Lessons in friendship

Meena Sriram

“A mentor is not someone who walks ahead of you to show you how they did it. A mentor walks alongside you to show you what you can do.”Simon Sinek (Author and inspirational speaker)

Just as Corona was spreading its tentacles, in April 2020, a group of like-minded individuals came together and founded the Chennai Mentors, a volunteer based mentoring movement to support school children from underprivileged backgrounds. The idea was to help guide these children and build in them useful life skills.

The Chennai Mentors’ pilot project was called Natpu*, which means friendship in Tamil. Natpu was first introduced in a school run by an NGO to a bunch of over 40 students from classes 9 and 10. These children lived in slums in the city; their parents were either destitute, uneducated, unemployed or doing menial chores. All the children had one mentor each. The entire exercise was non-academic and thus the children were not under any pressure to perform and produce instant results. They needed a shoulder to lean on, share their stories, and visualize their dreams.

Since it was the time of COVID lockdowns, it was decided that phone calls would be the way forward. Weekly phone calls would be made by the mentor to the mentee to establish a rapport. In the initial conversations, not much was revealed. The children had to feel comfortable opening up to strangers. However, as the conversations progressed, the mentors took on the role of a confidante, a friend, a guide or whatever was required of them and the mentees felt comfortable enough sharing their lives and dreams.

This set of children that the mentors were working with expressed a desire to improve their spoken English skills, for they had learnt through their conversations with their mentors that the ability to speak English was like a license to speak to the world outside their own.

Chennai Mentors decided to replicate the Let’s teach English Programme** to help these children speak basic English. The programme was a perfect way to harness the energies of urban teenagers who were forced to stay indoors because of COVID to impart a life skill to their less privileged peers.

We reached out to a couple of responsible youngsters of class 12 and the venture grew wings in a short span. The youngsters were made the coordinators and were asked to create their own core group of volunteers with coordination, communication and analytical skills. Soon a core group was formed. This group made posters calling out for volunteers to be able to speak for two hours a week over phone with beneficiaries. The core group conducted the basic interviews and assessed and recruited about 50 volunteers. They allotted beneficiaries to each of the volunteers. An orientation was conducted on how to progress with the sessions. A code of conduct was also drawn. A WhatsApp group was created with the volunteers, where they had to share the feedback of their sessions regularly. The core team monitored the proceedings of the sessions and also analyzed data and fixed gaps when beneficiaries were unable to take the calls. All of these activities happened only over the phone. The pandemic kept the children indoors, in all strata of the society, but our volunteers used this time wisely.

Soon, the teachers of the same school also requested for a similar arrangement and this time a group of college students were entrusted with the responsibilities.

The entire operation of attempting to reach out to about 50 school kids and 50 teachers supported by urban privileged youngsters was extremely heart-warming and gratifying. The children bonded with each other like real friends. Most of the youngsters had pet names for their beneficiaries and often found other ways of reaching out to them when getting in touch over phone was difficult. The entire project of helping learn English lasted over 15 sessions through the summer break. There was a minimum of two hours of teaching every week with some interested and enthusiastic pairs connecting for longer hours.

The beneficiaries did sometimes play truant by not answering phone calls, being absent, digressing from the plan, coming to the sessions with little or no data or charge. It was a pleasure to witness the resilience and perseverance with which the new mentor friends patiently waited for their mentees to come back online. There were no preconceived notions, judgments, ill will, or vengeance. All that was exhibited was large heartedness. The willingness to reach out and help the less privileged was the prominent emotion. The urban children got exposed to another world where there was poverty, lack of love and a home too in some cases. Absolute absence of luxury, which was abundant in their own homes, was a jolt for many of the mentors.

Quite surprisingly, some of the youngsters who had enrolled as mentors were themselves not very popular in class and were struggling to find their identities. There was a sense of accomplishment in them on the completion of the project. They also felt elevated and useful to someone. These children actually found their inner strength through this exercise.

Peer teaching and learning can open up a different world to both the person that gives and the person that receives. All it took was a mere phone call and there mushroomed a bunch of satisfied human beings in the midst of the pandemic. Certainly, the episode saw both the beneficiaries and donors falling and rising from the tribulations of COVID. This probably created a stronger bond as there was a sense of oneness, for it was a kind of learning to know that anyone could fall sick and everyone battles emotions. Most importantly, while the less privileged learnt a skill and won a friend, the socially superior in actuality learnt a deeper lesson in life!

Learning could be channelized in a multitude of ways and children more often than not, learn faster through real life situations. Schools should consider leveraging this capital of wealth. With enough exposure to technology, every privileged child could reach out to someone that needs assistance and be her mentor or friend and guide her to a brighter future!

*Natpu is modelled on the Dosti Project Mentorship Program, which is based in Mumbai. The Dosti Project is a 100 per cent volunteer-driven and led initiative that aims to empower not only the children who come from under-served socio-economic backgrounds through one-on-one mentoring, but also the mentors by offering them an opportunity to engage with the community, give back and understand the realities of fellow citizens.

**The Lets teach English programme began during the pandemic but continues reaching out to children who are under-served. It is a one teacher one student programme enabling children to converse comfortably in English. The programme was founded by Aarthi Madhusudan, founder of Governance Counts, an initiative that helps strengthen the boards of NGOs.

The author is a founder member of Chennai Mentors. She can be reached at meenasriram@gmail.com.

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