurgen, a big procession follows the Ganpati to the river, complete with music, dancing, and colors. Then, once at the river, the Ganpati is submerged, taking away all the problems and troubles of his generous hosts.

It is such a festive time here in Pune! There have been fireworks nearly every night. All over the city, there are beautifully decorated Ganpatis and many, many traffic-stopping processions!

This weekend, we said good bye to our own Ganpati. The kids had a great time, and after the visurgen we all enjoyed mithai, traditional Indian sweets.

A little gem of an anecdote that I had forgotten about

While sitting downstairs in the main office a couple weeks ago, I overheard singing from the nursery classroom on the first floor of our new Education Centre:

“Old MacDonald had a farm, E I E I O…And on that farm he had a…lemur! E I E I O…With a…(silent pause) here and a (silent pause) there…”
Context: The kids read about lemurs in one of their books that week, which is why there were lemurs living on Old MacDonald’s farm. And the silent pauses were the kids making lemur eye rings with their hands. Now if you can just imagine a classroom full of 3-year olds making lemur eyes while singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm, you’ll understand why I was really kicking myself for not having brought my camera that day.
BUT – I will compensate by sharing this photo of one of our nursery classes lining up for snack time yesterday. It’s not as cute as lemur eye rings but it’ll do:
In case you were wondering – there are also tigers, lions and monkeys living on this particular farm belonging to Old MacDonald. Chickens and cows are so boring!

Going Pro

I’ve written about him before and he’s been featured in newspaper articles, but I wanted to (re)introduce you all to Mayur, one of the boys from our Sikligar community. Not only did he just pass his 10th standard board exams through the external learning class we started at AIC last year after dropping out of school many years ago (!!), but he is also a very talented golfer who wants to go pro. He started working as a caddy when he was just a kid, and now plays in tournaments around the country, despite the fact that he doesn’t have his own set of clubs and didn’t even have real sports shoes until we bought some for him for a tournament in Delhi in September! Mayur’s father is not in the picture, so he is the primary breadwinner for his family, which is why Mayur started working as a caddy at a young age. He also sleeps outside near a temple every night, and has done so for the past several years, because there is no room for him in his relatives’ one-room shack. Last fall, the 10th standard external learning class teacher approached me about sending extra food home with Mayur after class, since she had observed that he usually went hungry at night.

Mayur, showing off his 10th standard board exam results

Despite the challenges that he faces, however, Mayur is always upbeat and optimistic. We are in the process of helping him with college admissions, and, 10th standard certificate in hand, he is looking forward to continuing his education while simultaneously pursuing his luck on the golf course. Mayur has a tournament coming up in the next two weeks and is hoping to dominate the qualifying rounds so that he can go to Delhi again to compete. This represents his best chance of being picked up by a sponsor so that he can afford to play more seriously, so keep your fingers crossed for him!

Off to school

Here are a few of our new school admissions from last month. These kids have been a part of our program for between 1 and 3 years, and we’ve been slowly and steadily prepping them for admission into better schools around the city. We’ve been pretty successful this year, despite intense (and in some cases, illegal) pressure/retaliation from the students’ previous schools to retain these students, as they are, of course, the best and the brightest in the school.

[But more about that later – I have a FULL post about the nearby government schools and the public education sham, despicably self-serving attitudes and outright laziness, already in the works! Just a little something to look forward to, because I am so thoughtful like that…J]

Their only complaint about their new schools: “Our teachers there give us so much homework!” (They are used to the nearby government schools where teachers only show up 50% of the time…)

Waiting for their rickshaw ride to school, as their new school is a 45 minute commute from our centre!
(Cutest sisters ever? I think so.)

Weekly installment of photos

(Or is it instalment? I never really know.)
Here is a round-up of some photos from the last month…I’m trying to get caught up!
English lessons with volunteer Jeffrey prior to moving to our new Education Outreach Centre (more photos of that coming soon!).
School’s started, back to work!
Hanging out with volunteer Christian.
Our chicken-pox-y little Poonam.
Two of our 10th standard Waghri boys, showing their (passing!) board exam results. Three years ago, not a single Waghri from our community had passed 10th standard. Now these two are college students!
Volunteers Andrew and Christian, hard at work covering school books in the new Education Centre office (note that there is already mold on the walls – yeyyyy Indian monsoon). I am pretty sure that these two single-handedly covered at least 1,000 notebooks and textbooks that week.
Jeffrey, our security guard extraordinaire. (It looks pretty quiet in this picture, but during admissions week there were pretty intense crowds of parents and kids trying to come in and inquire about admissions, so our volunteers took shifts as bouncers for the times when parents weren’t supposed to be coming in.)
First day of school!
First day of school!
End of the tailoring/jewelry-making class for the Education Outreach and Residential girls. Here they are, proudly showing a few of their creations (cushion covers and cloth files).
Group photo on the last day of class.
One of our original twelve outreach girls, making a speech on the last day of tailoring class.
Thanking our awesome (and very patient) tailoring teacher on the last day of the girls’ class.
Hanging out at Chowki Dhani for Jim dada’s goodbye dinner.
Paint tattoos at Chowki Dhani.
Posing with the Rajasthani statues at Chowki Dhani.
Posing with the Rajasthani statues at Chowki Dhani.

Geeta in front of the Taj hotel in Mumbai on the day of her US visa interview. (Thought we’d throw in a little sight-seeing while we had the chance…)