By Sonali Khedekar and Gaurav Sharma
When Powaiite, DrSmita Puniyani used to attend to her clinic 20 years back, she observed 2 young boys aged 6 years and 8 years, idling at a garage. They would do some petty jobs like fetch the tools for mechanic etc. Watching these young boys idling their time every day, she approached the garage owner and was told that their father is no more and mother is a rag picker who goes out for work all day. These boys go around with her and often hurt themselves as they rummage through scrap and garbage. In order to save this ordeal, the garage owner used to keep the boys with him all day and pay them a sum of Rs 300 per month in exchange of their small contribution.
Dr Smita called the boys to her clinic and started teaching the boys in the clinic during her free time. She realized that the boys were eager to learn and were coping well with studies. She then suggested to their mother that the boys should attend a school and their mother agreed. Dr Smita sought admission in a school for the boys. Their mother did not have a birth certificate for school admission, so DrSmita gave a letter to the school and the children were admitted to the school. Thus began her journey of social inclusion.
Dr Smita continued to take free tuition classes for these boys at her clinic every day. Seeing this, some more underprivileged children started attending her clinic for tuitions. Very soon there were 10-12 children visiting her clinic every day for tuition. As the number of children learning under her grew, some of her patients began volunteering by coaching these kids and some others started making small monetary contributions for purchasing books. Soon she had more kids learning under her and she ran out of place.
She reached out to an NGO called “ASHA” which believes in promoting education and welfare of underprivileged children from the street and slums. ASHA is the parent organization based in USA. It is founded by 3 IITians from Kanpur who went abroad for higher education and who want to bring about change in the lives of slum kids by way of education. As Dr Smita and ASHA had common goals, ASHA was very happy to start their Mumbai chapter with DrSmita at the helm. This lead to the formation and growth of ASHA – Mumbai Chapter.
ASHA – Mumbai Chapter
Now with support from ASHA, USA there was no looking back. DrSmita went full-steam and rented a small space for ASHA activities near her clinic where the children could attend free tuitions. Soon she built a small team to support her in the cause and today she has a team of 6 core members who work with her and contribute to the growth and welfare of the children under ASHA Mumbai. Today, apart from coaching a lot of activities such as sports, art, painting, embroidery, quilting, music, dance, martial arts, self-defense, beautician course, tailoring course, solid waste management etc. are also being taught at ASHA Mumbai. Children are taken out for picnics and beach activities.
They participate in cultural music and dance competitions held locally, in Powai Mumbai. Children are taught skills based on their liking. One of their girl student is a mix martial arts national level fighter. She has played boxing at state level and is also into kick boxing. ASHA has fully sponsored her competitions in Lucknow, Delhi etc. ASHA goes all out to provide motivation, resources and platforms to children and individuals who want to lead a better life.
Today, ASHA Mumbai manages 150 children. ASHA educates children to make them independent, self-reliant and teaches them to be a good citizen and lead a respectful life. This not only helps the child, but also helps the country to be more literate and improve the economy.
ASHA Mumbai has 12 laptops and 12 computers on which children as well as house wives are taught computer skills, computer programming, game programming, Virtual Reality programming, robotics etc. Computer lab is kept open 24X7 so that it is accessible as and when required. ASHA Mumbai has a library of more than 500books in English, Hindi and Marathi for all age groups which come from donors and outright purchase.
A tailor’s daughter who was taking classes at ASHA inspired her 6 brothers to attend ASHA’s tuition classes. Today, she has completed her Masters in Zoology. There are many more like her who have completed their Master’s degree with ASHA’s support. A potter’s son who used to go with his father for work at 5 am every day and then attend school and then visit ASHA for computer classes is today working on game programming and earning a handsome salary to support his family. ASHA Mumbai was approached by a person from USA, who started giving some programming activities to children of ASHA Mumbai. A gardener’s son has completed his Master’s in Maths. Another of their student has setup a flourishing cakes and chocolate shop online in Mumbai. Another alumni is a teacher in an established school in Powai, Mumbai.
There are many such success stories for ASHA to share -- spirit of Asha is to keep a personal touch with its alumni and this leads to multiplication of ASHA Mumbai Chapter. ASHA Mumbai also runs a kitchen where these 150 children are provided healthy and nutritious mid-day meal every day. Healthy and nutritious food is cooked according to the taste of children. Some children also participate in the cooking activity.
Multiplication of ASHA Mumbai Chapter – Goes beyond Mumbai
Dr Smita believes that what-we-are-today is because of the support we got from the ecosystem around us which includes the government, society, school, college and the infrastructure which is accessible to us. She believes that every child, be it her or anyone else’s child is equally good; but what they lack is the support from eco system. If this eco system is made available to all children in the form of an opportunity; then every child can excel and be a good citizen instead of taking to the streets.
Dr Smita inspires her children to pay back to the society and today ASHA Mumbai has grown to Uttar Pradesh with 2 centers, where more than 100 children are extended similar facilities as ASHAMumbai. These Uttar Pradesh centers are a brain child of Dr Smita’salumni, who hail from that village and wanted to give back to the society. Some more centers will soon be established by their alumni students in Mumbai.
ASHA in Covid
ASHA Mumbai also caters to the need of locals around and has varied projects based on need. When Covid-19 pandemic hit us, many people lost their livelihood and ASHA Trust Mumbai sponsored grocery for more than 2000 families for several months. True to its name “ASHA” gave a ray of hope to below poverty line families in the pandemic.
ABOUT DR SMITA – Today at the age of 69, Dr Smita spends all her time in ASHA activities. According to her family and she spends half of her productive time at ASHA and the rest half at her clinic. ASHA has been her soul and passion for last 20 years and continues to be so. She believes that success is not ours alone. It is our duty to look at our surroundings and work so that everybody around us is healthy and happy…otherwise there is no true happiness. Our happiness lies in well-being all around us.