Sticks and Stones Didn’t Break These Bones

The founder of Tender Heart NGO takes us through its extraordinary journey towards discovering ways of reaching some of the most marginalised children, and helping them find a rewarding path in life

LILA: Please tell us a little about your background as well as how you came to set up Tender Heart NGO?

Renu Bali: From the beginning, I have been involved in teaching. I was privileged enough to attend University where I did my Masters as well as M. Phil. in Psychology, and also got a B. Ed. degree. Even during my M. Phil. I used to give guest lectures in different colleges. At that time, all of us thought that we could either go in for Engineering or the Medical line, or we could become teachers or lecturers. Beyond that we didn’t see a career option, especially being women. I thought why not bring in something different in terms of training because everyone could not get into a college and become a lecturer. When I joined DU as a lecturer, around 35 years back, I started vocational training courses in Maitri College. These included teacher training, art and craft, and textile designing.

After that phase, I thought I had to do something for the underprivileged communities. If you walk around the neighbouring villages of Delhi, you will see how different life is just a few miles away from the capital city. I was wondering what I could do as an individual and thought I could at least teach one child all the way up to university. So, I went to a village called Bhatola in Faridabad to work for NSS [National Service Scheme]. It had the lowest literacy rate, and many murders had also taken place in the vicinity. There are two roads here – Tigaon road and Kheri road. People kept telling me not to go to Tigaon road because a lot of the murders had happened here. People had murdered their own kith and kin just for property which to me reflected a complete lack of education. I realised that if I had to change anything, I had to be there. So, I started hunting for a place on this road. I found a piece of land which had previously been a brick kiln. The top soil had completely been removed from this land and the brick kilns had moved down. It had totally corroded soil, but that land was all that I could afford with my savings from 9 years at the university. So I bought this place thinking that I could survive here only if I have a place of my own; otherwise people will throw me out since I was a woman and had entered into a patriarchal society. 

It was a herculean task. I began by putting a 6-inch deep layer of good soil in the entire field and planting trees. This is where my knowledge of science, and whatever I had studied in school came into use. I didn’t have any money because all my money had gone into buying this land, but education was there. You can say that was the greatest weapon I had. I learnt that the government’s horticulture department was giving plants for free, and nobody was taking them. I went and got a truckload of plants and brought them here. There was no water and electricity, so we had put a hand pump to water the plants. If I planted about 50 trees, 3 would survive. I kept doing this for 5 years and in that time at least 30-40 plants survived, and they started becoming trees. That was the beginning of my venture here.

Horticulture Training for Children with Special Needs, 2018.

Now, obviously the main aim was educating the illiterate people. But because I was from the city, they were not accepting me. They thought that I had just come here and was going to harm their community, women and children. So, I kept visiting the village every now and then. One day, a milkman came to my gate with his two children and big cans tied to both sides of his bicycle. He asked, “Can you teach my children English?” I said yes! Thus, I got two children in the beginning and started teaching them. At that time, the elders in the village could only read the headlines of the newspaper and they would ask someone who was a little more literate to read out the rest of it. When these children started reading headlines of newspapers, that became a turning point. More grandfathers started bringing their grandchildren to learn English and that became the main reason why children started coming to me. Through teaching English, I entered their curricula of science, math etc.

LILA: So you never explicitly said you will be teaching these subjects?

Renu Bali: No, no. There was already a lot of opposition. People used to come and throw stones and bricks and shout at me. They would ask me why I was here and why I had come to spoil everything. There used to be a lot of disturbance during the day. They would steal my things. But I was totally focused. I knew that this was what I had come to change, so why should I feel bad about it or bring my ego into it? If someone was abusing me, it was because he was illiterate. So why should it bother me? That thought process was what helped me sustain and survive.

I had only boys in the beginning. Slowly over a period of time, one or two girls started trickling in. I found them standing at the main gate and peeping in. I would ask them to come inside and study. They would say “my father isn’t going to allow me” or “my brother isn’t going to allow me”. So I met their brothers and fathers who said, “we can’t send her to school because she has to get married.” When I mentioned the girls were too young to marry, they said their responsibility would be over only when the girls were married off.

LILA: … And you were providing free education?

