-penned by Lucy Heyderman- who volunteered in several programs of Sharana from July-December 2018- she came to Sharana through Development in Action- a volunteer placement organisation Sharana has been collaborating with since 2000. 

For the last 6 months, I have been helping out twice a week at Sharana’s Angalakuppam Community Centre Crèche. Now 6 months is a long time for anyone, but for these kids, it was literally a quarter of their lives. And how they grew!

In fact, I leave feeling as thought my role there is no longer really necessary.

While I have been able to support Tamizhselvi run activities and control the class, and have even covered for days where she has been absent, if I am honest, my inability to speak and understand Tamil has hindered my role in the centre.

Yes. I can say the basics. But let’s be fair, even Tamizhselvi sometimes can’t understand what the children are trying to say as they babble away in Tamil.

However, these kids aren’t dumb. It didn’t take long for the older ones to cotton on to the fact that I couldn’t understand most of what they said. Sounding out the alphabet, counting to twenty or naming different items in English: I am your women. Try and tell me the so-and-so has stolen your toy car and won’t give it back, unfortunately, I just did not have the linguistic apparatus to intervene.

Amazingly, by week 16 the older children had taken it upon themselves to become mediators in arguments, to ensure the younger kids had washed their hands, to collect the toys at the end of free-play and put out and put away the sleeping mats before and after nap time. It is both amusing and heart-warming to see them (chest puffed out with authority) leading the new admissions to the hand washing area or collecting paintbrushes after an art session.

And let’s not forget that when I say ‘older’, I still mean only 3 years old!

Of course the younger children have grown up too. At first I think some of them were a little scared of me (‘who is this strange lady that keeps pretending to be a lion?’) These were the children that sat quietly alone, needed help to eat, and often cried, looking longingly out of the classroom for their parents.

The growth of confidence in these younger boys and girls has been phenomenal. One small boy would rarely utter a single word, and never smiled. 6 months ago, encouraging him to participate in activities was near impossible. Now, it is like he is a different person. During a recent art session, delight was spread across his face as he chatted away to his classmates, Tamizhselvi and myself. He actually got a bit too carried away and started trying to paint before being given all the tools. Consequently, he ended up covered in green paint, smiling happily as he tried to create a string-print, despite not having anything to print the string on to!

I feel lucky to have witnessed the children mature in these ways, and although I will probably never know what kinds of adults they will become, I feel they have been given a good start. Saying this, it is important to remember that these children come from very socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. It is hard to imagine when you see their smiling faces that their parents struggle to provide them with three square meals a day or that alcoholism remains a major issues amongst the households in the village.

Thinking about this highlights the important role that the Crèche plays in Angalakuppam. From 9 am to 3 pm, the children are surrounded by adults who treat them with kindness and respect. They are given a health-mix with warm milk when they arrive, a wholesome lunch, and a snack when they leave. They are listened to, they socialise, they rest and they play. They are able to do arts and craft activities and learn basic English. They grow in this time, build their confidence and mature.

The Coordinator at Sharana once told me that teachers always comment on how happy the children who come from the Angalakuppam Crèche are when they enter school. This does not surprise me at all.  

The centre provides such a safe environment for children to develop and discover themselves. A huge thanks must be given to Tamizhselvi who balances her role as an educator with real kindness and warmth to the children; to Ponny the amazing cook at Angalakuppam, who provides delicious and nutritious daily meals; to Govindammal, the caretake and teaching assistant, who has made the garden so lush and green; and to Lakshmi the health worker who brightens the place with her laughter every day. Working together for sixteen years, these women nurtured the growth of hundreds of children.

And over the years, this has has a hugely positive impact on the village. A last thanks to Anbazhagan, Sharana’s community development social worker who has overseen the development of Angalakuppam for almost seven years, gaining much respect from all of the community members.

Thank you all for letting me be a part of it for just a little bit.