71-year-old Meena Nijhawan from Noida started teaching four children, who were living on the streets, in a small garage. She never had a faint comprehension that this small garage with these four innocent children would change her life and lives of thousands of children.
“Since I hail from an army background, the urge to serve the society would make me restless. It all started in 1993 when my husband retired from army and we settled at one place, and I began teaching Padma, our domestic help.” remembers Meena.
Later in 1995, both the women once noticed four lesser privileged children wandering on the street near their home. They brought them home, gave them a bath, provided them with some food to eat, before taking a promise that they will start studying. After sending them back home, Meena thought this was the last she saw of them. . Surprisingly, those children started coming daily and Meena’s house was soon frequented by children of ragpickers, rickshaw pullers and domestic workers. Motivated with this passion amongst children, Meena soon named her endeavour as ‘Sankalp Saksharta Samiti’ and, besides teaching them for free, took care of their books, stationery and meals too.
“The growing number of children made me happy and nervous at the same time as I did not have enough funds. My father asked me if the packets of salt lying in his closed factory could be of any use to me. I thus started selling the salt in Delhi by randomly knocking at the doors and urging people to support children’s education.” recollects Meena.
Though her husband wasn’t supportive since day one, she was determined to do work for these innocent souls, however inconsequential that effort might seem to others.
Since these children were mostly subjected to inhuman treatment in their families and community, Meena faced a lot of challenges in dealing with their apprehension, habit of stealing and an acute proclivity to a vile set of verses in their language. “Realising that sensitizing their parents is equally important, I started visiting them on a random basis. My purpose in life was not to just provide them with education, but also develop them as a responsible citizen.” shares Meena.
After discovering about the exemplary work done by Meena in the field of education, Smile Foundation supported her in this endeavour. Since the number of children was growing at a rapid pace, Meena welcomed the support without giving it a second thought. “With Smile Foundation’s support, we initially provided elementary education to children in Sankalp School and later mainstreamed them in the nearby formal schools. We eventually started to focus more on bearing the school fees of the mainstreamed children.” shares Meena.
Things though turned a little difficult as Meena’s husband expected her to devote her time exclusively to their family. As hundreds of children and their families looked upto the school for free education, Meena decided to stand firm for the cause.
Even at 71, Meena’s age fail to dampen her determination. She regularly mobilizes street children, accompanies them in their new journey of learning and helps in sensitizing their parents. She has even convinced and roped in a few of her acquaintances to come forward and teach children at school. She has also started Adult Classes in a school close to her house in NOIDA, where at least fifty women from the local slum clusters are provided with free education.
“Every year, we organise an Alumni Meet at my place, wherein ex-students come and share their experiences. It’s overwhelming to see the children I taught have grown as successful professionals. Some have even settled abroad and many have established their own business. One of my students’ even wishes to establish Sankalp schools across the villages of India!” exclaims a proud Meena.
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