Renu Bali: Yes, yes, totally free. I told the parents, “why don’t you send your daughters to me, I will teach them tailoring, so that they can stitch their own clothes.” That made them very happy, and they asked if I could teach how to stitch salwar, shirt, etc. I said yes. That is how the girls came in, and I started teaching them. Along with tailoring, I also taught them other arts and crafts. The girls were showing a lot of enthusiasm, and they were hardworking. That became my motivation, and it kept me going. I had not seen this kind of student community anywhere else. They were so keen to learn. But the raw materials needed to teach, such as thread, needles etc., were expensive. So I went to a nearby export house, told them about the girls learning tailoring, and requested them to give us some work so that these girls could start earning. The export houses gave us some work, like buttoning, fixing hooks, etc. That’s how they learnt about quality, because the export houses would outright reject whatever the girls were making if they did not meet quality standards.

Children from the surrounding slums at Tender Heart. Katy Fitzgerald, 2019.

LILA: But when you bought this land you had not planned any of this. You had just come to teach…

Renu Bali: Yes, I had just come to teach. I did not know that slowly I had started diversifying.

Soon I got my friends involved in it as well. There were two army officers’ wives that would come and teach. It was a good pastime for them to spend 4-5 hours with the children. They enjoyed it because the language the children spoke amused them. They were instrumental in kickstarting this. I believe when you start something, people always join. But I must say, my family was such a support and they never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do, and that is how I could continue.

Education was the first thing. I knew if I had to tackle the question of their health or hygiene it could only be through education. If I simply gave them fruits and vegetables that wouldn’t be enough. So, while stitching, I would start chatting and pump these ideas into their heads. When I began here, I attended the marriage of an 8-year-old. I asked her what marriage was, and she said it meant she would get good food and good clothes. That was the concept of marriage for a girl. I couldn’t do anything at that time. I just kept quiet and made it a focus area for myself. After that, when these girls came to us, I would informally tell them of the effects of premature pregnancy. They understood and then within a span of 2-3 years, the girls started telling their parents that they would not get married before 18. That was the change.

LILA: How many years after you came here did you start noticing these changes?

Renu Bali: The first 5-6 years were tough for me. People would just come with big sticks and tell me to go back. Slowly they started to accept me, when the children started to show their parents and grandparents what education is. They were able to read the newspaper, and many such things, which made a difference. It takes that kind of time for a person from the city to get acceptance here. Also our worldviews were different. For instance, it is only 4-5 years back that I started wearing jeans while coming here. I had to be a role model for them, and they had to connect with me. One could say, my dupatta had a role, too, in making them accept me. I had to get accepted by the males in the society first, then the mothers and then the children. It was a large community and I had to be with them. I used to go to their houses, eat and drink whatever they would offer, so that they would not look at me as an outsider.

Mrs Renu Bali, Founder & Director receiving the prestigious Derozio Award by Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, New Delhi for education and human enrichment. Arjun, 2017.

When the children came to me, they would have plain rotis with nothing more because their parents could not afford vegetables and other means of cooking. I introduced them to different ways they could make their food more nutritious. So, change didn’t come immediately, it came gradually, and it came because we were patient with them. Now because of education they have understood what hygiene, sanitation, nutrition etc. are. These are the basic things that we have to tackle for people if we are looking for change. Once they understand this, they will themselves make their lives better

LILA: When you talk about bringing such awareness in a space where livelihood is one of the community’s central concerns, do you think it becomes necessary to marry educational activities with livelihood generation opportunities?

Renu Bali: Yes, when the children come to you for education, you have to explain to the parents what it can lead to. There was a time when the village would get electricity supply only for 2 hours in the night – between 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock – even in the winter. In that cold, these people would go to work in the fields during these two hours and then go back to sleep. I started telling them, if you are educated you will know how to take out the water from the ground and use it at a convenient time. I contacted people from agricultural universities and asked them to come here and deliver lectures. We also taught them mushroom cultivation. When my own plants started growing, the villagers would ask me where I got them from, and I would say I got them for free. So, I sent them to the horticulture department. In this way, I acted as a bridge between the villagers and the agencies which provided the resources.

And, you always have to take help. The most wonderful thing that happened in Tender Heart was that I started taking help from University students abroad. With the coming of the Internet, I started writing to the universities. Even today I write to them asking for volunteers. This international community was a great help to Tender Heart because they brought in awareness and a better sense of an education system. They brought in new teaching methods and it was a great help. These were mostly students first. But then mothers started coming in because the students would write to them, calling them here to help. Now it has been almost 15 years since these people have been coming and some of them have even seen Tender Heart from scratch.

LILA: Was there any language barrier between the student volunteers and the children?

