Muskaan: Sending smiles from Australia to India

Web Muskaan pics (2) - CopyIf there is one thing that drives Kevin Hadingham and his wife Marion, it is their busy volunteering services in India and in Australia to help the marginalized children of India, who are the future of the country. Read on…

Kevin Hadingham was a team leader for an Asian Development Bank project when he got an opportunity to travel to the central India state of Madhya Pradesh in 2008. The project area was the road system management and involved working with the state’s Public Works Department (PWD). They had to develop organisation structure, staff capability and systems and procedures which apply modern road asset management principles in the context of the circumstances of Madhya Pradesh.

For Kevin, India’s enormous untapped human resources, nearly 20 times the population of Australia, was amazing. “An obvious difference between the Australian context and the Madhya Pradesh context is the low cost of labour and the social need for unskilled/low skill employment opportunities, and for education and upskilling of the 40 percent (400 million) of the population living below the poverty line.”

So when his wife Marion, a teacher, asked him to ‘be alert to’ teaching opportunities, where she could share her skills and where she could make a difference to the marginalised and the disadvantaged, he discovered Muskaan, a non-governmental organisation which delivers community and education support programs in nine slums of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

Being an experienced teacher across primary education, special education and adolescent health and welfare in Australia, Marion was very impressed by the focus of Muskaan on achieving positive education outcomes for disadvantaged children from the slums through the development of relevant curriculum reflecting the realities of life experiences in the slums and delivered using engaging, child-centred teaching methods.

“I saw the absolute difference that Muskaan was making to individual lives,” says Marion. It was enough to turn her into a passionate advocate for Muskaan, having seen the difference with her own eyes. “Muskaan is implementing some very positive teaching practices. There were many similarities between what I saw at Muskaan and what constitutes effective education practice here in Victorian schools. I remember saying to Kevin after one particular day’s teaching, ‘Muskaan is doing all the right things!’ In their efforts to engage these children, they offer a curriculum which is relevant and meaningful, not text book based and irrelevant to their culture and everyday slum environment.”

For Marion, it was worth taking leave from work and volunteering. An incident that has stayed in her memory was the genuine love and concern shown by Muskaan teachers towards a small young boy who had been picked up by police and locked up overnight, being accused of stealing – “just because he was found wandering in the street!” When Muskaan founder Shivani Taneja advocated for his release, Marion says she felt his sadness and “the humiliation”.

Started in 1997 in Bhopal, Muskaan’s objective was to provide education opportunities to children unable to access it. Over the years, a critical understanding of ‘education’ and the need to work in an integrated way grew. Muskaan’s mission is to develop models of meaningful education for the most marginalized. They serve children and women, mostly tribal migrants in the city’s slums where child labour is rampant. The organisation’s work includes providing critical support in the area of health as high malnutrition and illness levels are leading to untimely deaths.

Muskaan’s main activities are: Conducting educational activities in slums, running a school and residential camps, strengthening the quality of government schools, empowering women to overcome discrimination and building health linkages. Its primary focus is on the education of children from slum communities unable to access mainstream schools. Muskaan applies innovative and engaging teaching methodologies and curriculum relevant to the context of daily life for these children.

After almost two years in India, the Hadinghams returned to Australia with a passion to mobilise support for Muskaan. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of these children, their families and their communities. Clearly, they were impressed by the way in which Muskaan was using modern education principles to adapt teaching practices and curriculum to the context of the realities of life in the slum communities….bringing education, hope and opportunity to children in the slums. “This was achieving great results at all levels, including some students reaching entry to college degree courses…… important model for India,” says Kevin.
In 2010, they founded Muskaan Support, Australia. “It has been formed as a charity with the participation of some of my work colleagues who shared time in Bhopal with us. Our fundraising efforts in Melbourne have connected us with many new friends in Melbourne’s Indian community, further enriching our lives,” says Kevin. Also many overseas students from Latrobe University have helped them in fundraising events. “They have similarly recognized the opportunities they have been given in their education and are putting something back to bring opportunities for others.”

Kevin who first joined Rotary when he was working in Aizawl, Mizoram in the remote north eastern part of India witnessed many life-changing projects which have been made possible. Therefore he has been able to enlist the partnership of the Rotary Club of Eltham in Melbourne, and the Rotary Club of Bhopal, Midtown to support the Muskaan project. This enables tax-deductible donations to be made to the project via Rotary.
In April 2012, Marion and Kevin met on site with Muskaan board members, teachers and students to discuss concepts for the new Muskaan campus. Muskaan is working hard to establish a permanent school centre and hostel for slum children.

It was recognizing the contrast in opportunities between their lives here and the barriers to opportunities confronted by children in the slum communities, that motivated the Hadinghams to support Muskaan in its very effective work in breaking down those barriers and realizing the potential of that large part of the population which has been trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty and discrimination.
And most importantly, the demonstrated commitment of founder Shivani to the children of the bastis (slums) and getting it to its current place that was a major inspiration for them. “Our efforts pale into insignificance in comparison to her 200 percent dedication,” says Marion.
“The motivation to ‘do something’ was also fuelled by the open and generous hospitality we received from people we met in the streets of Bhopal, who invited us to their humble homes and shared food with us. We maintain mail contact with these families to this day,” adds Kevin.
Marion says, “I guess it’s all about love really. My motivation to help is directly related to my personal faith in Christ. Jesus came as a servant to the poor, and calls us to follow his example. He cares passionately for the poor, and asks us to love, despite differences in race, culture or religion. I saw the poverty. I saw the hardship. I wanted to help. It’s as simple as that.”
Working in India has been a great experience and an adventure for Marion who carries a lot of interesting stories. She recalls how on her first morning in Bhopal, driving to Muskaan’s rented office, their car met with a flat tyre and she stood shielding Shivani in the busy traffic as she skilfully changed her tyre! “At the same time, I was indeed, keeping an eye open for my own safety! This was my introduction to Bhopal! This very same day I remember accompanying two lovely Muskaan teachers, who had very little English, across the road to the sxxxlum area. After being entertained by a snake charmer who demanded money for his short display, insecurity prevailed, as I grappled with my inability to communicate or reason! I had no money on me, being my first day! Oh dear! I remember finding a chair, a little away from the rest of the girls, following an English session. I wanted to gauge the reading levels for each girl, and soon discovered why this particular choice of chair placement, was not a wise decision. I was right next to the smelly hostel toilet!”
The smiles, the laughter the dark faces and the beautiful dark eyes of the young hostel girls, as we shared songs and rhymes with actions was true happiness, says Marion, who used to regularly walked to the local photocopying store to enlarge newspaper articles, to assist her English classes. “It was so very reassuring when I was told “Oh, Muskaan! Yes, I know them! Good people! Doing very good work!”

Kevin says, “I think the more we have in life and the more blessed we are, the greater responsibility we have to give. We can’t change the world, but we can change that little corner of the world that we find our-self in. I simply wanted to ‘love those whom most consider least’.”
Marion says when she heard the remark “These tribal children cannot learn”, she disagreed passionately. “All children can indeed learn! Everyone can learn!”
Muskaan Support Australia is trying to ease Shivani’s frustration with the government school’s approach to education and provide a dedicated school. “A safe place where children could be educated effectively and treated with respect. We can help. We will help you give these children a future,” affirms Kevin.
Currently Muskaan Support Australia is looking for volunteers to visit India on a field trip. Hopefully they will meet with philanthropist enthusiasts who wish to make a positive change in the lives of the slum kids from Bhopal. Indeed, it’s a great effort towards closing the gap on India’s poor.

By Eshan Arya