Partner Spotlight: Sharana, Pondicherry

Posted by Vineetha Menon on July 22, 2019

Suganya from the StoryWeaver partnerships team, talks to Vandana Shah, COO, Sharana, a Pondicherry-based social and development organisation that works to address the critical educational needs of socio-economically disadvantaged children and communities in urban Pondicherry and its surrounding villages.

This year, Sharana used the StoryWeaver for a reading programme they ran as part of the summer camps at their centres in Pondicherry. 

Q.Tell us about yourself and your association with Sharana. What motivated you to work in children’s education and welfare space?

My name is Vandana Shah and I am the Chief Operating Officer in Sharana- an NGO based out of Pondicherry. Most of what I am today is because of the education in the ashram school at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education till the age of 21 completing my bachelor’s degree.
I was always passionate about people, the villages and communities. I had the opportunity to volunteer in Sharana, a social organization, for six months before my Master's degree. I helped by doing odd jobs, teaching children English, translating French letters in English, and most fun of all- accompanying the children for a one-week long residential camp in Summer. That week of Summer Camp has had a great impact on me; it is probably what made me decide to look back towards Sharana 6 years later. 

After having completed my Master’s degree I worked in several fields; teaching languages as a teacher, coordinator at a Language institute, interpreter. In 2013, Sharana happened to fall into my lap, when I approached Mrs. Rajkala P., founder and president of the organization and since that moment in March 2013- 6 years have flown across, I have not seen the time pass and I am beginning to realize a more meaningful purpose in life. 
In my experience at Sharana, I am convinced that true and lasting change can only be brought through education and this is especially true of children from the streets and slums. If they want to come out of the vicious cycle of poverty and become independent and productive individuals, schooling is essential. We have seen children from the toughest backgrounds come out victorious against all odds, and our dedicated team of social workers has always been present in case any hurdle arises.
2. Do you like to read books? If yes, how important is introducing reading culture in children from their young age?
I love reading books, although I confess, I have not been able to read as much as I would have liked to in the past few years.
In today’s age, where there are screens everywhere, it is essential to introduce reading to the children. It’s a dying habit, it’s so rare to see children pick up a book and read, most of them read on screens, watch videos - it's indeed the digital age everywhere.
I owe too much to my teachers and friends who pushed me to read, without their push I would’ve never done it. And now it’s our turn, more than ever, to encourage the children to read and to live the joy of reading, of coming back home and running to finish a book, or eating while reading, or reading through the night because we can’t just close the book! And that moment when you finish a book, and just hold it for a brief moment in your hands. That feeling is priceless.

3. Tell us about your experience with the StoryWeaver Reading Programme and what kind of impact it had on your children.

The children come to Sharana every day of the summer camps and plan several activities for them during this time, ranging from free games, to art, dance, etc. This year we had thought of introducing a reading practice and free-reading activities, where children can pick any books they would like to from the library and read.

The reading programme fell into our laps at the correct time- we had a series of stories, specially designed for Indian children in the context of the summer holidays. The images were real and local, the names were Indian, in short, the scenarios were palpable and imaginable by our children. This was a huge change from other books which may not cater specifically to Indian children. We used to project the stories and often do a read-along followed by some simple interactions and activities.
4. What change do you want to see in children’s education space? What do you wish for the children that you work with at Sharana? 
Sharana works with over 1000 children in total, of these over 400 are from the streets and slums in and around Pondicherry.  Most of the children who access our rural as well as urban centres are first generation school goers, most of which attend government schools. In this schooling system, where most exams are passed depending on your “by-hearting” and not necessarily on your understanding skills- it is important here to note that our children’s levels of English vary from basic to almost nil. The challenge, therefore, is huge, but the effects of this reading practice are real- today after just a few weeks of using these stories, the children are more confident when they read and they try to understand the meaning of the words and sentences without simply repeating -this was clearly lacking before.

We encourage children to read books. When they are in Sharana, books and art material is always at their disposal- they should be able to choose what they would like to do in their free time and have the means available to do it. 
To our immense pleasure some children have started picking up books and running to the shelves and fighting over who gets which book- sometimes it’s to go through the pictures, and sometimes it’s to read aloud- sometimes it may be too tough and they just try to read aloud a few words- whatever the reason we see that the seeds have been planted!
Reading is essential for the learning of any language, and especially reading aloud and reading regularly- we will continue to provide these to the children in the centre of Sharana. Even when other programs start and may finish- access to reading in Sharana will remain a constant. I want the children at Sharana to make friends with books and learn to escape into the world of the written word.

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