An interior designer by profession and an organizer of women-only tours, I walked into the social sector by chance. I had been on the board of an NGO, working against trafficking of women and children. Having interacted with the women, I realized that getting out in the world for them was a tremendous challenge. Totally deprived, they needed the space, away from their cubby hole of a home and closed atmosphere. I was convinced that the city’s poorest and vulnerable urban communities can flourish if its girls and women are equipped to drive change – in their own lives, families, and community. So my childhood friend Namrata Sureka and I created Ek Tara.
I knew that with education, skill building, and the ability to make informed choices, every girl can have the power to hone talents and reach their potential. What started as an informal nursery in 2011 with a handful of women and children, Ek Tara has grown into the area’s most reputed and only English medium pre-primary and primary schooling project.
It has been a long and difficult journey, but a very satisfying one. We decided to start in Topsia, Kolkata’s largest urban slum, home to minority and migrant communities and a hot bed of illegal activities – drug smuggling and peddling, children in labor, etc. Once the center of eastern India’s leather industry, it now wallows in deplorable unhygienic conditions, open drains overflowing with sewage and chemicals used for curing leather, rampant unemployment, poverty, and crime. I was keen to touch the lives of children grappling with such adversity. The area is also a major vote bank, hence politically very volatile.
I was a stranger to direct intervention, and an alien in the area of operation with no concept of its demographics or dynamics. Trying to gain entry and acceptance in the area was like venturing where angels feared to tread! However, my partner and I were determined to do whatever it took for Ek Tara to provide the best quality English-medium learning for these young girls. Mustering resources was an uphill task, so we started by investing on our own. With no fundraising experience, I talked endlessly to whoever would listen among friends and family to help our endeavour. Ek Tara has come a long way, from just 30 it now reaches out to 900 children and women through its multi-pronged programs in a facility of 10,000 square feet. By 2023, we intend to cover over 5000 beneficiaries and 1000 families.
Programs range from education (using modern pedagogy), health hygiene, and nutrition requirements for all students and community engagement projects. To bring in children who do not attend school into the learning circle, we have a mobile school initiative called Chakke Pe Kaksha, which takes basic education to the doorsteps. Ek Tara classes are equipped with a range of modern and digital learning tools, resources, and trained Montessorians/primary teachers. The endeavor is to ensure that each beneficiary has access to opportunities for comprehensive development. We have a long way to go and each year adds new programs and challenges.
I also believe that change cannot be imposed but has to come from within the homes and environments of these children. Therefore all our programs function with at least 60% participation from community members who are employed by the organization after requisite trainings.
A simple example of one such change maker from the community is Rukaiya, who grew up in a poor family in a small village in Bihar. In fourth grade, she was forced to drop out of school to help her mother with household chores. She was married off at fifteen years old, and the young girl suddenly found herself living in a teeming slum in Kolkata. Nothing in her rural home had prepared her for the challenges of urban squalor: the lack of space, no access to regular water supply, the high cost of staple foods. Her husband earned an irregular income from working as a semi-skilled artisan in a small shoe factory. Rukaiya soon realized that it was up to her to get a job to augment the scarce resources of the household and, very importantly, find a school for her daughter so that she could get the opportunity to complete her education, unlike herself.
Rukaiya enrolled her daughter Sumaiya into the Ek Tara Montessori project and the little girl blossomed. In 2012, Ek Tara enrolled her in Modern High School for Girls, one of Kolkata’s leading English-medium schools. Sumaiya continues to excel in her studies and is now in second grade.
Rukaiya learns from her daughter, and she, in turn, instills her daughter with confidence to never feel less than equal to her schoolmates who come from far more privileged backgrounds. Rukaiya and her daughter Sumaiya are powerful examples for Ek Tara, of how abilities can lead to endless possibilities when they are honed and nurtured.
Starting and running Ek Tara has been a journey of self discovery. In the last eight years it challenged all of my preconceived notions and I saw situations that I didn’t even know existed. Through my experience over the years, I developed a deep respect for marginalized communities who have the resilience to adapt to any situation. I have tried to invest all my efforts in the transition and behavioral change of this community, and empathy is non-negotiable. It has also broadened my perspective and changed the way I look at personal decisions and relationships. My own social circle has also expanded as I’ve been exposed to a different set of people. Now, I have a new sense of purpose and energy that I was unaware of. If one moves ahead with an honest motive, passion, and dedication, then all situations turn up in your favour eventually. I think that’s a very big lesson in my journey.
After eight years of hard work with many ups and downs, demonstrable impact, innovation, and growth, Ek Tara has become poised to consolidate and expand to other vulnerable communities in high risk areas of Kolkata, replicating its tried and tested model of educational intervention for girls. Within this area, we look forward to setting up additional facilities, adding space, increasing classes, and facilitating higher education for these girls, who will eventually become the change makers for their communities and carry their own dreams in the future!
With a strong commitment to creating educated youths, from first generational learners, Vinita Saraf has designed high quality, cost effective and comprehensive services for the community using an eclectic approach tailored to the unique needs of every individual. She has worked on enhancing self esteem and social skills via education among the young adults in the largest slum area of Eastern India.
With a BSc Honors in Geography from Calcutta University, a Degree in Interior Design from Sheffield School of Design, NewYork, a Degree in both Spanish and German, she started her career as an Interior Designer. Later after having travelled extensively she started her own travel concern, ‘Creative Escapes’ and specialises in curating holidays with a difference for Women Groups. Along with these by attending conferences, reading and real life experiences of daily interaction with different communities she started Ektara.