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     Volume 8 Issue 53 | January 16, 2009 |

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Making a Difference

Awakening the Community
An organisation run by young people teaches slum kids to give a reason to dream of better lives.
Naimul Karim

“Hello! What's your name? How are you?” These are possibly the most common phrases in the English language and the first words of English that most of us or rather the more fortunate ones amongst us learn in pre-school or Kindergarten. These phrases are also being used by a group of children living in the slum areas of Rayer Bazaar, to address each other. Ranging between the ages of five to 12, these children happen to lead very different lives as compared to other poverty-stricken children in the city. As soon as the clock strikes four in the evening, these children are seen in a classroom in their white and blue uniforms, learning both English and Bangla alphabets, not to mention reciting nursery rhymes in both languages. That's not all. These children are also taught the basic operations on desktop computers. All this is possible because of a small but ambitious organisation called the JAAGO Foundation.

Starting out with just a handful of children and one room, the school today consists of more than 80 children, two classrooms and 20 young students who teach and work voluntarily for JAAGO.

Founded on April 14, 2007 in Dhaka by a group of young students, the organisation focuses mainly on illiteracy and malnutrition. Korvi Rakshand, the chairperson and founder of the organisation says: “JAAGO aims to bring about a substantial improvement in the lives of disadvantaged children with special emphasis on their literacy and nourishment,” he says. Keeping this in mind the organisation took its first step when it opened Bangladesh's first ever free-of-cost English-medium school located in Rayer Bazaar on November 29, 2007. The main target of the school is to provide quality education to the students and encourage the poor families in the area to educate their children.

The enthusiastic children readily raise their hands to answer questions in class, and are quite vocal and expressive while reciting nursery rhymes in front of visitors.

Starting out with just a handful of children and one room, the school today consists of more than 80 children, two classrooms and 20 young students who teach and work voluntarily for JAAGO. These children have access to a small computer lab where regular classes are held on basic computer operations. There is also a small piece of land beside the school, which is used as a playground by the children during recess. "We have our daily assemblies and special programmes on the playground as well," says Korvi. The children are taught English, Bangla, Mathematics, Islamic Studies and Moral Science. The school also has art, drama and dance lessons for the children, which are taught by professionals. “Most of the volunteers at JAAGO study and work during the day," explains Korvi. "In spite of that, the volunteers dedicate at least 15 hours every week to these children." "The only fuel that drives us to come here in the evening after a tough day is the enthusiasm of these kids,” says Polly Rahman, a volunteer, who is also a teacher in an English-medium school in Dhaka. "The children practically light up every time they see us coming in to take classes."

Classes are held from 4 to 7 in the evening six days a week. Once a week, however, the volunteers and the children try to do something together, for instance, eating together, playing different games and going out on field trips. “For these children, our young volunteers are like role models," says Korvi. "That is why we try to build a more homely atmosphere where these kids interact openly with our teachers. This way there is an exchange in terms of ideas and lifestyle as well. We learn plenty about their lives and vice versa."

Foreign donors and friends spend time with the children at JAAGO.

To encourage both parents and students to get more involved with JAAGO, the organisation has taken the initiative to provide each child with half a kg of rice everyday. "Initially, because of lack of funds, we found this to be a little difficult," says Korvi. "We worked very hard not to overspend on other things since we did not want to stop giving rice to the children. It worked as a good incentive for parents and students alike." What touched Korvi most was when one day the children and their parents came up to him and requested him and the other volunteers not to give the daily portion of rice to the children anymore. "They could see that we were going through occasional financial crisis and asked us instead to spend the extra money on the children's education rather than the rice!" says Korvi. “Such incidents make us proud of our kids and also to be a part of this organisation," says Naureen Jahan, a BBA student and a volunteer in charge of the students' health and first-aid.

The enthusiastic children readily raise their hands to answer questions in class, and are quite vocal and expressive while reciting nursery rhymes in front of visitors. “These students are doing something they probably never dreamed of," says Yead Mahmood, a volunteer. Because of their economic conditions, most of the children of the slum dwellers have to work with their parents to help their respective families run households. The few hours that they spend at school let them become the children that they really are. "They are happier here at school,” adds Yead. Akash, a Kindergarten student immediately agrees with his teacher. In a very animated way, he explains proudly that after returning home from school he also spends some time teaching his parents how to read and write both in English and Bangla!

JAAGO has a Child Sponsorship Programme where a donor takes the responsibility of one child or more. According to Iffat Zerin Haque, the head of this project, every donor pays an amount of Tk 1000 for each child, which takes care of the child's various expenses, for examples books, colour pencils etc. Apart from that, there are a few well-established schools and other donors, which support the children. The school presently has around 70 donors, amongst who is a 6-year-old girl who recently donated all her soft toys to the school. Private universities such as North South University and Independent University of Bangladesh support the organisation by helping them spread the message of the school. Celebrities and rock bands like Radioactive also act as ambassadors of JAAGO.

Very recently, JAAGO involved the Leo Club of Dhaka Heaven Plus in its activities. The Leo Club is an organisation comprised of young and energetic members who are driven purely by their desire to help their community and bring substantial changes in the lives of the underprivileged. "The Leo Club has supported JAAGO by organising excursion trips, providing uniforms and supplying stationery for our children," says Korvi.

The school however is in search of a corporate funding source that would definitely improve the facilities and further help in the expansion of the school. “There are around 100 students in the waiting list who want to join the school at the moment and the only way we can enrol them is if we can build more rooms,” said Korvi. Very recently, JAAGO started its first liaison office in Australia that plans to collect funds from various Bangladeshis living there.

Although the organisation was formed one and a half years ago, JAAGO has progressed at a very impressive pace. However according to Korvi, this is just the beginning and they have a very long way to go. In the near future JAAGO plans to build a similar school in Banani and hopes to open other liaison offices both inside and outside Dhaka for funds. They also plan to open clubs in academic institutions to spread awareness and increase the number of volunteers.

A determined Korvi who dreams of opening similar schools all over Bangladesh, gives special emphasis to the English language in his school, since according to him, it is a major requirement in the market today. “Today, to get a good job one needs to be equally competent in English and Bangla,” he says. He further says that with enough support he hopes to continue the project and dreams of spreading the message of JAAGO all over the county.

(For more information on JAAGO, visit www.jaago.bd.com)


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