Monday, March 20, 2017

From slums to sandcastles

"I’m very lucky to work for two fantastic organisations here in Mumbai. I am currently completing a fellowship with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) and the Indian branch of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). In particular, GPM works in under-served rural villages and urban slums in the state of Maharastra. We focus primarily on education, health and nutrition programmes. By addressing these three areas, we can change lives and give someone the ability to make choices about their own life. A privilege many of us don't even recognise we have.

Another privilege that was once pointed out to me, during my time in Ghana with Tzedek, is travel and movement. Throughout most of our lives we will, at some point, visit somewhere outside of our own neighbourhood. However, for many of the children GPM works with this is not the case. Their experience of the world is almost entirely limited to life in Kalwa slum. Despite Kalwa being no more than 30 minutes from one of the world’s largest cities, Mumbai, almost none of the children from the slums will have been to see it. They will never have been to a park, museum or even a library.

To do something about this, the JDC works with GPM to create the JDC GPM Internship programme. This programme empowers young Jews form the local community to run weekly ‘Sunday Fundays’ for the children GPM works with in Kalwa. Volunteers plan educational and fun sessions that take place all over Mumbai. They could visit the science museum, aquarium, or an art gallery, maybe the gardens in Malabar Hill or, like this week, go to the beach.

Dressed up and super ready for the day, 21 kids, aged 5-12 years old, excitedly waved and shouted hello at us from the bus as it pulled up by Chowpatty beach in south Mumbai. As they got off we were greeted with high fives, smiles and shouts of “hi teacher!”. I’m not sure I can do justice to the look of excited happiness on their faces as we walked/ran/climbed the walls towards the entrance. However, as we reached the edge of the beach, the group at the front, abruptly stopped. Unsure, they looked to each other and then collectively took a leap of faith. They had never seen or felt sand before. These kids had never been to a beach before. This initial trepidation was quickly forgotten as the playground came into sight. There are no real open spaces in Kalwa slum, especially not ones with playground equipment, or without rubbish.
The volunteers from the internship spent time teaching the kids about different sports; cricket, basketball, football, hockey, etc. We then played relay races and running games. Everyone was shouting, cheering and laughing - volunteers, teachers and kids, together.

After lunch where, obviously, popards and gulab jamum were in the highest demand, we started going down to the sea. A small group of four held Maayan and my hands as we walked down to the edge of the water. Along the way Maayan explained, in Hindi, that this was the sea, and not a river or lake like you have in Kalwa. Understandably, Nikita, who was holding my hand very tightly as we approached, was a little intimidated by the sea and putting her feet in the water. So, the volunteers dipped our toes in the water and soon everyone followed. As the water washed over their feet there was a collective laughing, giggling, shriek of pure joy. After all the kids had gone to the sea, we returned back to the group only to be greeted with a very loud and enthusiastic request to go to the sea again!

Watching these amazing, beautiful, inquisitive children discovering the beach for the first time was just wonderful. It often feels like, in Mumbai, a positive only exists as a result of a stark contrast to a negative. But this Sunday, for a few hours, that was not the case at all. They were just kids at the beach, playing, laughing and having fun.

I feel so blessed to work with organisations and people that make these experiences possible, and that I was included. How special that for one morning our only job is to bring happiness, new experience and opportunity to these children. The smiles on the kids’ faces at the end of the day is testament to what can be achieved with little money, but a lot of time, care and effort from dedicated, hard-working people."

Lucy Cohen,
JDC JSC Pears Fellow 2017
GPM Volunteer Coordinator and Development Project Manager

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