[Image 1: children participating in fun activity]

Penned by Board Member Alo Pal 

“So, how do the children come to Sharana?” I asked Manuel while taking notes for the 2023 Sharana Summer Camp. “Most of the children come on their own.” And I had concluded my piece last year with a heartening thought about how, in the interiors of Pondicherry, a neighbor still looks out for another neighbor.

But then we lost Aarthi. Her family lost their little daughter, the community lost their child, and we at Sharana lost one of ours to a most heinous, brutal rape and murder. Aarthi was eight.
Normally, by the time the holidays arrive, enlisting for our summer camp is complete. Children look forward to the array of interesting fun activities and delicious nutritious food, and parents are more than willing to enlist their children for the camp. Sharana is a safe space and the community knows we are there for them.

But this year was different. Our Social Centre is but a few meters away from the crime spot. And parents were reluctant. We understood the problem, and our team reached out to the parents and reassured them and explained to them the value of this time spent safely and fruitfully under the watchful eyes and care of the Sharana Centre rather than leaving their children unattended while they had to report to work.

Slowly but surely, names of children got added to the list, and the one modification from the previous year was that the children were to be dropped and picked up by a designated guardian known to the Sharana Staff.

And so, for the past few weeks, when I enter Sharana, I glance at the neatly parked slippers of our children and peek into the halls where children are engaged in various activities. I hear our guest speakers and former students boom over the sound system, motivating our children about career options and the importance of education.

As an immediate measure post the horrific demise of Aarthi, Sharana decided to keep within the space spaces of our social centre children who had dropped out of school and were highly vulnerable targets for substance abuse, delinquency, and sexual exploitation. These children are here with us long term until we can help them reintegrate into school or arrange to upskill them and join the Summer Camp activities. While I teach them spoken English, the aroma of a delicious lunch wafts and ignites their appetite. When class is dismissed, they join others in the queue, sit in neat rows, and eat.

[Image 2: lunch served at the camp]

Our rural centre at Angalakuppam is too hosting a summer camp. Interestingly, the local govt school has organized activities for the children. It is a bit of a drawback that children attending those go to the same venue and meet the same teachers they do when they go to regular school. But it is a commendable step that deserves appreciation.

Sharana sounds now like it should every summer, teeming with children’s chatter, laughter, and excitement. Our true triumph, undoubtedly, lies in restoring the community’s faith in our support and intentions. Yes, I bemoan the loss of innocence of a child and a community allowing its children to walk into our centre unescorted. But then, the fact is that children are back!

[Image 3: children playing at the camp]