Renu Bali: That is the beauty. These underprivileged children would develop the accent that these volunteers were speaking. It is quite amusing. No one from our Universities was volunteering here but these people would come all the way from their own countries and stay with me. I remember one incident when this foreigner was teaching the students “J for Jungle” and the students started asking what Jungle is. This went on for a while as the volunteer tried to answer their question. She then took out her mobile and showed it to the students. That is when the children understood. I never found the students finding it difficult to communicate – they find ways. There is a German girl who talks to the children in Hindi. So, I teased the children saying, she has learnt Hindi from you, but you cannot learn English! These people are also an inspiration for the children. Today, despite being from the slum areas, my children know of different countries. When volunteers come, the first thing they ask is which country they are from.

Meanwhile, we had special needs children also, who needed to be communicated and worked with. There was a boy with special needs who was studying with my son. My son went for higher education, but that boy was left behind. He became a source of motivation for me, and I started teaching him myself. My background in Psychology came as a great help then. Along with this child there were other children also which the big schools would throw out. I took it as a challenge. Today, one of my special needs students has received Rs. 9 lakhs from the central government. He got an award in powerlifting in the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi. There is another girl who won a Bronze and received Rs.1 lakh. Before that one boy went to Athens and secured a Gold medal. Today he has a job in the Haryana government. He is the first special needs boy from Haryana who has got a job in the government services.

LILA: When we talk about children with special needs, since not all of them come from a background where they are supported or not all of them will have the skills to get a mainstream job, what is the general way in which they may support themselves? How do they build livelihoods?

Renu Bali: The most difficult part of education in India today, I feel, is to understand the needs of children with low IQs. The government has allocated 3% promotions in government jobs for the physically challenged, but what about mentally challenged? I have been associated with the Special Olympics now for about 14 years. Our school joined the Special Olympics because I believed that physical exercise would be important for these children. I was the first person in Haryana to send these boys into sports camps where children get training for Special Olympics. They are trained there by appointed coaches, and then they are selected for state level, national level and finally for the International Special Olympics. The first time our children went to the Olympics and secured medals, I had to run from pillar to post requesting people to give them something commemorating their win for India. But at that time there was no such policy. The policy only came recently, around 2015. We had to really convince them to provide cash prize the way they did for the winners of the regular Olympics.

Special Olympics became an integral part of Tender Heart. But then we thought, what about the ones who are not making it to Special Olympics. Initially we taught them how to make candles and cards, etc., but that is not livelihood. Livelihood means something that helps you get your food and shelter every month. So we started training these children in different activities such as running a shop or a kitchen, so that they could learn to make a profit and tomorrow run their own businesses. Recently we have started a weaving programme. This programme was started because I heard that there were vacancies in the Ministry of Textiles for weavers. I thought if the fully abled people are not taking these vacancies, let me try sending the special needs people so that they can get government jobs. I had given a deadline of 3 years for them to be trained but they surprised me because they hit the target in 3 months! We started just three months back and they have already started producing here. They started making the cloth independently and now we are going to sell the cloth to make up their salary. They also make diaries. There is a boy making bookmarks and he is already getting orders; that is his earnings.

We go to different schools and colleges, put up stalls during Parent-Teacher meetings. Some corporates have joined hands with us, so whenever they have functions, they give us orders. It is a network. Those who come to volunteer also help us find places to sell our products. We have already formed an organised methodology for teaching. The need now is livelihood. Anybody now, not just children with special needs, can join these skill development programmes. We are also running a lot of other programmes like Hospitality Management where we are involving all the people from the village. We also have an electrician and plumbing programme, customer care services, etc. People reach out to us with their programmes and we find people in the villages who are unemployed and try to get them to join them. Now they see the special needs children becoming successful and productive and they feel ashamed of being unemployed themselves.

LILA: You said that once they started generating an income, you helped them set up here itself instead of going for government jobs. Why was that? Is there an accessibility problem in getting and functioning within government jobs for the special needs people?

Renu Bali: Easy accessibility is not just a problem for people with special needs but the general population as well. We did a few training programmes for various villages, at the end of which we could secure jobs for them with good accommodation and salary. However, what we saw was in every case, each of them would quit within a day or two saying that the job is very far. They wanted jobs in a 2-3 km vicinity from their village. That is when I understood, where you work is also important. If you travel far then you should get a good amount of money. Most of the people at the beginning would get wages which would get used up in transportation alone. This was not viable. That is why we set up a programmes where they would work and we would sell their products.

Tailoring unit for rural girls and women, as part of a 6-month tailoring diploma. 2018.

Now the next step for me is to give them the loom at home. This is the same as what we did with the women. There used to be some 80 women working here. This started becoming chaotic, so I assigned leaders. Every leader got 5 women under her and she would be in charge of getting the final product. My next stage would be to train them here, and let them do the production at home. I feel we should not be very rigid about these programmes; we should be flexible. You start with a certain plan, but if they surprise you, then you should change accordingly. 

