Last few weeks, we have been trying to re-design Ashiyana, an initiative we started in the children’s home/ remand home three years ago. I am thinking of my first day in the home when I was so shaken by what I had just experienced and realized that we have truly come a long way.
When I was sharing the different ideas with a mentor and a friend, she posed a very simple question “why do people who work with children don’t ask the children what they want ?” – The thought got me thinking and almost immediately we decided that we will let the children shape the vision of Ashiyana and our focus for the next one year.
For long I have been toying with the idea of doing circles with children in the home. So, we thought, why not do a sharing circle with the children around this issue. On Wednesday, we hosted our first circle of sharing with 13 boys who have been in the children’s home for more than 6 months.
All of us sat in a circle, unlike most days where children are made to sit in lines. To break the ice, we played a game and then each child shared their name and their favorite fruit. I could slowly feel the smiles coming back.
After sharing 5 minutes in silence, I shared the story of “The Brave Parrot” who saved the jungle.
“Once a bamboo forest was on fire, and it spread quickly due to the strong and dry wind. The flames swallowed up everywhere in the mountain jungle and were about to wipe away all lives there. A parrot was disheartened to see this. So, he flew to the river nearby, wet its small wings with the river water, and flew back to spray the water drops over the flames. It flew back and forth endlessly, despite becoming very weak from the effort. All other birds had escaped and they watched the parrot from afar. Amongst them, they started talking about how the parrot was crazy if he thought he could save the jungle and how he would burn in the flames too.
The trees shouted at the parrot and said “go away! Save your life, we are all going to die anyway.” The parrot while flapping his wings told the trees “how can I leave you in this condition, you gave me food, took care of my family, you gave me shelter from sun and rain. How can I go, I will do all that I can.”
Indra – the God of Rain was quietly hearing this interaction. He was so moved by the little birds’ intentions, determination, and sincerity that he manifested his miraculous power to create a great rain and poured over the forest. Soon, the forest fire was extinguished and all beings were saved.”
I asked the children what they learned and some shared that how the parrot was so little yet he did something for the jungle and how it doesn’t matter how little we are, we can always serve. Some kids spoke about how even in such a difficult situation the parrot continued to help, especially when there was no hope. This coming from children who themselves are in situations like the little parrot was very moving.
Then I asked them all to think about how parrot did all that he could to help others. And so, even though we are small and there are many problems in this home, each of us on a daily basis does some kind acts. I invited them to share their kind acts.
To be honest, I was a little scared that the kids will not be able to think of these moments. But one after the other they kept on going – I make food for other children, I am the monitor but I first distribute fruits amongst all the children and then take some for myself (unlike all other monitors), I clean up the bathroom, I take care of a special needs(mentally challenged) child, when a child is crying a lot, I give his name to the probation officer so that he can call and send him home as soon as possible. All of a sudden, these 10 to 16-year-old children did not seem to me like victims of this system but instead children with a great deal of power and a real big heart.
Then we asked the children, what is it that we could do to make this place better. We don’t know how long we are going to be here. Nor do I know when you will be released. So how can we make this place a better place?
- The kids one after the other started pouring ideas. Here is a list of all things they would like to change in the home and their action points.
- Bedding – To have clean bedding that doesn’t stink, or have lice in it. Some bedding is torn and needs to be replaced by new ones. Currently, children are not able to sleep because they have body lice. For this, they need to wash all the bedding with soap.
- Clothing – To have material to wash clothes and have at least two sets of clothes. The clothes don’t dry easily and they stink.
- Cleanliness in the home – children are made to clean the home without any cleaning supplies. To have a cleaner home, bathroom, sleeping area that doesn’t stink of urine. The toilets should be cleaned and they should not stink. Also, there should be sufficient water supply in the bathroom. The bathrooms should have doors.
- To improve the bathing system. Have more bathrooms so that the kids are not rushed. Each kid has his own soap and towel.
- Fans of the room should be repaired. The plates in which the children eat are dirty and broken. Plates should be washed and broken plates to be replaced by new ones.
- The food needs improvement and variety. There are bugs in the vegetables and the milk powder. There should be some kind of quality control.
- To create a hostel environment, with proper beds, timings, discipline etc.
- To create a learning environment – Children should be taught like they teach in regular schools.
- To have a separate room for the special needs children and a caretaker to take care of them.
- Age segregation – The smaller kids should have a separate room and the older boys should have a separate room.
- Children should stay here for maximum one month and then they should be put into some courses. Many children waste six months to one year in the home doing nothing. Instead, they could have learned something or worked somewhere and earned some money (said a child).
- Boys who are older than 18 years old should not be kept here. They hit all the children and abuse them. The guards should take care when the situation goes out of hand.
- Guards and teachers should be more mindful of their language and they should do their own work and not make the children do their work. They should also practice non-violence.
- When the children are repatriated they should not be put in handcuffs. After all, these are not children who have committed crimes, but they are rescued, children.
- Water tank should be cleaned once in 15 days.
- Staff should be polite, understanding and willing to explain and be compassionate to children.
- The telephone inside should be repaired so that the children can make calls to their family.
The next question was, so if you knew you were going to be here for so many months, what is it that you would like to learn… What would you want to spend your time doing or what activities would you like to engage in ..
- I like to read so I would like access to more books.
- Classes – art, craft, dance, yoga and karate
- For the younger children, there are no toys. So we need to bring in more toys for the children.
- Have courses in welding, electrician, mechanic, etc
- Physical training in the morning at 6:00 am
- To be allowed to play football and cricket and watch TV.
- To listen to inspiring stories and meet inspiring people.
- Trips outside the children’s home.
- One little kid said, Didi it would be lovely if we can just play the music on full volume and all children can dance. Can we celebrate Eid or Ganpati like that..
Lastly, we discussed with the kids how any change happens slowly and we may not be able to change all these things overnight but slowly one by one with our small actions we can surely make this place a better home. So, I asked the kids what is the first step we would like to take together towards this new dream?
They all unanimously said, help us get rid of the scratchy feeling and the lice. So, on next Sunday-Funday (19th July 2015) we will do a cleanup drive at the home along with the children. One of the kids was actually surprised when I said all didi-bhaiya’s and children will make teams and clean the place together. And he went like ‘you will also clean with us?’ – I feel like we are truly being their role models! It was great to see a big smile on his face when I said “yes of course! we will all clean the place together.”
It is hard to put into words what took place in the 2 hours in that room. But one thing I can say for sure, it was magical. When we give children a safe space, the freedom to dream and to take responsibility they will surprise you beyond your imagination! Absolute Rockstars they are! We will be doing few more circles with different kids on this topic. And then hopefully we can have a volunteer meeting to decide the stuff we would all like to work on together.
I feel extremely grateful to be sharing this journey with all of you. And this would not have been possible without being a part of this community of friends!
PS: Sorry for blurring the children’s facing. As per law, we cannot reveal their identity