Dream Class Conclusion
Miss the previous Dream Class update? Read it here.
Dream Class, to refresh your memory, was offered to and focused on the group of eight older girls from the previous afterschool program I facilitated toward the end of last year.
It was a shorter, 2-month journey that supported the girls' shared (and bold) dream to pursue college education. In India, most girls do not complete primary school. Instead, they usually marry young and become housewives. All members of the Dream Class are challenging this tradition, despite their financial challenges and partial resistance from families and some community elders.
Though the class only lasted for a short period of time (March — April) and only met twice per week, it was nonetheless impactful and saw some remarkable results, I think, since we all were primed from having worked together almost every day for the past three months in the other class.
In this concluding post, I will share some of our results and process.
As I often talk and write about, I tend to put a sense of bhava (feeling, spirit) at the center of these types of process and values-based programs. That means conducting your work in some kind of sacred or devotional spirit, which further means not being totally focused on the outcome but more on the journey and character development of each participant.
With that said, in Dream Class, there was a much greater emphasis on the goal (college) given our relatively brief time together and the fact that much of the character growth and values development occurred in the previous class.
Each session began with prayer, meditation, and time for personal sharing. This practice and taking "time in" is helpful, I find, for building an intimate group dynamic and creating a gentle atmosphere for the content of the program to unfold in. Several tears were shed during this time when the girls opened their hearts and shared forthrightly about their challenges with pursuing their education.
What are those difficulties? All of their parents, who come from poor and uneducated backgrounds, have not gone to college and by in large do not see the value of it, especially given the prevailing tradition of girls marrying around this time.
It is virtually impossible to go against the wishes of your family and make independent decisions but each has done so anyway because of how strongly they feel about their education. Pushing back like this hasn't been easy.
Also, all the parents, are relatively financially poor and survive on limited means—money is simply not there for college and would be hard to justify regardless. So, the girls have their fair share of worries about where the money is going to come from.
During our bi-weekly sits, we mainly discuss about everything that needs to get done to apply for college and create plans of action for undertaking this large, somewhat daunting task. Here and there, some fun group activities like Laughter Yoga were peppered in. And one of the main concepts I kept coming back to during seminar time, was the necessity of working hard and following through with what they have set out to achieve.
Most of all, this was about creating a supportive foundation for the group's intention.
Meeting Inspiring People
We spent much of our time outside of the community meeting with some remarkable people who encouraged the Dream Class girls and offered their support.
On the top left is Anarbhen Patel, daughter of Gujarat's current Chief Minister and founder of the women's empowerment organization, Gramshree. She helps poor women uplift themselves by providing income-generating opportunities through the production of traditional handicrafts. Her passion, it goes without saying, is helping women.
On the top right is Jayeshbhai Patel (Anarbhen's husband) of Manav Sadhna and the Environmental Sanitation Institute—powerful NGOs closely connected to the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram that work to meet the needs of the poor.
On the bottom left are trustees from the Praleen Trust, a charitable organization that provides financial assistance to individuals requiring support with health and education issues.
On the bottom right is Mafatlal Patel (Anarbhen's father-in-law), a high-level minister in the Gujarat state government, who also works to provide educational opportunities to girls.
It's worth repeating that all members of Dream Class come from a leprosy community in an impoverished slum area, some even have parents who beg for a living.
Meeting with such individuals was no small matter and helped give them added confidence and encouragement. Plus, each has a vast network of resources, which was offered if and when the girls require assistance.
In retrospect, I realize getting others involved like this was a good move because these people (some more than others), in a way, adopted the program as their own and will be involved with it after I step away from the community.
One of our first achievements was finding a donor who committed to supporting all the college tuition fees.
Through Manav Sadhna, an NGO that also works in the leprosy community, I was connected to the Praleen Charitable Trust, who as I just mentioned, provides financial support to people seeking assistance with health and education issues.
During our first in-person meeting with the trustees at their office near the city center of Ahmedabad, we were given assurance that the college tuition fees would not be an issue. They were moved by the girls' dedication to pursue education, especially given their backgrounds and circumstances.
All of us left that meeting thrilled and excited, as the financial end of things was one of the main challenges we were facing and an "impossibility" factor in the minds of the girls. After, I repeatedly emphasized the power of the creative process. Specifically, how when you start any initiative with sincerity, resources tend to line up like this, no matter what.
Another major boon came a few weeks later.
The majority of the Dream Class just entered into Standard 12, which is the equivalent of 12th grade in high school in the US. There is a final national exam given at the end of this year, which like the SAT, determines whether or not you get accepted to college.
Since the girls all live in a slum area, the quality of their education from the local schools isn't the greatest and so extracurricular tuition class is virtually required to ensure the marks necessary to get accepted to college.
Tuition of the sort is expensive (approx. $130 USD) and beyond the financial means of the families. During one of our weekly sessions, we were joined by Virenbhai Joshi and Vandanabhen Agarwal, both of Manav Sadhna, who unexpectedly pledged to support the majority of these extracurricular fees when the topic came up in conversation.
We were all happy and humbled by this act of generosity, which, I think, helped cement the idea that this dream is actually going to be possible.
Meet the Dream Class
Unfortunately, I do not have biographical information on each member of the class. I was eager to get the process going and, admittedly, didn't attend to this more narrative detail.
However, I do have beautiful photography below from our friend, Rahul Pardasani, who dropped by one day to photograph everybody. I think you'll see the brightness of the girls' characters shine through the smiles.
Names in order of appearance: Gurubai, Suman, Sangita, Aruna (mentor, inspiration), Mumta, Rakhi (co-teacher, translator), Triveni, Asha, Sheina, and Gita.
What did we accomplish in our eight weeks together?
We took care of the financial concerns. We built a solid group dynamic based in values. We enlisted the support of some influential and connected people. We have started the difficult conversation with the families about letting their daughters pursue education. And we initiated creative momentum, which could very likely have everybody attending college within a year (no guarantees though).
To continue the journey, Dream Class has been formally adopted by Aruna Chauhan, who also served as our chief source of inspiration.
Aruna, a native of the leprosy community, was one of the first girls to pursue her education despite severe push back from her family, to the point where her elder brother threatened to disown her.
Aruna stayed firm in her position, completed her secondary school education, and recently found full-time employment at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, a prestigious NGO. A number of eyes and minds have opened after seeing the impressive fruits of her labor.
Aruna blazed a trail for others to follow and is almost entirely responsible for inspiring the Dream Class girls to take a more active role in their lives and education, so it makes sense for her to take the reins from here.
She intends to continue to sit with the class each week, provide support and encouragement with exams, and oversee the college application process.
While I have moved out of the community and will have no further direct contact with the class, I will maintain contact with Aruna and continue to support her efforts. Certainly, I will post the periodic update about any progress they make.
A big THANK YOU and hug to the Living Smile donors that made the Dream Class possible.
Continue to next Dream Class update about how four of the members successfully enrolled in college.