From individuals and organisations providing for daily wagers to celebrities supporting mental health awareness, the country has mobilised itself to help those in need during this pandemic. But Vedika Agarwal, of the Chennai-based NGO Yein Udaan, realised early on that there could be another collateral damage of the pandemic that could get ignored – the education of children from low-income households.
As the founder of Yein Udaan (‘My Flight’), for the past three years, Agarwal has dedicated her efforts to taking care of underprivileged children through after-school activities. With a larger goal of establishing safe spaces in low-income communities by offering learning opportunities to individuals irrespective of age, sex, and occupation, Yein Udaan starting out as an education-based organisation, and evolved into a community-based one, aiming to improve standards of living in these communities.
When the pandemic hit, Agarwal knew that with the after-school activities closed, she would need a comprehensive approach to keep the children engaged with their education. Unlike most urban households, where online classes and Zoom sessions are trying to fill education needs, this kind of access is limited in low-income households. “It was obvious to me that as much as food would be an extreme necessity, items such as sanitation products, credible sources of information, and activities to keep kids motivated to remain indoors would be important too.”
Yein Udaan started the #HelpHouseHelp initiative on March 20, 2020, by uploading ready education packets to their website, which they encouraged employers to download and print, alongside providing basic stationery for the kids of their house staff. These packets consisted of items like board games, activity books, and sketchbooks. The kits’ purpose was to entertain and educate children. “The kits are designed in a way that anyone can use it, be it small children who choose to colour or draw with the pens, or parents and siblings who choose to have some family time by playing the board games,” says Aggarwal. Since March 20, the kit has been distributed in over 200 households.
The Yein Udaan team also reached out to the individual members of their after-school program — hundreds of children and their households — with the online kits, alongside contributing essentials from groceries to stationary. They also do weekly check-in calls with the households they’re aiding, an if a team member flags a particular household as troubled or abusive, the matter is escalated to professional counsellors.
“We are in touch with all our core beneficiaries. We help them weekly with ration supplies and also have an online school through which we engage most of our children every day in fun activities conducted by our in-house volunteers or mentors and external resources. We have received so many videos and pictures of kids engaging in our activities and it’s heart-warming. Parents have also given us a good response and we’re glad we can ease their burden,” says Aggarwal, who has a double major in Economics and Statistics from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from United College London.
Agarwal began her career as a teacher for Class 2 and 3 at one of Chennai’s corporation schools. It was here that she noticed a disturbing gap in her students’ care and development. “Most of my students came from single-parent, working-parents, or abusive-parent households,” she says, “and this meant they went back to empty houses after school.” Concerned with the lack of care and supervision, Agarwal started Yein Udaan in 2017.
Yein Udaan’s approach, through this crisis, has been multi-pronged. “Before the lockdown came into full effect, we worked with low-income communities to disseminate reliable information and tips on how to tackle the disease, in regional languages,” Agarwal shares. Her step-by-step approach gives education priority, so these households don’t fall for false news on WhatsApp and can sustain themselves through the epidemic. Agarwal also initiated a petition on Change.org to ensure the government provided basics like cooked food and soap to severely affected families.
In addition, they have partnered with the Youth Feed India initiative. “We are their NGO partner in Chennai and have been able to reach over 5,000 families so far, i.e., 20,000 people in our city, with dry rations since day one of lockdown. We hope to continue these efforts until May, reaching another 5,000 families in the coming weeks,” she says.
Featured and Hero images: Courtesy Getty