April 04, 2020
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The Free School in Amritsar helps free the minds of slum children

The Free School in Amritsar helps free the minds of slum children
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Rosy Mattu’s an 18-year-old black belt in karate, a national level champion marking time as a martial arts trainer in various schools while dreaming of competing at the international level. This may sound normal but not so when you know that her father is a daily-wager and her mother works as a housemaid.

Dr Dharam Singh is a practising orthopaedic specialist at Civil Hospital, Lopoke village. His father too was a daily-wage labourer.

Rashmi Moghe, now a computer teacher and stenographer in Delhi, is another case in point. Her father used to work at a tea stall.

One thing common to the above mentioned are that they are all part of the proud alma mater of BBK DAV Yaseen Road Free School, Amritsar, especially meant for the under-privileged in society.

The school’s situated in a strange locality with mansions and four-star restaurants on one side and contrasting houses of the poor on the other. Started on November 11, 1980, under the aegis of the DAV managing committee, it is the brainchild of Veena Puri, principal of the Lawrence Road DAV Public School. In fact, 80 per cent of the aid, in the form of "manpower, money and materials", comes from them, according to Free School principal Usha Mallik. The rest comes from donors and volunteers.

As the name suggests, everything’s free for the students here—right from books, uniforms, bags to shoes. There are around 350 students from the nearby slums here, who get to study till Class VIII. Earlier, it was open till the Tenth Class but funds crunches put paid to that. The Punjab School Education Board curriculum is followed here in the Hindi medium with a 25-member staff. The school also provides facilities like library books (there’s no library as such due to space problems), music and drawing classes and, of course, everyone’s favourite activity—karate classes given by ex-student Rosy. The students here have even won a first prize in a spot painting contest.

Interestingly, two other distinct facilities—counselling by a psychiatrist and computer training—are also available. Mr Bhatia (a retired air force officer) visits the school on an honorary basis to encourage and solve the personal problems of the students. According to him, a common issue among the students is behavioural problems due to tensions at home which leads to symptoms like stammering and stubbornness.

The computer classes have also been a big help (a PC was donated by city doctor Dr Lakhanpal). It still hasn’t been introduced as a subject in the school since finances don’t allow it but the point is to at least make students aware of the possibilities outside their own world.

The children here come from families so hard up that more than half of them still work after school. Anil Kumar, a Class II student, proudly disclosed that he is working as an apprentice with a scooter mechanic, fixing the dents on vehicles. His father, who cleans swimming pools in nearby hotels for a living, says the twenty bucks a week he earns also helps out the eight-member family’s cause. Mandeep’s story is similar. He supplies ice to the nearby shops from the ice factory after school but dreams of becoming a "fauji" when he grows up. Most of the mothers of these students work as housemaids and the girl students—like Nisha who’s in Class VI—help them out in the evenings.

Says principal Mallik, "A major problem we face is the lack of awareness about family planning among the elders. More children mean more working hands to them. Most of the parents have little regard for their wards’ education, and drop them here since it’s free and they can get rid of them for 4-5 hours. But the students find the environment totally different and friendly here and tend to develop many aspirations. Quite a number of them opt out after Class VIII to work but there are also an ambitious few who take up further studies on their own with part-time jobs. Our institution helps the bright ones get admissions after Class VIII and we sometimes even pay their fees. And it’s a blissful moment when they come back to us later and say they’ve become settled in their lives. Some of them even turn donors like Joshi, an ex-student who’s now a bank employee. We don’t discourage them about going on work since it’s a priority in their lives but our main stress is on making them understand the importance of education in their lives and show them what a difference it can make to their lives." If you would like to participate in any way in this project, please contact: Usha Mallik, BBK DAV School, Yaseen Road, Opp Annam Cinema, Amritsar, Punjab. Ph: 210946

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