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Mentor Me India : Helping Children Pursue Their Dreams

Helping young minds fulfil their potential

It takes just 4 hours a month to alter the life of a young child

It may be debatable that a surprised woman stands behind every successful man, but we can claim without any reservation that behind every successful Indian woman stands a reliable domestic help! While our parents were content with a single help – usually an elderly lady who was hated and revered in equal measure by our mothers – that’s obviously not sufficient for our generation. In my apartment complex in Gurgaon, it is common for every household to have 3 – 4 different women to perform various functions – from cooking and cleaning to walking the dog and caring for the kids (I’m sure the maid count occupies a lot of talk time amongst the Real Housewives of Gurgaon). Many of these helps are young girls who went to school for a few years and then had to drop out for a variety of reasons.

What are the reasons for these girls dropping out from school midway and seeking employment as temporary or permanent domestic help? A study conducted in 2010* estimated that of more than 27 million children who entered Class I in 1993, only about 37% (10 million) made it to Class X : nearly half (45%) of the girls dropped out in elementary school (Class 8), higher than the boys’ drop out rate. Interestingly, the study observed that financial constraints are not the only reason for this phenomenon – there are also school related reasons such as high teacher-student ratio, poor teacher quality and absence of a conducive social environment.

These observations are borne out by anecdotal evidence. Most of the girls who are working as domestic help in cities dropped out of their village-schools to accompany their families, who migrated there in search of a better livelihood. The higher cost of living in urban spaces – especially in the top few Indian cities – makes it difficult for these families to afford education for all their children. Often, it is the girl child who is forced to discontinue her education – she is anyway going to leave the family fold after her marriage (the typical marriage age for females is 15-20 in rural India, and that continues even when they migrate to cities), so there seems little merit in investing in her education. But this is not the only reason. Often these families have seen little benefit accrue to their children even after investing a significant part of their precious earnings in their education – recent public media has highlighted stories of graduates and sometimes even post graduates facing prolonged unemployment or being forced to take up jobs that do not justify their education.

According to the Census Bureau of India, 55% of India’s population will be under the age of 20 by 2015. This is a sizeable economic opportunity for our country, provided we ensure quality education and skills for each and every member of this demographic, irrespective of gender or financial background. This is not an easy ask, but fortunately, several individuals and organizations (including some from the much maligned government school set up) are devoting time and money to get us closer to this purpose.

One such person is Dayoung Lee. While working as a development consultant on education projects in India, she realized that many of the school kids she met lacked a suitable role model to guide them out of poverty – their parents were usually uneducated daily wage earners and their teachers were struggling to cope with large class sizes. She also realized that the city’s large professional population could serve as a transformative force for these children – many of them were eager to contribute their time and talent but lacked structured volunteering opportunities. Inspired by the success of Big Brothers Big Sisters in the US and backed by research confirming the benefit of formal mentoring programs, she got together with students at Harvard graduate schools and education professionals in India to set up Mentor Me India (MMI) – a non profit to mentor children between the age group of 10 – 12.

A year later, Mentor Me India (MMI) is close to graduating its first batch of 30 girl mentees, each mentored by a professional Mentor Didi (Editor’s note: We learnt about MMI from one of our readers who is a Mentor Didi). As part of this program, MMI selected 30 successful and passionate women – doctors, lawyers, journalists, corporate executives and social sector workers – and provided them a 6 day induction training on the nuances of mentoring. At the same time, they worked with the Akanksha Foundation to identify 30 mentees from a public school in Dadar, Mumbai. These mentees came from a community of largely BMC janitorial staff in Dadar East, and were recommended by the school principal and teachers.

The ask for each Mentor Didi was clear-cut: to spend a minimum of 4 hours a month with their mentee for at least a year, becoming her coach and confidante, opening up her life to a world of new experiences and opportunities, helping her overcome day to day challenges and keeping her motivated to continue her education. During the course of the year, MMI organized regular sessions for the mentors to share their experiences, and also took regular feedback from the mentees on the efficacy of the program.

The experience has been life changing for both the mentors and the mentees.  Fortunately, the mentorship does not stop after a year – the mentors will continue to maintain the relationship with their mentees, and in cases where a mentor is unable to continue, a replacement will be found for the mentee. According to a mentor :

I’ve forgotten what it was to be young, and through my mentee I can see it

Vanshika, a mentee, says:

I’m glad I have a mentor because she’s always pushing me for my dreams

Buoyed by the success of the first batch of Mentor Didis, Mentor My India is planning to serve over 100 mentor-mentees this year, expanding their footprint to several Mumbai schools and extending this facility to boys as well as girls. Over the next five years, they plan to expand to at least six cities and reach thousands of children who can benefit from this experience. According to Dayoung Lee: ” We believe that India is responsible for ensuring each child fulfils his or her potential, and our mentors represent the nation to serve children who need mentors”

So, if you live in Mumbai and would like to volunteer your time to support a young child, do get in touch with the MMI team – they are currently accepting applications for this year’s batch of mentors. You can also ask your employer to sponsor mentors and adopt a school as part of CSR initiatives. 

Post script:

Apart from Mentor Me India, a not-for-profit called Mentortogether also works for a similar cause in Bangalore, Mysore & Pune.

* Study by Anugula N. Reddy and Shantha Sinha , School Dropouts or Pushouts? Overcoming Barriers for the Right to Education, NUEPA, 3 (2010)

Image courtesy: Mentor Me India


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