The below article is penned by our board member, Mrs. Alo PAL
About twenty years ago Rajkala the founder President of Sharana established Sharana, an organization where she laid firmly the most important principle upon which she would build Sharana – Development.
Two other vital points Rajkala has been scrupulously mindful of – our donors and our partners. In the past, many of our blogs have brought to you accounts of our interventions where we have presented a pre and post-intervention scenario to illustrate our model of intervention. Today we focus on one of our partners.
Pooja was one of seven siblings living on the streets. Her alcoholic mother passed away a few years ago, her father continues to live on the streets. Pooja was enrolled in our Back to School program and dropped out of school after her 9th exam. She lived with one of her brothers as living in the streets wasn’t safe anymore but she was over-worked there. Our social workers have been relentless in their outreach and today she lives with another brother. Without much of an education and motivation, it was vital that Sharana empower her with a skill so she could become independent.
-Pooja in the kitchen
Rati is 16 years old, assisting her ailing mother in household chores since she was ten. Her father has a serious heart ailment. Her mother runs a fruit cart shop under our Women’s entrepreneurship program, a business that saw near a near halt due to Covid. Unable to do any justice to her studies along with her responsibilities Rati dropped out of school after her 10th exam. Supplementing the family income was vital.
-Rati in the kitchen
These girls were selected for our vocational training program in the restaurant business. Sharana pays them a monthly stipend of 2000 rupees that now are deposited directly into their respective bank accounts. This is an important incentive and often the reason why families are willing to let their children enroll.
When Sharana gets into a partnership with anyone for its programs the most important aspect looked into is the safety of the environment. When I asked Senthil, who owns Banana Cafe and is the Chef what was his first priority he told me “I had to ensure the girls that they were safe here”. Senthil is self-taught. His restaurant serves continental platters. Alcohol is tax-free and weekend clientele from neighboring states flock Pondicherry and is a major source of sustenance for the hospitality industry, but Senthil has not applied for a liquor license on principle. “I would rather run my place with a few personalized customers who appreciate good food, my healthy portions, do not waste food than get into the business of serving alcohol and everything else that entails”. A peaceful sleep at the end of a hard day’s work it what he cherishes. “Just like Sharana has chosen Banana Cafe for its project similarly I too am mindful about who I work with and what kind of customers my place attracts”.
- -with their first stipend cheques
When the girls arrived they knew absolutely nothing. Training began with a rigorous implementation of personal hygiene, this was followed by a systematic initiation to the maintenance and up keep of the restaurant, gradually they were brought into the kitchen where again the focus was on standards of maintenance of daily requirements and quality checks of oil, vegetables, meats. Skills at being efficient assistants to the head Chef were inculcated one at a time. By the time their training is complete Senthil thinks they would have acquired sufficient skills to be efficient assistants to Chefs is any good restaurant in the city.
-the girls ready to serve a dinner, they have set up the tables for the night
“Why not train them in Cuisine proper?” “That would actually be limiting their options from being empowered and independent” – by this time on my interaction with Senthil I had got used to receiving thoughtful sometimes even calm philosophical answers from him. “Today they’re working in a restaurant that serves continental dishes, tomorrow they could find work in a restaurant that specializes in Tamil delicacies, where their culinary skills in continental dishes will be of little use. I am training them systematically and well in every aspect of running a place leading up to being efficient assistants to Chefs of any cuisine. The market has a demand for such skill and they could command a good price for their services with what I’ve taught them”. He will of course enhance some of their cooking skills too and is contemplating training in baking.
- -Pooja and Rati in a regular update meeting with Senthil-owner and chef at Banana Cafe, Vandana-Director-Operations at Sharana, and social workers Ravianand, Anbazhagan and Vadivu.
“I believe in imparting knowledge, in our Tamil culture, we are taught to impart what we have learned to keep knowledge alive. I have trained many apprentices but I’ve never done it for money. I am willing to give my time and energy for those interested so that the knowledge I have acquired is passed on.” During our conversation, Senthil looked at Vandana our COO who was instrumental in creating this partnership with Banana Cafe and said “ Sharana has done a commendable job to bring these girls from their homes to the Cafe, inside the Cafe they are my wards and they are my responsibility, but I think you should perhaps do a bit more of a follow up once they’re back home their punctuality is slacking and they should be reminded that they don’t work for me, they’re learning a skill, this is a training.” This is the point where I fully understood the complete ownership and responsibility with which Senthil worked with us.
The hospitality industry has huge potential for job creation in Pondicherry. But it also comes with its risks and aspects of worry for organizations like Sharana who deal with not only the economically vulnerable but also beneficiaries who live extremely fragile and violent emotional and physical existences. Their childhood is lost in labor and abuse where our social workers engage in constant closely monitored outreach work to convince them of the value of education and skill. Our aims are challenging but our sense of purpose is met when we ensure a difference to their lives with empowerment via skill development. Choosing donors and partners carefully is therefore paramount. In Banana Cafe under Senthil we have found our girls a safe haven of excellence and security. When aims match and philosophies and work ethic are in sync there is great potential for meaningful change.
- – board member Mrs Alo PAL, in conversation with Senthil/owner and chef Banana Cafe, and Rati and Pooja
****Please note that the names of the trainees have been changed to protect their identity.