From Karna Prayag to Kanyakumari

Stepping stones to success Boys from one of the many chatralayas. Inset: Sheila Balaji

Sheila Balaji struck me as dynamic and forceful, committed to the cause she has chosen to espouse, that of whole-hearted seva, caring, substantial and generous seva.
The Hindi word seva is the generic term for aid, help and succour. That is precisely what Sheila, in her capacity as Managing Trustee and Secretary for AIM for SEVA, has undertaken, in her ten years’ association with Seva. Her life was transformed after she heard Swami Dayanand Saraswati speak in 1999. A textile designer by profession working with only natural vegetable dyes, Sheila has moved on to working with Seva with equal fervour. She spoke about Seva’s mission and the dedication of all its volunteers in the true spirit of seva.

When was Seva formed?   
All India Movement for SEVA (AIM for SEVA) is a public charitable trust founded in November 2000 in Delhi. It has obtained Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration with the home ministry. Growing from strength to strength, it now has an all-India presence with seventy-seven homes in fourteen states.

What is the mission statement of Seva?
To make education accessible to every child through the concept of a student home or chhatralaya and impart vocational training. To increase the employment opportunities of its students by imparting vocational training.
In addition, providing basic healthcare to people living in the remote regions of the country is also a focus.

What is a chhatralaya?
Seva identifies a secondary school and sets up a student home / chhatralaya nearby. This enables the child to attend school regularly in an atmosphere of care and encouragement. That this is one of the most effective ways to address the high drop-out rates particularly in the rural and tribal areas.

Who are the children eligible to live in a chhatralaya?
The process is carried out in consultation with the teachers of the local school and the parents of deserving children in the area. Concerns such as care  and students’ safety, medical needs, academic problems, extra coaching, emotional problems of the children like missing their families, parents’ visits and holidays are all discussed and fears allayed. In the tribal regions, Seva volunteers go to the interior aeas to convince the elders of the benefits education will bring to their children.

How do the children react to a hostel, in a confined space? And the discipline?
(Laughs). Most of the children until then have never been restricted nor have followed any kind of schedule. So it does take a lot of patience and care for them to understand why these restrictions are imposed, but their desire to learn is so strong that they very soon settle in happily. 

Administrators and co-ordinators, wardens and helpers all work (for free) with unstinting dedication to make the children be the best they can be in a happy, caring environment. A typical day at a chhatralaya includes prayer, exercise, study and recreation with the aim of  helping each child to become a mature, responsible adult. Emphasis is placed on ethical, value-based and cultural education.

They are given specific duties such as maintaining the cleanliness of their home and care of their personal belongings.

Special mention of any students?
In Solan, Himachal Pradesh, five  boys are now pursuing a degree in engineering.
In Manjakkudi, a small village on the banks of the Cauvery in Tiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, (TN) the son of a dhobhi, the first of the family to have ever entered a school, has completed BSc in computer science. He works for a firm in Pune and is able to buy an air ticket to visit his proud father.

Sudha studies in the AIM for Seva girls’ chhatralaya in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu.
Her father, a former alcoholic, was counselled by the school counsellor, enabling him to give up alcohol and stop beating his wife and daughter. This has brought about a transformation in Sudha’s life. Her father is now an enthusiastic volunteer!
A young lad who studies in a school in Salem aspires to become a policeman to protect his mother and all mothers from wife-beating husbands.

Vikram comes from a very remote village with neither electricity nor safe drinking water.
He now lives at a student home in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. From a shy boy, he has grown into a confident young man who has set his sights on joining the IAS to serve his village and community.

Seva also runs healthcare projects whose focus is mainly on providing primary healthcare. It also has a mobile outreach health services programme.
AIM for Seva has given a fresh lease of life to at least ten lakh rural and tribal people across India.

Currently, it manages over 112 projects in education and healthcare across 15 states in India, with a focus on education through its Student Home Programme. Its vision: to transform society through a network of Seva to extend succour to the powerless and weakest sections of our society. To help each child ultimately contribute to the progress of the nation.

In Karnataka, AIM for Seva has projects in Dharwad, Sagar, Hubli, Chunchanakatte, Mysore, Karki, Udupi, Anavatti, Kusanur, Karki, Kalabhavi, Malgunda, etc

(If you are an NGO, write to us at spectrum@deccanherald.co.in, with NGO mentioned in the subjectline.)

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