Last week when fourteen year old Neeraj stood on the stage to deliver a part of a Ted X talk in Mumbai, it was no ordinary feat. Neeraj, lives in a shelter home in Lucknow and for him to reach such a stage was an achievement. There were so many firsts – first flight, first meal in a fancy hotel, first AC train ride, first time walking on the beach and of course posing in front of his cine- idol Shahrukh Khan’s home – Mannat. The experience changed him in unimaginable ways. “Today he talks to fellow inmates at the shelter home not showing off this experience that he has had, but he is full of gratitude, he recognizes the importance of education and to seriously think about future” says Angana Prasad, a senior member of the Project KHEL team who accompanied Neeraj and the founder Akshai Abraham to Mumbai
Project KHEL an initiative of Akshai Abraham , a management professional who quit his comfortable job to work with kids of poor, marginalized communities started in 2012. The idea was to take children out to play games in communal parks and open spaces. While the children played games they learnt life skills like self awareness, empathy, critical thinking, personal hygiene, mutual respect and camaraderie, respect and comfort with opposite gender and also got encouragement to get back to studies if they were out of school.
The recent TEDx talk being his second such talk, Akshai has also featured among the Amazing Indians , awarded the Karamveer Puraskar, chosen to participate in a DASRA Leadership programme and recently from thousands of nominees chosen as one of only 20 Indians for the prestigious ACUMEN Regional Fellowship programme. The Acumen Fellowship is a year-long leadership development programme that selects outstanding individuals who have the audacity to transform the world, making it a more inclusive place.
“I started with just a volleyball and a football and a ton of passion. Four years hence we have nine full time facilitators and 20 part time staff. Through our core programme in 19 locations in and around Lucknow we work with 1300 children on a regular basis and have and outreach to 15,000 children through training workshops and more than 1,00,000 people through events, trainings and partnerships with other organizations .” says Akshai
Talking about one aspect of how education happens at Project KHEL, Akshai says, “It is important to take education beyond the classrooms, while at the playground the children are truly themselves. We create safe spaces where we encourage them to speak their minds, express their opinions, and air any sort of question that they may have. No question or answer is ever wrong, we do not judge them. Our job is to guide them to make responsible choices.”
Project KHEL has been working on awareness about menstrual hygiene through their programme called Red Spot “We want to wipe out the shame associated with this normal physiological fact. All women menstruate. What’s to feel embarrassed? In fact it is a cause of worry if they do not!” says Angana who travels into villages and talks to various communities painstakingly imparting biological information, management and removing the taboo from menstruation.
Project KHEL also encourages young people to discuss adolescent issues through their Teen Talks programme, where they can ask questions regarding anything that they may have on their young minds. Sex, porn, dating, pregnancies, friendships, relationships with parents, body image all are discussed. “The idea is that the children talk openly about these topics so we can help them make responsible choices without judging them. This way we are addressing a lot of issues related to teens including depression, self harm, suicides and also maybe preventing crime” Akshai explains
Another programme Ab Bas, talks to children about Child Sexual Abuse, about good touch, bad touch and also accidental touch. It’s important that they know the difference. Not everyone is a predator.” The KHELshaala programme with slum children helps connect out of school children to education. Volunteers are encouraged to teach the children in a fun way, with the aim of generating curiosity and love for learning in the children.
“A playground naturally breaks across gender, class, caste and communal barriers. Children on the playground are just happy children. They understand the importance of sporting spirit, fair play, togetherness and working together. That’s half the job already done. The other half we do through our experiential education curriculum that is designed to bring about small incremental changes each day that leads to a different future.” says Abraham. It is heartening to see life transform for these invisible children. These blank hopeless eyes now have colorful dreams of future.