This Woman Is Building Bridges Between The Rich And The Poor

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This Woman Is Building Bridges Between The Rich And The Poor

When Anubha Sharma took a break from her corporate career, she had no idea her life was about change as she was about change lives. A chance encounter ended up with her teaching underprivileged kids. She’d never seen people who had so little. “Their clothes were worn out," she says. "They were so scrawny it was obvious they didn’t have enough food. And their world was so small. Some had never seen a sandy beach. Some didn’t know what a tiger looked like. They really had nothing."

Along with Beenaa Advani,  she decided to take on the responsibility of teaching more kids. But what do you do when you offer help and someone refuses it?

The slum dwellers they approached were antagonistic and suspicious. They were not at all enthusiastic when Anubha began talking about teaching their kids. “The adults were very aggressive with us at first. They’d soil the area where we taught, make it inhospitable and impossible for us to teach. The kids really wanted to come but also because it was free, they’d come whenever it was convenient, they weren’t regular.”

Anubha didn’t give up. Her volunteers showed up every day and things began to change. “The children who come in either shy or belligerent are ignored by everyone around them," she says. "They are exposed to violence and criminal behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse in the places where they live. Their parents have no time for them, nor do most understand the concept of good parenting, their solution for everything is to beat the child. At AXF centres, they suddenly find adults who are willing to listen to them understand them, love them and they just blossom with the attention, they start valuing education, start realising there is a chance they may create a different life than what they see at home for themselves, they start to feel hope.”

Today AXF runs centres that create coexistence between Mumbai’s slums and high-rises, building bridges between the haves and have-nots. They are seeing better opportunities for girls, good hygiene and most importantly, less violence at home.

Angel Xpress is a positive force for the future and a hero to these children.

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In 2011, Anubha Sharma was taking a self-imposed sabbatical from her 20 -ear career as a senior financial services professional. On a morning walk on Carter Road, she noticed several groups of underprivileged kids sitting down with their books, being helped by elderly folk, clearly from more affluent homes.

“I went to offer them some breakfast,” Anubha says, “and the gentleman told me, ‘This is very nice of you, but no one takes time out to help teach them. Would you do it?’” She laughs at the memory of her first reaction. “Me? I don’t know how to teach. I don’t even have kids!”

But she decided to give it a shot and found herself having a lot of fun. “They are delightful,” she says with a smile. “Full of life and curiosity. They’re so eager to download as much information as they can.” As she got to know the children better, she started to notice some not-so-great things. “I’d never seen deprivation like this. The education they were receiving was close to nil. Their clothes were worn out. They were so scrawny it was obvious they didn’t have enough food. And their world was so small. Some had never seen a sandy beach. Some didn’t know what a tiger looked like. They really had nothing.” 

When the weather changed to Mumbai’s ‘winter’ some kids didn’t even have a basic sweater to put over their threadbare clothes to combat the early morning chill. So Anubha decided to ask around for hand me downs and donations. “I checked my phone,” she says, “and the appeal had gone viral on Facebook. I’d had over 3,000 callers and that week I answered with 1,600 SMSes to calls I’d missed.”

Anubha was overcome with the intuition that something was happening – something big.

She had never forgotten a story she had read as a child, growing up in Calcutta. “A French guy adopted four or five kids, they were beggars. He had them enrolled in La Martiniere [one of the best schools there]. The story was about how they were shining at rugby! I remember reading the story and thinking that this is the most important thing: someone took a decision to give these children a safe home and security. I’d also visited my uncle who used to run a small old age home in tandem with an orphanage. I imagined that when I retired, I’d do something too.”

She would not have to wait that long.

One of the callers, Beenaa Advani, ran a little playschool in the vicinity, and she and Anubha decided to start with Bandstand. The slum dwellers there were in a constant stand-off with the residents. They were not at all enthusiastic when Anubha began talking about teaching their kids. “The adults were very aggressive with us at first,” she says. “They’d soil the area where we taught, make it inhospitable and impossible for us to teach. The kids really wanted to come but also because it was free, they’d come whenever it was convenient, they weren’t regular.”

Anubha didn’t back down. She refused to get scared. And things began to change. As invitations to play dates, movies, museum visits began to come in, the team attached outings and treats to a system of desirable behaviour, including attendance. Anubha says it worked like a charm. “You had to earn your privileges!”

Angel Xpress began to take shape, and change happened on both sides. “Parents of children from affluent backgrounds who volunteered at our centres said their kids had begun to think responsibly, act grateful for what they had, and were less demanding. The volunteers, 80% of whom were well-educated, stay-at-home mums, were delighted to be in a space where they were loved, acknowledged, and respected by the children they taught and able to spend time with like-minded people. Their decision to start volunteering also earned them respect and acknowledgement from their own friends and families. We have instituted a system of birthday posts for our volunteers on the AXF page that serves to inform their circle of the work they have chosen do.”   

The kids began to change too. “The children who come in either shy or belligerent are ignored by everyone around them,” she says. “They are exposed to violence and criminal behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse in the places where they live. Their parents have no time for them, nor do most understand the concept of good parenting, their solution for everything is to beat the child. At AXF centres, they suddenly find adults who are willing to listen to them, understand them, love them, and they just blossom with the attention, they start valuing education, start realising there is a chance they may create a different life than what they see at home for themselves. They start to feel hope.”

Today AXF is achieving its goal of celebrating the co-existence between Mumbai’s slums and high-rises, building bridges between the haves and have-nots, redistributing resources – even intangible ones like values and the mentoring an educated mother gives her children. 

They’re beginning to see change within the slums as well. “During our PTMs, we talk about not using violence to discipline at home, equal opportunities for girls, good hygiene practices, and this learning is going deeper into the community. Parents come back saying their kids are more respectful and helpful at home.” 

Anubha says you cannot hope for a better society if you’re not willing to effect some change yourself. Anyone can be a hero, she says. “Just do something for someone outside of your family. With whatever resources you have.” A friend called her recently to talk about her website. “‘It’s crap,’ he said.” She laughs. “He’s the president of a big company and travels like crazy but he’s decided to upgrade our site. He does it while waiting in airports in transit or in hotels. You can choose any way you want to be a hero.” 

Angel Xpress Foundation is a 12 A and 80G certified NGO that provides free consultation and training to citizen bodies interested in community service. With AXF’s guidance and support, over 400 Mumbaikars, volunteer for 2 to 3 hours a week in 15 covered neighbourhood parks across the city to provide daily lessons in English and maths peppered with values and life skills to over 1,500 children. A daily healthy snack, clothes, shoes, toy redistribution drives, and several fun and educational outings further help bridge the divide

To volunteer/donate/start a centre near you, check www.angelxpress.org or write to info@angelxpress.org