Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Reality Gives Heroes...Sangeeta

Every year a group of Swedish architecture students comes to Dharavi, Mumbai, to study urban infrastructure. Every year they also spend some time with our projects and volunteer with us. Maja, a student of the group was very impressed by Sangeeta, our soft skill teacher and community health worker. Find out why:

We, a group of architecture students from Sweden, went to Dharavi to study informal settlements in global mega-cities such as Mumbai. We arrived in late October and our main assignment was to try to understand the Networks of NGOs working within Dharavi; How they work, what they do and why they are needed.

At the very beginning of our stay we went on a Reality Tours slum tour to help us familiarise ourselves with the area. It was through this tour that we met Sangeeta who teaches soft skills (part of the Youth Empowerment Program) to local youth and young adults at the Reality Gives community centre.

Sangeeta also works on a program that helps children with poor levels of nutrition run by the Foundation for Mother and Child Health (FMCH), in collaboration with Reality Gives. According to UNICEF, 43% of Indian children below the age of five years are underweight because of chronic mal-nutrition. The nutrition program is a weekly program that takes place every Saturday afternoon at the community centre. Nutritionists from FMCH come to the community centre to hold nutrition clinics and cooking workshops, and to do one-to-one counselling with the mothers.

Sangeeta explained to us that if she informs the mothers on a Monday about a Saturday workshop, no one will come. Instead she tells them about the cooking class the evening before, or even the same day, only a few hours before the class starts. For us, coming from a totally different part of the world where we sometimes plan meetings months in advance, this approach was tough to grasp!

Two of us had the opportunity to walk around the community with Sangeeta to inform the mothers about an upcoming workshop. Sangeeta, always with a smile and confidence, spoke every language needed and found her way through complex networks of narrow alleys, as if she has never done anything else. We visited more than 12 different homes, Sangeeta having a dialogue with all of the mothers and the children, and it always felt like she was very welcome.

Some of the mothers were not able to attend this week’s workshop because of the upcoming Diwali; with all of the cooking, cleaning, etc that had to be done, they simply had too much to do! However, they assured Sangeeta they would attend the next one and in the end, even with Diwali, there was a great turnout.
The nutritionists from FMCH held the class while Sangeeta and another Reality Gives employee, Nazia, helped out with preparing the food and looked after the children so the mothers could concentrate on their learning. 

During our stay we spoke to Sangeeta a lot; she is a remarkable woman and she is very giving. We learnt a lot about living in Dharavi, and India, and Sangeeta got to know about our situation in Sweden. We laughed a lot together. While in Mumbai, we also attended the graduation ceremony for the students who had finished their three month ‘Youth Empowerment program’. One of the students, a teenage boy, gave a short speech to thank his teachers. He started by saying, “On the first day here I was so nervous. Then I met Sangeeta, she gave me hope and confidence”. I feel that this sums up Sangeeta perfectly.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Reality Gives Heroes...Meet Vic

The story behind our cricket program is one of the most inspiring we can share and shows perfectly how a customer of a slum tour can start something big and powerful. 

It all started with Vic Mills from the UK who has spent much of the last thirty years overseas watching, playing and writing about cricket. Having cut and run from the legal profession after graduation he followed the sun playing cricket in England during the summer and then heading downunder to play in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. During these jaunts he played for the Australian Embassy in Manila, and in Australia for, amongst others, the Victorian Bar, the Melbourne Bar & Bench, the Gentlemen of Ballarat, and the NSW country town of Yass. When not playing he found time to write for Wisden Cricket Monthly, The Times of India, and Jakarta Post.

Vic Mills took some time during his last trip to Mumbai to write his story down for our blog. 

Vic Mills, doing what he loves: playing cricket.
Mumbai in early February 2009 – ten weeks after the terrorist attack – was a city on the edge. There to research a writing project, the plan was to work, stay healthy, and get the hell out! Other than a few coins here and there, charitable deeds were not on the agenda. Based in Colaba, my first job was an afternoon in Dharavi. During the visit, conducted by Reality Tours & Travel, we stopped in a school yard to escape the sun and take on water. Our arrival brought a halt to a game of barefoot cricket; the dozen or so kids sidled over.
I managed to catch the eye of one and a five minute net session ensued. Amid much laughter and high-fiving we took our leave, but the images remained; not just the kids and the fun, but the bat! Full size, it had quite literally been worn down to half its original size. Not cracked, taped, and taped again, but simply worn away! Five years on, this bat remains at the heart of the project. Barely two minutes back in my hotel room that evening, before even a much needed shower, I had the name: Project Front Foot. All I had to do now was figure out the rest.

