Unmindful of the dust and dirt around, a dozen-odd children sitting on a plastic sheet spread on the floor, listen in rapt attention to their teacher explaining about the dos and don’ts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A banner of ‘Adarsh Education Centre’ in the background is the only sign suggesting that it’s an open-air school run at Sugali Colony, tucked away from the main road in the bustling Patamatalanka in the city. This modest centre is run by Jones Manikonda and her dedicated team of volunteers who reach out to children from marginalised communities in an attempt to bridge the education inequality, further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Islavat Divya, a Class V student from the Zilla Parishad school on Ashramam Road, loves to attend the daily 4 p.m.-6 p.m. class at this centre as she gets to learn things here the fun way. Bukya Sai Ram Nayak, a Class VIII student from Vijaya Bharathi School run by the Child Line Foundation, says the best part is that the teachers egg them on to aim high and dream big. “I am able to think of life beyond this tiny colony where I live,” he says.
At a parallel centre being run at a waste pickers’ colony, off Pedda Pulipaka Road at Yanamalakuduru, Rajini, a resident of the colony, is delighted that her eight-year-old son Moshe is able to write his name, thanks to Kalpala Sravanthi, a college student-turned volunteer. “Sravanthi is also a resident of this colony and among the few children who continue their education in the community. We try to select volunteers from among the communities so the children feel comfortable and the teacher can also touch upon issues directly affecting their lives,” explains Ms. Manikonda.
A person with a deeply ingrained sense of altruism, Ms. Manikonda has been in the service sector for the last 20 years, initially on a personal level and later, by collaborating with like-minded individuals and organisations to expand her reach to the needy. During her visit to slums to distribute food, used clothes, toys and other material, she closely watched their lifestyle, cut off from the forces of mainstream society.
“I thought if we can impart basic education to these children, at least the next generation will realise its value,” she says explaining about the several hurdles she had to cross before starting the centres at these colonies, including stiff resistance by parents who preferred taking their children along to the dump yards for help.
What started as a ‘special school’ to bring children from some of the most backward communities into education fold, at Mylavaram in June last year, in collaboration with Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre, her former employer, has now multiplied into 62 education centres in five cities in the State – Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam, Machilipatnam, Ongole and Kurnool – thanks to like-minded friends and well wishers who joined hands and shared their money and wisdom to take the initiative forward. “Finding teachers is a difficult task as we can’t afford to pay high salaries,” she says, adding that the volunteers are paid a nominal monthly salary of ₹2,000. “We try to compensate by providing them groceries and taking care of some of their medical needs,” she informs. The few full-time teachers, however, are paid ₹10,000 every month.
The good news is that a few NGOs have offered to adopt some of these education centres. “We’ll give them a few and include new areas in our fold,” she says with a smile.