Dehradun: Aasraa Trust & Waste Warriors

Anya Gonzalez

“Who will do it? I will do it.” That is the chant of one of the NGOs we visited today named the Waste Warriors. Although these organizations apply the “war cry” to the work they do creating waste management systems in rural communities, it applies to the other NGO we visited called the Aasraa trust. 

This morning we woke bright and early and headed on a bumpy one hour bus ride to Dehradun. Outside my window, vibrant colors flitted in the forms of flags and mural installations. Temple spires rise above the town and below lie the slums. It’s a truly heart dropping moment to see young children play amongst trash during the school hour. Aasraa Trust, an NGO founded by Shaila Brijnath was founded to create opportunities for the young and impoverished children of Dehradun. Her trust focuses on the “whole child” method which gives children a strong foundation for succeeding in life. In order to better understand Aasraa’s education process, we visited all three steps of their program. 

We began in a large empty lot surrounded by houses. A coordinator at the NGO, informed us about their approach to the students who, due to many circumstances, are often unable to reach school locations. To tackle this problem, they’ve created mobile classrooms by using school buses. I was able to observe the equivalent of PreK and help the kids learn their numbers in English through an interactive video and song. As I watched the children learn, I glanced out the window and saw a few children outside the classroom who were playing on a nearby fairground ride instead of joining class. The juxtaposition of the two scenes playing out before me was eye opening. I realized that despite the efforts of organizations such as Aasraa there will always be those who fall through the cracks. 

The next step of the journey was at one of the government schools that Aasraa helps run. What once was a school with only a few teachers and without proper necessities such as working lights was now a flourishing place of learning. We were given a tour of the classrooms and eventually ended up in the tinker lab. We gathered around and watched as the students showed us their inventions. I was awe struck by their innovative thinking and particularly inspired by how each student had chosen a project that focused on real-world issues. I could tell through the investment and excitement of the tinker lab teacher that Aasraa  ensures that its educators are passionate about their students. 

Our final step was at the career training center. There, we met Shaila for tea and were able to converse with her. Shaila was well spoken and in all honesty a riot. Her humor and ability to connect with each individual student was so inviting I didn’t want our conversation to end. I enjoyed how with each question, she turned it back on the student. Her conversation method exemplified the attitude she brings to Aasraa trust in that she cares immensely about every individual. 

Sophia Manzur

During my time at the Mansa Devi temple, street children would pull at my clothes, grab my shoulder, point to a deformity they had on their body, then hold out their hand signaling for me to give them money. As a child, I was taught to show empathy and compassion to individuals who were struggling, even if I did not know them. As much as I wanted to give them something, I was specifically instructed not to do so by my teachers. This situation became extremely difficult for me because not only was I dismayed by my morals, but I was also neglecting impoverished 7-year-olds.

It was explained by a local Dehradun teacher this morning that even if you gave one child money, they would give half of the amount they earned to their parents, while the other half they would keep and spend on items that wouldn’t benefit them, typically drugs. Most of these children are around the ages of 5-10 years old. Therefore, by giving them money, you are essentially feeding into their addiction, continuing the cycle of poverty in India.

Although it seems as if there is no solution to ending the juxtaposition in this situation, there is extreme progress being made. Aasraa Trust is an NGO created by Shaila Brijnath that is dedicated to leveling the playing field in the education system, allowing street children to have the opportunity to have a future within the world. Today, Shaila and the Aasraa Team educate over 8000 children spread over 60+ projects and in partnership with the Education Department of Uttarakhand in 13 Government Schools across Uttarakhand.

We were able to visit one of the schools in Dehradun. The schools were on a mobile bus that seated a little over 20 children. My classmates and I had the opportunity to sit in on their lesson. All the kids seemed to be around 5-6 years old. They were learning how to count in English and in Hindi. I sat next to a girl named Vishnu. She sat up straight, while her hands rested in her lap, participating in the lesson, with a focused demeanor on her face. Not only was Vishnu dedicated to her education, but so were her peers. They all seemed so happy to be there and eager to learn more.

Next, we visited an elementary through high school that was half government-funded and partnered with Aasraa. Because this school is partnered with Aasraa, they are able to offer resources that will help the kids once they graduate to become successful within the industry they are specializing in. We were able to visit one of the classrooms where students engineered different innovative technological devices. One of the students created a multipurpose farming cane, designed for those who struggle with walking. I was impressed not only with the design but also with the intention to serve the disabled community, who are often overlooked in society.