The following day I emailed Chris (Way) at Reality Gives. We met at a Leopold’s Cafe that still bore the aftermath – gun shots to walls and glass panels – of the terrorist attack. Used to well-meaning folk with ideas (who end up doing nothing) his advice was to go away, do it, and then get back in touch. During the spring of 2009 I emailed the living daylights out of cricketing friends and contacts in the UK. Interviews with BBC local radio and various county newspapers brought early publicity. It also brought IT guru, Neil Smith, who agreed to set up and manage the project website. We were up and running. And the kit started to roll in.

The collection of kit back in UK.
It was not until September that I turned my thoughts to actually getting the clothing and equipment to Mumbai. A modest business plan was compiled and emailed to a dozen airlines flying the London-Mumbai route. To their eternal credit, and despite difficult times, British Airways called within a week offering six checked bags (or 150 kilos) free of charge. With still no more than a vague idea of how the project would work, the kit and I arrived in Mumbai mid-October 2009. There still remained the small matter of a ground. If the link with British Airways was the first stroke of luck, then an earlier chance email to Mr P R Subramanian (Suby) in Mumbai was undoubtedly the second.

I contacted Suby my first evening in town enquiring about grounds. He was a member of the Indian Gymkhana at King’s Circle and quickly teed up a meet with the Cricket Club Secretary and President. Forty-eight hours later we had our ground for three mornings a week from October to May. A fifteen minute walk from Dharavi, the ground was perfect. The 2-hour morning sessions were divided between the U14s (Tues & Thurs) and U18s (Fri). Thirty boys attended initially, with the numbers growing as word spread.

The Project Front Foot Cricket team in Mumbai,

I coached the early sessions before handing over to staff from Reality. This Stay Calm & Carry On approach saw us stumble through the first two seasons, but it was far from perfect. We had the kids, the kit, and the ground, but volunteer coaches were proving hard to find.

If coaches were a problem, this was not the case with kit donations. Summer Kit Appeals saw links forged with Trent Bridge, Headingley, and Cricket Wales at the Swalec. There was kit too from Cricket Boards’ as far afield as Cornwall, Kent, Worcester, Yorkshire and Derby. And an entire transit van of clothing from MKK Sports in Eastbourne.

In the autumn of 2011, Project Front Foot became a UK Registered Charity. In light of this, we took the decision, in partnership with Reality Gives, to employ two coaches. As befits a progressively-minded project we appointed, in Bhavana Patil, a female Head Coach. She, alongside colleague, Harshad Bhojnaik, started their third season with the project in November 2013. Established coaches within Mumbai cricket, Bhavana and Harshad, along with assistant coaches Jigar and Dilip, and Reality Gives new Director of Sports Programs, Peter Woolcock, have brought structure, energy, discipline, and no little fun to the project.

The sheer volume of donated kit has enabled us to move beyond Dharavi and place clothing and equipment with four orphanages in Mumbai, numerous schools in and around Maharashtra, three football foundations, the NGO Salaam Bombay, and the Indian Gymkhana U23 side. While in the UK, Project Front Foot has turned donor with surplus adult clothing going to charities for the homeless in Oxford and North London.

Kit distribution at the Reality Tours Reception centre.

Despite the need to seek new homes for our surplus kit, Dharavi remains at the heart of Project Front Foot. There is no better illustration of this than with our annual early season Kit Day. For a couple of hours Reality’s Reception Centre is transformed as excited chatter vies with the frantic fitting of shirts, flannels and boots; for the majority, their first kit of any description.

PFF team for season 2013-2014 L-R: Jigar, 
Bhavana, Peter, Harshad & Dilip

Look the part, feel the part, play the part: the Dharavi kids stand testimony to this as over a dozen have graduated via PFF into the longer version of the game with appearances for the Indian Gymkhana U23 XI. Two of our older boys, Jigar and Dilip, have further taken on the role of assistant coaches for PFF and at other clubs in Mumbai. Encouraging signs for Project Front Foot in general and the new season in particular.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Reality Tours & Travel News...Nieck's research outcome

Nieck has been our first-ever intern with Reality Tours & Travel. Despite some serious health issues he managed to interview 74 Dharavi residents about their perception of slum tours in their communities. His thesis will still take some more months so we will need to wait for an overview of his results. But he has been so kind to write about his personal experience for our blog:

Back in the Netherlands as I transcribe interviews and read through all of the information I have gathered, it makes me think a lot about what I have experienced. With help of three fantastic guides, I was able to have a very personal conversation with the people of Dharavi. Their stories have touched me, surprised me and have also caused me to reflect upon our own safe, comfortable and judgmental Western lives.

