My interest in the Light of Literacy Project

After turning 40 in 2012 I decided I wanted to spend some time in another country before I became to settled or old to do it.  To offset the guilt of doing something purely selfish I decided I would like to work with people. I also decided that as I had been lucky enough to live all my life in the countryside and as I had never visited India I would look for a project that fulfilled my desire to see this country and experience city life.

Project Workers at Light of Literacy
The Light of Literacy Project, also known as the Navjagriti collective, is a shelter for street children and the children of Delhi's rag pickers

I Searched the Internet to find a suitable project and finally came upon a Non Government Organization (NGO) that connected people wishing to volunteer in India with projects that needed help. The organisation, Volunteer Solutions, that I eventually chose I didn't feel entirely comfortable with, but the project I was placed on, however, could not have been more deserving or sincere in their desire to help truly needy children.

The Light of Literacy Project, also known as the Navjagriti collective, is a shelter for street children and the children of Delhi's rag pickers. The project provides access to education, one good meal per day and additional help with school work, as well as, and maybe most importantly, the much needed enrichment in the form of play, physical contact and love.

On my first day at the project I made my way up a flight of over sized stairs to a small 10 by 20 foot room off a small side street close to Nizamuddin railway station. Here I met Lakshmi and Karan, both former residents of the project, and their young son Nayan However to my surprise no actual street children.

Gary Swainson volunteering at the Light of Literacy Project
...children came to the centre to be given what was often their only good meal of the day, after which they were given extra help with the work they had done at school...

As I spoke no Hindi and they spoke little English through a process of mime and gesture I was informed that the kids were at school and would arrive shortly, and sure enough over the next half hour the room filled with children ranging in age from about 3 years old to some older boys in their late teens who lived there permanently. It was explained to me that the project's main aim is to persuade, facilitate and, in many cases, pay for the 60 children that attended the centre to go to school from 8 am to 12 pm.  After this the children came to the centre to be given what was often their only good meal of the day, after which they were given extra help with the work they had done at school.  This meant, most importantly, that the children were safe, kept from being drawn into gangs and solvent abuse and, equally importantly, given time, care, attention and love.

Over the next 4 months I learned that these children, just like the my own nephews and every other child I have ever met were bright, ambitious, eager and able, as well as being cheeky, hilarious, charming and of course sometimes naughty!!

Due to the language barrier, and the sheer number of kids packed into one room, teaching anything to anyone was very difficult and I must confess that initially I began to feel like any attempt to help was futile, even the name badges I made on stickers to try to begin to identify kids were peeled off and reapplied to belly buttons, faces or, in some cases, even consumed before they would return with angelic faces and innocent eyes to try for another. As time went by, however, I learned to isolate small numbers of kids of similar age or ability and begin to work out what they were or were not able to do.

Wall painted with blackboard paint enabled better teaching
By painting one of the rooms walls with blackboard paint and acquiring a supply of chalk it was also possible to pre plan lessons
Multiplication was a skill that many of the kids were incredibly talented at: subtraction, however, was a mystery to many of them, so using coins or other objects they gradually began to understand and quickly become proficient at it. Once I became better at understanding how I could help, days were spent teaching the smaller kids the English names for primary colours, names of animals etc. The older kids had a good grasp of reading some English but were often unaware of what the words they were saying actually meant, so again, through more and more elaborate mime, I was able to explain what words meant. Very soon my feelings of futility disappeared and I realised that everything I taught was a huge help, especially to the long term prospect of these children becoming employed, being valued and useful members of society. By painting one of the rooms walls with blackboard paint and acquiring a supply of chalk it was also possible to pre plan lessons for the whole group and occasionally to teach everyone at the same time.

By the time my placement was over in January I truly felt like my presence there had been useful and that I had, in some small way, made an impact on the lives of some amazing children. My involvement with the Light of Literacy Project will carry on indefinitely: I have two trips back to Delhi planned for 2013 and will continue to raise funds to try to secure the future of a most worthwhile and incredible project.