Daan Utsav: Care, Community And Children – Make A Difference
Children playing in the sand. (Photograph: Make A Difference)

Daan Utsav: Care, Community And Children – Make A Difference

BloombergQuintOpinion

This #DaanUtsav, BloombergQuint brings you a series of first-person accounts on volunteering that narrate stories of how different organisations across India are engaging volunteers at scale, or in depth, and bringing about significant transformation.

A recent multi-city research conducted by ‘Make A Difference’ to understand the adult outcomes of children who grew up in shelter homes threw up something that we least expected. For every three adults we interviewed, at least one of their shelter peers was reported to have died or gone missing. A vast majority (93 percent) of them were under the age of 35. 46 percent were lost within 10 years of leaving institutional care. Over the course of this research alone, seven of our respondents passed away. Imagine turning up for your high school reunion and realising 25 out of your 100 classmates are either dead or missing. That is not normal.

Daan Utsav: Care, Community And Children – Make A Difference

These are children who have been given food, shelter and education till the age of 18. More than 50 percent of them have finished schooling till the 10th grade, 25 percent of them have progressed beyond class 12. What then, is leading to such a disproportionately high mortality rate in children in need of care and protection?

There seem to be two primary reasons for high mortality rate in children who leave shelter homes:

  • Limited individual attention in shelter homes, and
  • Children being forced to leave the shelter home after 18 years.
A volunteer accompanies children to school. (Photograph: Make A Difference)
A volunteer accompanies children to school. (Photograph: Make A Difference)

Also read: Daan Utsav: Never Let Food Go Waste – Feeding India

What is even more interesting is that a majority of the deaths were preventable as the top reasons for early mortality were found to be treatable illnesses like tuberculosis and fever (24 percent); suicide – most commonly due to depression or relationship failures (20 percent); followed by accidents (10 percent); and alcohol or drug addictions (6 percent).

What are we, as a society, doing wrong that so many of the children that are placed in our care are not even able to survive till the age of 35?

What Happens After A Child Turns 18?

The answer lies in our collective understanding of what children need, to grow, develop and become thriving members of our society. Today, if you visit an orphanage with an intention to support, the highest probability is that you’ll sponsor their food. If you are richer than the average Indian probably you’ll fund the construction of new bathrooms for the girls, and if you are really enlightened and have a deep understanding of impact, then you’ll fund for their education, because teaching a person to fish has much more impact than… you get the drift.

We do this because we believe that food, shelter, and education up to the age of 18 is all a child needs and after that, if he or she is not able to stand on their own feet, that’s their own fault. This mindset has let us turn a blind eye towards the obvious failings of our current shelter-care system that, for decades, has been kicking out children in their care at the age of 18, with no support for finding shelter, work or dealing with personal challenges.

55 percent of young adults leave the shelter home with no employable skills or ability to progress with further education. Only 24 percent reported having a birth certificate.

Imagine if your parents stopped supporting you when you turned 18. Would you still be the person you are today? What more do children need besides food, shelter and accommodation? Turns out... care.

Children and  volunteers celebrate Holi in Delhi. (Photograph: Make A Difference)
Children and volunteers celebrate Holi in Delhi. (Photograph: Make A Difference)

Crippling Trauma

When I would go to a shelter home in Cochin, I realised the impact that a few hours of interaction with children had on them. They finally had an adult who believed they could do something. I remember reading APJ Abdul Kalam’s ‘Wings of Fire’ to them. It talks of dreaming big. However, due to their childhood experiences—mostly of abuse and neglect—they had accepted that they would be drivers and plumbers, not engineers or doctors.

To understand this mindset, it is important to understand what an ‘adverse childhood experience’ is. These are unforgettable traumatic episodes of abuse, neglect and domestic dysfunction that children experience.

Over 70 percent of the children in need of care and protection have undergone adverse childhood experiences.
Volunteers spending time with children at a shelter home in Delhi. (Photograph: Make A Difference)
Volunteers spending time with children at a shelter home in Delhi. (Photograph: Make A Difference)

Also read: Daan Utsav: Knowledge, Truly For All – Esha, People For The Blind

In many cases, the same child may have endured more than one kind of such an experience.

  • Singular or layered experiences of violence (38 percent);
  • Deprivation (32 percent);
  • Neglect or lack of attention, and appropriate care (24 percent);
  • A fear of their personal safety (12 percent); and
  • Abuse before being placed in care (7 percent).

A growing body of research is indicating that if a child has experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences, he or she is three times more likely to develop lung diseases, 4.5 times more likes to develop depression, 14 times more likely to attempt suicide, 11 times more likely to abuse intravenous drugs, twice as likely to develop liver disease and four times more likely to have been sexually active before the age of 15.

Young adults who have experienced over six adverse childhood experiences, can have their life expectancy reduced by up to 20 years.

A high prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, combined with the lack of a support-system after the age of 18 is leading to very poor outcomes for children in need of care and protection, ranging from poor physical health, mental health issues, higher crime rates, homelessness, very high substance abuse rates and eventually early death. Society often treats these children as second-class citizens.