My research had to do with how the Dharavi community members feel about the tourists that Reality Tours & Travel brings into their community. After carring out in-depth interviews with 74 Dharavi community members, I can confidently say that many are happy to see tourists. A lot of interviewees have summed this up in saying, “They have come from so far to see how we work and live. I’m happy for that”. On the other hand, the reality is that these people are too busy with their work and daily routine to be too concerned about our intentions. I’ve come to realise that as long as Reality operates its business with good intentions and the tourists respect their culture and the living condition of the people, it seems, according to those I interviewed, to be perfectly acceptable for the community.
Quite a few interviewees mentioned that “I think the company should help the community more”. After telling them about the company’s relationship with Reality Gives, literally all interviewees showed nothing but respect and gratefulness for the organisation’s intentions and efforts. I would recommend the Reality Group to distinguish themselves more by promoting their efforts more within the community, as many respondents were unaware of the organisation’s initiatives.

I firmly believe in the positive effects  Reality Tours & Travel and Reality Gives  can have on this community and so I wish them all the best with their future efforts. They are the perfect example that tourism can also leave a positive footprint and I was happy to be a part of that during my five months in Mumbai.

Thank you Nieck for your hard work and great input. We will miss you here in Mumbai!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Reality Gives Connection Projects...Hearing aid distribution thanks to YOU!

Kids spending their afternoon at the CORP centre for disabled children in Dharavi. 
As we entered into the main room of the Reality Gives supported Community Outreach Program (CORP) Shalom Centre, a daycare centre for disabled children, we were greeted with smiling, eager faces. Five days a week, from 4:00 to 6:30, a regular crowd of around 15 children spend the afternoon at CORP Shalom Centre. On Saturdays, these children spend the entire day at the centre, benefiting from special activities such as music and art classes. Using donations, Reality Gives already provided eight hearing aids and two calipers for physically handicapped children from Dharavi.

The lives of the few children who already received hearing aids from various funding sources changed drastically with the new devices. Before, they wore a cumbersome voice box over their chest with headphones in their ears. In order to properly utilise these old aids, speakers must lean in and talk directly into the box. The children’s disability was not only disabling but also outwardly visible. Their difficulties extended into their daily routines as well. A task as simple as walking on the road proved difficult because the hearing impaired children had trouble hearing oncoming traffic. In the evenings, they had trouble enjoying a TV show with their families because they could not comprehend the full story.

Sameer just hearing for the first time with the new device.
His mother in the background is also happy for her son. 
Since receiving new hearing aids, their challenges have lessened immensely, and the aids have even enabled the children to carry out a normal life. These children can hear their teachers, and several of them affirmed that they are now able to learn more. All commented that new hearing aids have facilitated confidence. Indeed it has because four recipients of the hearing aids have since passed their Higher Secondary Education (HSC), two years beyond the required education. After their schooling, the children aspire to become everything from a cricketer to a teacher to a shop owner to a guitarist. 

Knowing this, we were happy to hand out two more hearing aids that were entirely funded by the donations we received from the Reality Tours & Travel's customers after the Dharavi Slum Tour in our Reception Centre. This time Sameer (12) and Shabanna (13) were the lucky ones. 

Sameer learning from a friend who already
uses a hearing aid device.

Sameer is a very cheerful young boy who enjoys using the computer and who wants to become a tailor, just like his father. He is very keen on passing the 10th standard and to go to college afterwards but he is also aware that he will need to work at the same time to contribute to his family's income.
Shabanna opening the box with the device together with her friend Triveni,
who also received a hearing aid thanks to the raised funds of Reality Gives.

Shabanna is very shy but the teachers say she is very smart and hard-working at school. At the same age she is already three grades ahead of Sameer and also very keen to pass the 10th standard to join the college afterwards although she doesn't know yet what she wants to do afterwards. She has three brothers of which one is also hearing disabled. She shunne the attention she got on the day of the hearing aid distribution but now she is looking forward to using the new device to learn even more at school.

The experience observing these kids using their new devices for the first time was incredible. Other children with the same devices helped them to install and adjust them and then the moment came when they could suddenly hear their friends and teachers properly for the first time. A big smile arose on their faces and we left with a warm and truly meant "Thank you". 

Chris Way, Founder of Reality Gives, who was at the centre for the distribution centre, said, “I’ve been in Mumbai for over 8  years now but seeing the kids put on the new devices and seeing their reaction, as well as of those of their family, was one of my most humbling experiences since I have been here.”

The kids find the outside world is different than the comfortable, welcoming rooms of the centre. At CORP’s Shalom Centre, the children acknowledge that they are understood. With the help of Reality Gives, however, the new hearing aids have made the outside world a bit less frightening.

If you want to help too donate today on www.realitygives.org/corp . Thank you for your support!

Thanks to our volunteer Aliza for her help contributing to this story during her visit to Mumbai.