Lastly, we visited Aasraa’s workforce integration program. This program allows a bridge between education and skills to learn for different types of jobs. My class was honored to speak with Shaila Brijnath. The three words I would use to describe her are expressive, empathetic, and attentive. Shaila talked about how she went to college for education, then once she graduated she traveled across the world for banking. She then realized that her true passions lay in providing education for others, so she started Aasraa Trust. Shaila said that she learned that you should follow your passions, even if everyone else is going down a different path than you are.

I felt full of life after this trip today because I was able to see the wonderful learning environments Aasraa Trust has cultivated in order to end the cycle of poverty in India. In the future, I hope to work with children in impoverished communities by giving them a space to share their stories through art. Aasraa Trust showed me the possibilities of my passions and the beauty that they could bring to the world.

Logan Shaw

Today was a long day during which we did a lot. We visited a city in the foothills of the Himalayas and learned many things about education in rural Indian communities. The city we visited was called Dehradun, and it was a very pretty town. The air quality was significantly better than it has been, which was nice and the mountains resembled Dr. Seuss drawings.

We started out the day at an organization that provides schooling for street children. This school holds their classes in school buses that come to the children directly and stay parked in their village. Witnessing the children smiling and singing songs was heartwarming. The organization responsible for this noble work was called Aasraa, and they were doing God’s work. They have a comprehensive program that educates children and equips them with practical skills such as driving and communication to break the cycle of poverty and lead fulfilling lives. The school we toured was highly advanced, with a robotics lab where they created drone detectors, RC cars, and transmitted Wi-Fi signals through LED lights.

Another organization we visited today was Waste Warriors, stationed in a more remote part of India. Their mission was to establish a system for collecting and sorting trash. The employees at this organization were optimistic about India’s future. We have seen a lot of litter along our travels, it was reassuring to see people actively working to address these environmental problems. They sorted the trash into different categories to recycle and had a lot of knowledge about the causes of the trash problem. They also talked about why no one was doing anything about it, because one, there is a spiritual component about it, and two, historically it was the lowest castes job to clean up the trash. That’s why another part of their mission was to make it more of a cool thing to clean up the streets. I think it’s a very noble thing to be doing. There also isn’t any money in the trash business, so they need to rely completely on donations from big companies to stay operating. 

Cy Harris

Yesterday, we visited the Sri Ram Vidya Mandir school, the school associated with the Sri Ram Ashram. To get to speak with and interact with kids from kindergarten to our age was such a pure experience. You don’t think you can possibly relate to a person seemingly so different from you, yet when you get the opportunity to compare, it’s hard to find anything that isn’t the same in some way. They are kids just like us, humans just like us, with thoughts and dreams and hobbies just like us. I felt my eyes opened by the experience. 

Today, we visited a series of other school establishments. The first was a bus. That may seem odd at first, but it’s actually one of the most impactful inventions I think I’ve heard of. School buses, instead of taking kids to school, take the school to the kids. These buses are fully equipped classrooms to provide for children that are not given the resources to attend a regular school. It serves the children who collect money on the street for a living, and provides them with the opportunity for an education with no cost and no need to get there. In addition, they also feed the kids when they go to school on the bus, which for many is a highly effective motivator. We got to get on the bus for a class. The children were all so happy to be there, it made me realize how much I take school for granted. 

Shaila Brijnath

We next visited the junior school, and played games with the kids after touring around their facilities and receiving a wonderful presentation from their Tinkering class (similar to an STEM class in the US). 

Finally, we got to do an informal interview with Shaila Brijnath. She was awe inspiring. Simply the story of her life was inspiring, not even considering what she has done with her life. She began her career in banking, realized she was not satisfied, and spontaneously moved back to India where she was born after spending the majority of her life in London. She began the Aasraa Trust, a nonprofit organization that provides classes from computer basics to factory safety to sewing, to provide people young and old with skills they need to make money or keep a house. In addition, she has helped start over 60 more programs to support children in all ways, through education, healthcare, and counseling. It was truly an amazing experience to witness all that people can accomplish when they are passionate about giving back to their community.