MAD Volunteers And Children
MAD Volunteers And Children

Radical Shift In Outcomes

Is an adverse childhood experience a life sentence? No. These are regular children who have had some complicated experiences that has resulted in bad coping mechanisms and behavioural issues.

Make A Difference has been working with children in need of care and protection for the past 13 years. We currently work with 3,500 children living in 68 shelter homes across 23 cities. Over the years, we have been able to consistently shift the outcomes of children in need of care and protection, to a level that it is practically indistinguishable from a child brought up in a middle-class family.

Not more than 50 percent of the children in need of care and protection had passed class 12, based on our research. With Make A Difference’s support, the number went up to 96 percent, with more than 51 percent securing first-class honours.

In a demography where only 15 percent continued education after 12th grade, 72 percent of those supported by those Make A Difference went to college and 98 percent of them progressed year-on-year.

A volunteer and child at an education support class in Hyderabad. (Photograph: Make A Difference)
A volunteer and child at an education support class in Hyderabad. (Photograph: Make A Difference)

Also read: Daan Utsav: Remodelling Education Through ‘Remote’ Access – eVidyaloka 

More than 70 percent of the children who completed college got placed professionally within six months with a minimum salary of Rs 10,000 a month. How are we able to deliver the best-in-sector results for the most vulnerable children in society? The secret ingredient in the Make A Difference model is care.

Adverse childhood experiences can lead to various levels of trauma in children but every child can heal and thrive in the real world if they have access to safe, stable and supportive relationships in their lives.

Unfortunately, the child-to-caregiver ratio in a shelter home is 40:3. Imagine growing up in a house where you had to share your parents with 39 other siblings.

Long-Term Relationships With Volunteers

Make A Difference ensures that children in shelter homes have access to people who care for them and support them in life from the age of 10 till the age of 28. Our strength is in our ability to build deep bonds between the children and our volunteers, enabling them to develop and experience multiple positive relationships in their lives, where they feel safe and cared for. This plays a crucial role in the development of the child’s self-worth, self-esteem and confidence.

Through this caring volunteer, we are able to deliver the support that the children would require at different stages in their lives, ranging from basic literacy and numeric skills to life skills, exposure, academic support, career awareness, transition readiness, progression support, self help groups, placements, family planning, life coaching, crisis support to logistical and financial support. Make A Difference is able to deliver this holistic, age-appropriate, long-term intervention at 10 percent of the standard cost, in a highly-scalable manner thanks to our community mobilisation model.

Volunteers strategise teaching programmes at a session in Hyderabad. (Photograph: Make A Difference)
Volunteers strategise teaching programmes at a session in Hyderabad. (Photograph: Make A Difference)

Also read: Daan Utsav: The Power Of Collective Kindness – Cognizant Outreach

The local community is an often-ignored resource available to solve problems. If you really think about it, most problems exist at a local level. It would be almost impossible for the government to provide one-on-one support system for children living in shelter homes. Every shelter home that has 200 children living in it, also has more than 20,000 people living around it. If we can mobilise even 1 percent of that population to care about the children and give them the tools to build a self-sustaining community, then we can provide a life-long support system for children who need it the most.

Make A Difference’s entire service is delivered on the ground by 4,000 volunteers from local communities.

Every year, more than 30,000 people apply for over 2,000 volunteering roles in Make A Difference programmes and they go through a multi-day, multi-round recruitment and training process to finally become a ‘MADster’. Being part of a caring and supportive community, and working towards something larger than ourselves is a basic human need that is currently unmet in today’s society. In the past, human beings evolved in large communities but today we live in apartments, alone.

For the first time in human history, we can confidently say that we have the resources and the technology to solve all our biggest problems. The challenge is that we don’t see the problem as ‘our problem’, but some abstract far-away thing experienced by someone we don’t know and we can’t help.

The community mobilisation model brings people together,connects them and enables them to realise that a problem that exists in their community is their problem and even if they are not directly affected by it, it is affecting them indirectly in many ways.

A Transformative Experience

The indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson got it right when she said: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Like most things in life, volunteering is not a one-way street. You cannot make an impact in your community without impacting your own life. It might come from the sense of purpose and meaning you experience while working towards something larger than yourself. It helps build deep, meaningful relationships in communities, with a wider network of people who care for you and you care for. Volunteers feel empowered about the world they live in, knowing that they don’t need to be a spectator to the changes that are happening around them. That they have power and strength to be an active participant and make a difference.

Volunteering at Make A Difference has been described as one of the most profound experiences in their lives by many of our community members. It has inspired them to believe in making this a better world and connected them to other similar-minded people who share their values. The volunteers found themselves up-skilled through real-world experiential learning and empowered to make real and tangible long-term change in their communities. In a world where more than 67 percent of the population has experienced at least one or more adverse childhood experiences, we believe that our community mobilisation model has the potential to heal, not just children in need of care and protection, but all of us who are a little broken and can use some care and bonds in our lives.

Jithin Nedumala is the Founder of Make A Difference.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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