‘IT IS DIFFICULT TO UNSEE IT’
GOD, and that doesn’t quite refer to God up there. It stands for Guardians
of Dreams, an organisation committed to providing “quality life outcomes to children
living in orphanages and shelter homes in India”. GOD’s vision statement says
“Every child will receive the care, resources, and support to achieve positive adult
outcomes” while seeking “to design, implement and maintain effective, scalable child-care
systems” throughout India. GOD came into being out of the shared vision of a
band of volunteers led by GLORIA BENNY, who earlier in 2006 after a stint with
Google, set up a pan-India volunteer movement called MAD 0r Make a Difference
at age 20 when most youngsters would be staring at a crucial crossroads as it
were. What began as a small but gritty initiative in Kochi soon spread across India
with a network of tens of hundreds of young volunteers reaching out to
thousands of children in shelter homes and orphanages and helping to provide
them better life opportunities once they left these homes.
GOD was a natural extension of MAD. Gloria speaks with passion about three key areas, among others, that GOD is presently focused on: a) Infrastructure development, meaning helping to renovate children’s homes and orphanages; b) After-Care (post 18 years of age) with scholastic awards for the top 50 performers in these homes to enable them to enrol in colleges, buy books, and meet essential needs; c) Documentation, by helping children to get all mandatory ID documents such as Aadhar. Pallikkutam probed Gloria about how she took to the road she chose to, not tentatively but decisively.
Often, you know our education or shall we say the way we are more or less trained allows us little room to look around and identify a problem of social consequence. (It’s got to be more than serendipity of course.) It is interesting how you ‘identified’ a problem, set about examining it, and then set up an instrument — MAD — to address it institutionally. Where do you think lies that schism between what we are taught and what we find out there in the real world — unsurprisingly grimy as it is?
A huge portion of our childhood is spent in schools preparing one with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate adult life. As is with most things which is theory or simulation, there is a gap between the theory and how it actually plays out. It is the same with case in what we are taught about life and what we really discover life to be.
I believe to reduce this gap, it is important for children/students to go through experiences that immerse them in reality (as closely as possible) and build context. Having grown up for most part in the Gulf, I started off lacking context to how things worked in a country like India. However, as my 20-year-old self experienced and built the context for how life was for children living in orphanages, it drew me in. I realised that the thing that riled me up the most was seeing the vulnerable/weak being dealt with injustice for no fault of their own. Children’s life outcomes being dependent wholly on their circumstances was not something my team and I was willing to accept. And that really spurred us into motion to start not just our first organisation but also the second organisation now with Guardians of Dreams.
Therefore, I feel the gap between what we are taught and what life really is can be reduced with more immersion/experiences — getting hands dirty even — to really understand the reality of the world that surrounds us. Giving this exposure to young children or students is a powerful tool that allows them to discover themselves by experiencing the world around them more. We’d have a more involved, problem-solving young generation if we would allow them to experience and build context to some of these challenges situations.
For you and your co-founders, obviously, the path you chose was more than a ‘professional’ choice. It was a ‘calling’ you chose to answer. In view of the sheer magnitude of the problem you chose to address, what inner resources did you call upon to put together a coherent response in mobilising a successful volunteer movement?
To be honest, as 19/20-year-olds, we didn’t quite know what we were getting into. We did not plan much but instead just did what we thought we could do — bring our friends together to teach our children in a few shelter homes in Cochin. We saw a problem, that children living in shelter homes/ orphanages did not receive the kind of opportunities we got and jumped right in to fix it by teaching them English and providing them role models. But we had stumbled upon something that was much larger than what we had first imagined: on one side, we realised that problems that children living in shelter homes faced were much more complex than what our 20-year-old selves could comprehend and there were millions of such children across the country. On the other side, we realised that youngsters were waiting for a way to give back. Hence, inadvertently, we had catered to a need on both ends. Once we discovered this, mobilising a youth movement was relatively simple as there was an intrinsic need of the young generation to give back and do good that we were solving for.
The decision to stay on in the social sector and start our second non-profit organisation was more of a conscious decision. After one sees the depth and size of the problem, it is difficult to unsee it. Having built to scale a youth movement successfully, the learnings were many and there’s a sense of confidence in what we as a team is capable of achieving. With a committed team and sufficient context, we built through a decade’s worth of work, my team and I decided to plough through in helping to solve the problem of poor quality childcare at a sector level through Guardians of Dreams.
If you were asked to redraw the contours of our curriculum, how would you look to build ‘volunteerism’ with a social conscience into the very body and soul of education?
Humans are by nature problem solvers. We have an innate need to create a better world for ourselves. I believe building our capacity to empathise and problem solve is key to shaping a productive, contributing young generation. Which means that redesigning our curriculum/education system to provide avenues for our students to be more empathetic, feel for issues, and empowering them to find solutions would be key to creating change-makers? This coupled with contextual learning and experiences that will allow them to solve social challenges early on are great ingredients to prepping for a path down social-entrepreneurship/social-change maker career/role.
You would have had your fair share of ‘arguments’ with your parents when it came to striking out on a different path altogether, despite Google and the material success that should have come your way naturally. How did you negotiate or navigate that territory — the often-contentious parentchild intersections?
Social entrepreneurship or working in the social sector is still a nascent concept in India. So, a large part of the push back is due to lack of context or uncertainty of what the future holds for someone who goes down this path. But once we show conviction in our vision, we show how serious we are about achieving that vision, a majority of people will come on board to support.
For me personally, it took some time for my parents to absorb and understand the fact that I was serious about pursuing this as my career choice. That I was serious about making a difference in the childcare sector. Once they saw that I was just as ambitious and that we are taking on a challenging path that is worth the costs, they came around. Having a clear plan of action, reasons being grounded and focus on objective gets even the strongest dissenters to come around.
The statistics are ghastly: 50% of our children face emotional abuse; 47% are married off before they turn 18; 53% suffer sexual abuse. How do we bring children right back into the heart of education?
It is unfortunate that we know so little about the science behind childcare, while it is at the core of human development. Most of childcare is left to the intuition of parents or the caregiver with little attempt being made to understand what childhood inputs will correlate to creating positive adult outcomes. We believe the way to bring children or childcare back into the heart of education is to focus on understanding the science behind childcare and treating parenting as a skill to learn. Not leaving childcare to the mercy of intuition and understanding of the caregiver would be a start.
So, there is life beyond the normative. There are much more than parental/societal/institutional aspirations. There is much more than sheer professional excellence. For what is excellence without social consequence! Gloria, what would you tell our young on the cusp of leaving college or school and setting foot in the adult world?
Immerse yourself in experiences. Spend serious time in picking up skills. Seek out internship and part-time jobs. Your 20s are your decade to discover. Do not conform your future or your aspirations to what you thought you would do — but invest in experiences, build context, and re-discover your ambition.