Volunteers from Asha chapters visit supported projects from time to time, to reinforce bonds, see the functioning of projects directly, understand problems and carve out solutions. We present a site report here, to emphasize the importance of face-to-face contact. See other site visit reports here and on every project page.
Site Visit Report for Seva Chakkara Samaj
By Dileep Bhat, Asha NYC/NJ
Background: Seva Chakkara Samaj (SCS) is a residential home, orphanage and school for 110 children and 5 staff in Chennai. The Asha NYC/NJ chapter has supported the project since 2001. Some children are orphans, but 80-90% have single parents or parents who are unable to provide a home for them (day laborers, domestic staff, etc.). There are two buildings which serve as a school (KG–5th grade), children’s home and office. Some staff and wardens live with the children. General Secretary Lakshmi Ravichandran (Lakshmiakka) oversees administration and has been the main point of contact for Asha NYC/NJ for many years.
Asha started by meeting the expenses for administration, food, and education. Expenses grew rapidly as the number of children grew. Currently, Asha supports a large portion of the education budget.
Visit: I planned a one-day visit, like my previous visit in March 2008, and scheduled it for Saturday when the children would be home. My cousins, Madhura Chaitra and Karthik, came with me to help me with travel. On Friday night we set off by a bus from Bangalore and reached Chennai at 5 am on Saturday. We were received by the SCS staff and were taken to a nearby hotel to freshen up. Then we walked to the campus which was just round the corner.
On arrival, the youngest children, all bright and smiling, stood in a line and greeted us one by one with flowers. Then, we breakfasted with the children in the upstairs hall.
R. Mahalakshmi was a little 8th grader when I visited last. On this visit, I met a very confident, articulate, young lady, studying for the IAS exam while pursuing a Masters in Commerce. She helped us throughout the day, particularly in communicating with the children (I don’t speak Tamil).
Administration/Review: After breakfast, we toured the buildings and noted the changes in the seven years since my last visit. Substantial improvements have been made in the dining hall. It had a roof now, the floors had been redone and, most importantly, there were significant technology and security enhancements. Due to building code requirements, there were a number of CCTV cameras throughout the two buildings with the feed being displayed on a large flat-screen TV in the office. Additionally, a certification plaque assured us of basic safety/occupancy checks.
Per regulation, the older boys and girls now lived separately, in the two buildings. The maximum occupancy allowed for the two buildings is about 140 + 75. There were 110 children (57 boys and 53 girls); over the last year 16 children (12 girls and 4 boys) had been admitted and 12 had left. But there were at least 100 requests to join.
Over the years, most of the children have been admitted into English-medium private schools. Though they should enjoy some fee reduction since they are orphaned or poor, they are discriminated against. Only when Lakshmiakka indicates that she will pay full fees, do the schools miraculously discover that seats are available. Anyhow, details of the children, their standards of study and fees are available in the budget proposal.
Activities/Children: My cousins spent time interacting, talking and playing with the children for most of the day while I discussed matters with Lakshmiakka. After lunch, we showed a Planet Earth video that I had bought along to donate to the orphanage. They brought a projector owned by Lakshmiakka’s husband and projected the video on a large screen. The children had a great time; afterward, we had a question & answer session hosted by R. Mahalakshmi. I hope the children have continued to watch the rest of the episodes and other videos.
After the video, I took them to the bookstore to buy some books. We went to one of the oldest bookstores in Chennai, Higginbotham’s. We took a couple of the children to select some books, in English and Tamil, for the library. We chose both fiction and non-fiction books.
In the evening, as we wrapped up, we took video diaries of a couple of the children. Each described himself, giving his name, age, grade, what he wanted to be and small tidbits. The goal was to share their stories with donors and at Asha events. With photography a very popular hobby and the ease with which videos can be filmed nowadays, having the children make and share videos of their life at the orphanage can be a learning opportunity.
After dinner with the children, we bade them farewell and caught a taxi to the bus station for the overnight ride home.
Notes/Recommendations: Though I did not go into too many details with Lakshmiakka, I could make out that the project was well run and the children enjoyed staying at the orphanage which provided a caring and nurturing environment. This was confirmed many times by the children to me.
Housing facilities had bettered substantially, though I was unable to ascertain whether the children found the space adequate. On the other hand, more improvements would be difficult under present resource constraints. I was also not able to ascertain how far the children were supported in their studies. Though the teachers did oversee them during their evening study time, it would have been great to figure out if there were opportunities to increase the children’s interest in studies and learning in general, i.e., outside rote and school curricula.
At the chapter, we also wanted to know what happens to children who graduated and found work or dropped out. It would be great to find out how they were doing. Their success stories would inspire the children as well as donors.
Visit an Asha Partner the Next Time You’re in India
Our project partners will be delighted to host you. You will find the experience enormously enhancing. And Asha, as a whole, would benefit from your feedback and increased involvement.