While the city is abuzz with its heavy flow of vehicles on its narrow streets, a bunch of tiny tots, flashing their neatly pressed red chequered uniforms and polished shoes, enter the gates of Providence Convent at Koramangala in Bengaluru, on a bright Friday morning. The Convent is an old school with a church and houses several old trees, making it a calm place, despite its existence on the busy Hosur road. A shelter home, within the campus, is on its way to get its final colours. The curious eyes of the tiny tots search for a familiar face in the playground. A young woman with soft curls and an infectious smile appears behind the trees and their hearts cheer up. There is warmth in her touch and a spark in her eye, enough to make the children feel safe and protected. For kids there, and in shelters across the country, Gloria Benny is the beacon of hope for a better tomorrow.
It did not take much time for her to spread her charm. As I enter with my travel bags, her first question immediately after a warm greeting was, “Can I help you with one of these?” I decline, but that gesture was enough to win my heart. To my question of how many children does she have, she beams with her smile saying, “Every child that I see is like my own.” The sprightly 30-year-old Benny, has built two strong organisations of value and strength, ‘Make A Difference’ and ‘Guardians of Dreams’, for underprivileged children across the country who live in shelter homes. She wants them to dream of an ambitious life, just like their well-off counterparts, by providing them education, infrastructure and psycho-social care.
Born into a middle-class family at Kochi in Kerala, Benny spent her early life in Saudi Arabia. She was 19-years-old when she visited her first shelter home in Kochi. “It showed me a part of the society that I didn’t know existed,” she says. The visit was a revealing experience of a part of society, which is unjust and unfair, which she then decided to stand against. Driven by this strong ideal, she started volunteering in one of those shelter homes along with her friends, who shared similar views towards social inequalities. She believes that her stay in Saudi Arabia provided her a better exposure towards life. “From social adjustment to learning how to interact with people, to deciding where you want to be in terms of your goals and aspirations, the stay helped me have a broader approach towards life,” she says. It was not until she started teaching at shelter homes that she realised that the way those children looked at themselves and dreamt about their ambitions and goals, was way below what a child should have been aspiring for. She says, “Their dreams being limited merely because of their circumstances and not because of their lack of skill or potential, was something I found difficult to accept.” Along with Benny, Jithin Nedumala, Sujith Varkey, Kavin KK, Santosh Warrier and Jithin John Varghese, were instrumental in founding and fleshing out the concept of Make A Difference (MAD) to encourage and motivate the children to change the trajectory of their lives. They started empowering every child by making them realise their individual potential and capabilities and how circumstances should not stop them from dreaming big or aiming higher in life. This laid the foundation for MAD in 2006.
MAD was primarily built by college-going volunteers who were able to spend some time teaching the kids after their college hours. Since Benny and her passionate team at MAD were hardly 19 and 20 year-olds when they started the organisation, not everyone took them seriously. They were often ridiculed as a “bunch of idealist youngsters whose craze will fizzle out after a while.” “People many a times would just watch from the stands and see how long we would keep up the passion,” says Benny. But there was no question of the passion fading away. Starting with a modest number of 20-30 volunteers, MAD has had more than 3,000 volunteers who have helped children across different cities in India.
In the footsteps of her financier father, Benny graduated in commerce from Sacred Hearts College in Kochi. She worked for Google as a project manager at Hyderabad for five years. She acquired key organisation building skills while she was there. While in Hyderabad, she was also associated with MAD and was working in shelter homes in her spare time. After six years of her association with MAD, she realised that the problem of childcare was much deeper than what she had gauged at first and hence, decided to work full-time in the sector from 2012. Although initially it was difficult to convince her parents about quitting Google, they understood her passion and stood by her cause.
Benny reached out to many colleges in order to build her team and the response was good. The keen interest of many youngsters helped her in scaling MAD into one of the largest youth volunteer networks in the country from a pet project. “Youngsters are idealists. They are a bunch of go-getters, filled with hope for the world and who feel strongly about social injustice,” feels Benny. The organisation remained completely volunteer-driven until 2010. Gradually, the size and complexity of operations drove the need for a full time workforce to provide strategic and operational support for city teams around the country. Volunteers who could spend anywhere from two to ten hours a week and commit at least one year of their time can be a part of MAD. They have reached out to around 5,000 children in 77 shelter homes, across 23 cities in India, making MAD India’s first NGO to run purely on a scalable volunteer model.
Benny ensured that each child would be attended to by spending time and understanding them, so that they could develop individual plans for every child in helping them discover their life skills and chart out their career path, besides focusing on softer skills such as art, music and language lessons. They also provided funding through NGOs, depending on the needs of the child. She also made sure that the child had somebody to reach out to whenever s/he wanted someone to be with.
Benny proudly remembers one child from Kochi who got a scholarship from the US embassy for his higher education in 2010. Jobish Mathew was a simple boy from Kerala and started off like any other child. Benny says that she had never imagined that this would have been possible because the embassy chose him despite the fact that he had limited exposure. While the embassy offered a one-year scholarship, MAD helped him financially for two more years and Benny proudly claims, “He is integrated very well into the society and community there, and I think both for him and us, that was a moonshot.” Benny is trying hard to replicate Mathew’s success through the other children. Benny says she recalls Mathew’s example whenever she feels like giving up.
After having worked for almost a decade in this sector, Benny realised that even if teaching was a crucial component for the children, bigger systemic challenges were crippling the way shelter homes ran and as a result, they were not getting what they deserved. The way shelter homes operate and the way policies are framed around it, stimulated her to dig deep and understand the issue at the ground level, so that she could address the issue in a holistic way and help the children grow.
India has the largest child population in the world of around 435 million. About 40% of the children need care and protection from the increasing psycho-social risks that include abuse, neglect, child labour and early marriage. So in 2015, Benny started her second organisation, Guardians of Dreams, to look at childcare as a whole and not just through shelter homes or underprivileged children alone. While MAD essentially looks at mobilising youngsters to teach or to be a role model for the children in shelter homes, Guardians of Dreams looks to improve the way childcare practices are carried out.The organisation provides them scholarships via NGOs to pursue higher education, make sure the kids have basic ID documents such as birth certificates, so that they are able to access their rights and benefits.
Guardians of Dreams is trying to get local communities involved, where people can come together and ensure that every child, irrespective of where or which family they are born into, has some basic identity. “There are people who don’t even know that a shelter home exists in their own neighborhood,” she says. Benny draws inspiration from the many participatory social reform movements that don’t require people to give up everything in their lives and still do their bit for the society.
Being a woman has certainly helped her in this sector as children would feel safe and protected around women more than men. “Children tend to open up more if the caretaker is friendly and approachable,” she says. But, there have been bumps on the way. She remembers a boy in one of the shelter homes, who was picked up by the police and he begged Benny’s organisation to help him come out and yet, he fled a few days after he got out. “His running away again was testimony to the fact that the system had failed him, yet again, despite all our efforts,” she says. But she doesn’t let these incidents deter her as she considers them as a part of her learning experience.
Benny attributes her success to her ever-enthusiastic teammates who have worked tirelessly along with her. Unprivileged children across the country can now dream of a better tomorrow and a brighter future, thanks to their guardian of dreams — Gloria Benny and her team.