Till the '91 Kazhaks' team landed up at this nondescript tribal colony in Attappady, all children there fantasized becoming lorry drivers. It was the highest they could aspire for.
The 150-strong '91 Kazhaks,' the 1991 batch of Sainik School, Kazhakuttom, all accomplished professionals, were there to make a change. Keeping in line with the school's tradition of 'giving back to society,' the '91 Kazhaks' decided to gift the children a world of opportunity. They decided to fund Project Shine, run by fellow-Kazhak Babu Mathew and his wife, Litty Babu.
Under the project, Babu Mathew, a researcher in socio-emotional learning, and Litty started coaching tribal children to crack the Sainik school and Navodaya entrance examinations.
Two years ago, seven students from the maiden batch of Project Shine made their way to Sainik School, Kazhakuttom. They barely knew how to speak a full sentence in Malayalam. Their tongue was a mix of Tamil and Malayalam. “Naam Sainik schoolithi padikka pokemu. Naam Atteppadi thirumbi vargemu. Emuk doctor aagonu, IAS agonu, military pogonu. (We are set to join the Sainik school. We'll return to Attappadi one day. We want to become doctors and IAS officers and military officers)," the children told him back then.
The journey to a complete, flawless English sentence was a journey in perseverance, passion, and selflessness.
Project Shine: a shining ray of hope
“Litty and I have been in social education for some years now,” says Babu Mathew. “Project Shine gave us a platform to try out and implement our learning models. When we visited the Agali hamlet of Attappadi in 2015, we were shocked to find out that Class V students of government schools could barely write their names, we knew our work would not be easy," he said.
Babu Mathew and Litty managed to get the district collector's order to begin a study group and hired a public building for the purpose. The couple traveled all way from Kottayam to Attappadi every week and created conducive 'emotional learning conditions.'
“We had to visit each student's home and convince the parents of the purpose of learning. We developed a personal rapport with each child and addressed the immediate issues they faced in their living environment. We provided meals and refreshments to improve their general health," Babu Mathew said.
We worked on a syllabus, which included the basics of language structure, logic, Mathematics, natural sciences, and reasoning. The first batch of Project Shine had 24 boys and seven cracked the entrance.
“All the seven have blended perfectly well with the Sainik school culture. They established good friendships and started excelling in academics too. Shivakumar, one of those seven boys, earned state-level medals in athletics and sports,” Babu Mathew said. Six new students from the second batch joined the school this year.
Babu Mathew remembers the day he visited Shivakumar's house. When the boy failed to turn up at the coaching center, the mentors decided to go in search of him. They were left in tears when they saw the nine-year-old Shiva starving in a dilapidated hut as his stepfather drank his portion of gruel. Now, he is a rising talent in the school.
Evolving textbooks, constructive learning
The year 2017 is special for Project Shine. The study circle has a 100 enrollments now. The study circle now has a 200-page 'book of evolution,’ which details science, history, health, diet and other aspects, all in the words of students. “Some chose to write it as a letter to their friends. Some narrated the whole thing as a story. Some opted scientific writing and some wound it up in conversational style,” Babu Mathew said.
The students prepared a questionnaire, touching upon all aspects of life concerning them with the help of trainers. “They volunteered to collect data samples from their own hamlets. Now, I am at a loss to handle the database. It is huge. If I can organize it well, it will be a treasure of reliable information on Attappadi,” he says.
The learning group has a 54 percent girl-child representation. Girl students are trained to crack Navodaya entrances. Four 10-year-old tribal girls made it to the school this year.
Future in self-reliance
“We are happy we landed here. We are thankful to Babu sir and Litty ma'am. We want our little siblings to join us,” Vishnu, Midhin, Binuraj, Shivakumar, Aneesh and Hari sounded alike in their wish.
But Babu Mathew has other plans for the study group. “There is one condition we keep before the students who enroll here – that they should make regular visits and serve as trainers for the future batches after they graduate. Once a couple of batches pass out and get placed somewhere, '91 Kazhaks' will withdraw from Attappadi. Project Shine will transform itself into a self-reliant learning group spearheaded by the successful professionals hailing from Attappadi,” said Babu Mathew.
Babu Mathew does not believe in life-long charity. He thinks persistent support would weaken a community rather than empowering it. His idea of helping a community grow is all about equipping them towards self-reliance. In his own words, “it is not about providing them good fish; but teaching them how to fish.”