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Shaheen Mistri always knew that the best gift a poor child could be given was education. Shes done just that from 60 centres and six municipal schools in Mumbai and Pune



My second centre was in a room under the staircase of the boys hostel at St Xaviers College

In the summer of 1989, Shaheen Mistri, just 18 then, watched as street urchins with bright eyes pounded on car windows at a traffic light, holding out their palms for a coin, or a crumb, only to be swatted like flies by the rush of people both irritable and impatient . Her heart went out to them, and in one swift roll-down of the windowpane, Shaheen had let the kids into her life.
Then a first-year student at a college in America, Shaheen had lived abroad all her life and was in Mumbai on a vacation. The poverty she saw on the streets of Maximum City moved her so much that she decided to stay back in India to do her bit.
Shaheen dived headlong into the slums of Mumbai and founded Akanksha, now one of urban Indias most popular NGOs with an army of volunteers teaching underprivileged kids at over 60 centres in Mumbai and Pune. Akanksha also runs six municipal schools in the two cities. We want to develop them as model schools for government bodies as well as NGOs to emulate, says Shaheen.
At the heart of Akankshas success lies Shaheens infectious, childlike enthusiasm coupled with innate resourcefulness. I had never visited a slum, so I simply marched into one at Cuffe Parade, and instantly connected with a girl my age, although she didnt know any English and I barely spoke a word of Hindi, she says. Shaheen would visit her every day after college. She picked up a smattering of Hindi from the slum kids, and began teaching them English.
Its here that Shaheen learnt how unfair the world was. I would walk into a home and see a child born one day, only to return a couple of days later and find that the child had died of some preventable disease like diarrhoea, she says. I found this unacceptable.
Soon she felt the kids needed more than just English classes. They would hang around doing nothing all day. They needed to see what a classroom looked like.
And so began Shaheens long search for a place where she could start her first centre . I approached several school principals and asked them whether I could use one of their classrooms, after hours. But almost all of them refused, she says, adding that finally she hit bulls eye at Holy Name High School, Colaba.
Her second centre was in a room under the staircase of the boys hostel at St Xaviers College. Shaheen would go from class to class with hand-painted posters recruiting students for Akanksha. In the beginning, most volunteers were students of St Xaviers . Two decades later, Shaheen has used the same enthusiasm to motivate college students and young professionals to join the Teach For India programme, which has seen a hundred young people devote two years of their lives for the mission.
The transition from Akanksha to Teach For India was no easy task. It was really hard to leave Akanksha, she says. I was able to do it only because I felt I was giving young people the opportunity to work directly with kids and to understand that eliminating poverty was the way to begin a huge movement towards eliminating inequity . Every child needs to be given an excellent education.


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