LILA: It has been 20-25 years since the school was set up, and a few batches have graduated by now. Where are these students today?

Renu Bali: The first batches have already completed their studies. One is into engineering, another is already a physiotherapist – in fact he treated me also. One of them is becoming a doctor. The rest of the students are doing different kinds of jobs. Some have done post-graduation also. We have special needs children who are now well-trained in data entry, so we are in talks with companies to get them jobs but they are not open to accepting them. It has become a herculean task to convince them. Even though they have that diversity clause, the taboo is still there. We are facing this discrimination but we go on trying because we know that we have to change this mentality. Only when we show the reality can we change their minds. When people come and watch these boys on the looms, it is a mind-blowing experience. I have noticed that whatever lectures you give, it won’t have much impact on people, but when you show something practical, that registers better. When these boys and girls see how they are working, that is a practical experience for them. First when students from different schools came to meet the special needs children, they would get scared. They had never met children like them before, and they wouldn’t even touch them. Now because of awareness, they come to meet these people, they even play with them. We sometimes organise matches as well between regular school students and the special needs children. They realise that they are also a part of the community, just that they are differently abled.

LILA: What is the sustainability model you have built for Tender Heart?

Renu Bali: We started as a totally free school; nothing was charged for. Then the farmers started selling their land to builders and they got a lot of money. Being a small community, we know which families have money. Now we have started asking them to pay fees. So some pay and the rest get it free. We are also trying to support our project through CSR [corporate social responsibility] which is of great help to us. For instance, Indian Oil has given us buses. We are trying to have a self-sustaining model through selling the products and taking a margin of 20% or 10%. We aim to be completely self-sustaining in 3 years.

WOOPIE children (Way-out-of-poverty-is-
education). Katy Fitzgerald, 2017.

The special needs children come from the village as well as the city. For the village people it is free and the city people pay nominal fees. We have a slum teaching programme in the evening which is totally free, in which we provide meals as well. Sometimes other people provide these meals. So we look into the community for help as well.

LILA: You had mentioned an orientation process for parents of underprivileged students. Is it the same in the case of parents of special needs children as well?

Renu Bali: With special needs, it is still going on. I am very happy with the progress of the children, but the parents are still not convinced. They tell me that the other children have achieved but my child has not. Balancing these parents is a big problem. My children are excelling in their own ways but the parents still need to be taught.

LILA: Do you think in our society there is a need to raise awareness not just about what the special needs children can do but also what it takes to get there? Just by showing what all they go through in order to get there.

Renu Bali: Exactly! What is the responsibility of a parent? If a parent has a negative outlook of their children, then how much can a teacher help? I have so many counselling sessions with parents where I try to help them understand. I tell them to focus on their abilities instead of the disabilities. Whatever positives they observe in their children, I tell them to inform us so that we can work on that. The parents and teachers need to function hand in hand for the child to grow properly. Today’s focus is totally on livelihood. There is an underprivileged child of a rickshaw puller who was not good at studies. Many teachers tried to teach him, but it was pointless; his memory was too short and he was not at all interested. Finally, at the age of 16, we gave up on trying to teach him and put him into weaving. Now he has picked up weaving well enough to sustain himself. So it is all about livelihood. If you are not good at studies, then pick up a skill.

Deepak, a student with mental retardation, working on the loom as a part of skill development weaving project. Rachna Grover, 2019.

LILA: Do you think that there is a need for a national level policy intervention to help through this? For instance, it is only after we ran a polio campaign with Amitabh Bachchan that people responded. Otherwise they were scared of what their children were being given. Do you think there is a need for that kind of push?

Renu Bali: Absolutely. We also need to link our education with livelihood. In our education system, we are just doing rote learning. Every education system needs to be linked to livelihood and the government has to do a lot in this. What are we doing at Tender Heart? We are just showing them avenues or possibilities through providing skill development training in weaving, horticulture, handicrafts, cooking, tailoring, computers and so on.

LILA: This is similar to a policy during Rajeev Gandhi’s time which asked students to take up two vocational courses after the 8th grade, which went away. Now they are bringing in Skill India.

Renu Bali: Many places are still following that. After 10th grade in many villages, children go for these training programmes. Here children do not study much after the 10th grade; they want to go for training. We have to lay a lot of emphasis on skill training. That will be their survival tool. And the training has to be of good quality. The children are also smart. They understand when the trainers are simply teaching to finish the module. That is why the dropout rate is more. So, if you give good quality, they also understand that their time is being well spent and will get to learn more. Everyday becomes a new day for them. You have to have a strong and good programme.

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