“We decided to create a platform for all the youth who are interested in social intervention,” said Dr Naveen Thomas, Founder, Headstreams. They began with a core team of eight people and spent their first year meeting other youngsters and trying to study the impact of globalisation on health.
“We would go to marketplaces, meet vendors and others from the unorganised sector to see how globalisation had affected their lives,” he explained. “We got an answer we didn’t expect.
The hawkers were actually making a lot more money, but were forced to work until 11 pm, instead of 2 pm like before. They had to deal with people coming home from work at all hours.”
Although they didn’t waver in their aim to enable socially conscious youth, Headstreams began working with the unorganised sector. Their first project was an employment training programme, which began through their chats with hawkers. “Their children weren’t faring well in school and they didn’t want their children to have to live a life of no security,” said Thomas.
Headstreams began working with boys and girls who had dropped out of schools. “Even before the sessions were complete, we had employers calling us for people,” said Thomas. However, when these youngsters were recruited, they found that they could not adjust.
Their own aspirations had been fuelled by the training sessions and now exceeded the scope their jobs provided. “The girls also found it difficult to attend, because their parents were worried for their safety. They would much rather have the young girls joining their aunts or mothers in domestic work.”
That led to the start of the self-help group programme, Aalamba. SHGs are usually known for loans and microfinancing, but this organisation decided on a different approach. The women have a lot to deal with.
They had resigned themselves to a life of dependence. “We helped them set up their own businesses – mostly in tailoring, food and artificial jewellery.”
They got a very good response from women, who were put through a set of tests to see if they were suited to entrepreneurship. “Many weren’t, they had kids to take care of and couldn’t take the risk, but several came back to us and said they were open to it.”
Headstreams also runs an Entrepreneurship Development Programme, which helps these women prepare a business plan, understand income potential and even includes physical trips to markets to check out prices.
Apart from this, the women are trained on how to avail of government schemes. “The government has some excellent programmes for the unorganised sector, including pension and the RTE. But most women don’t know how to go about it, which we help them with.”
The programme ‘Tackle Fest’ deals with the positive mental health of children. It began as the women they worked with admitted that their kids are not interested in school.
The NGO decided to develop easy and creative ways of learning, but quickly realised that even teachers in government schools are trained in methods, but lack the time to implement them.
The Tackle Fest takes children from high schools to colleges for career guidance. Many of the children want to be doctors and software engineers, but they don’t know how to go about it.
“They don’t understand the concept of different disciplines and regular career guidance doesn’t help.” The children are taken to St Joseph’s College, where students and faculty set up creative stalls.
The zoology department, for instance, put up an exhibition of wildlife photography and the Physics department has students with guitars explaining how sound travels. The next session is on November 29 and about 350 children from lower socio-economic backgrounds will attend.
Tackle caravan: In keeping with their goal to have youngsters involved in social work, Masters’ students are asked to sign on with Headstream for a year to work with children from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.
These events are organised in open spaces and children from government schools work with college students every Saturday for a day of activities. They have themes, too, which helps bring out their creativity.
“In many cases, these children come from difficult backgrounds,” explained Thomas. As the kids relate to slightly older people, who become their role models, they are more prone to opening up.
Girls and boys also play together, said Thomas, which slowly destroys stereotypes and ensures that girls are not seen as objects. Over 2,500 kids have been part of this programme and 120 volunteers have signed up this year.
Finally, women who work with the livelihood programme might be successful micro-entrepreneurs, but many haven’t touched a computer in their lives. That’s why Headstreams began the 21st Century Life Skills Programme, which includes English lessons, decision making and critical thinking.
“If they are absorbed into the office culture, there’s more to the job than using a computer.” Although they entered the field with their own expectations, the Headstreams team found those perceptions turning on their heads.
Clearly, working with the unorganised sector is more than bringing them into the mainstream. It is about understanding their lives, the challenges they face and working with them.