My mom signed up for this in Bangalore and she received a text message inviting her to join the NGO, Hippocampus Reading Foundation for an information session. I accompanied her, curious about the whole process. Hippocampus appears to be a very organized NGO. They had a carefully crafted vision and goal, quite corporate-like, which is somewhat unusual in NGOs that I have interacted with. Of course this might be the difference between NGOs started years ago by people as a hobby vs young corporate hot shots who leave their current jobs to do the needful. Their MO is to provide library facilities to children at Government primary schools. They started in 2004 and have managed to develop a system to encourage school kids to read, by assigning them books. They have developed their own books, lines accompanied with pictures, which are graded according to difficulty. The ASER 2007 report has made it quite clear that even if our children are literate they can't really comprehend; kiddies in Class 5 are unable to read Class 2 textbooks so it's not surprising that simply encouraging kids to read their class textbooks is an ineffective solution. Therefore, I am impressed with Hippocampus for having come up with their own material.
A tangent: Why is it that our government schools are so bad? We have the best government establishments for higher education - IITs, IIMs, IISc etc and yet, we handicap our children right at the beginning so if they didn't have the advantage of a "private" education their fate was decided in Class 1. blah.
The information session was well organized, although for this crowd a bit too long and what amazed me was the candor with which the speaker spelled out what volunteering would entail. He did try to pump the crowd up with inspiring rhetoric about this venture being a relationship that you develop with a child but he didn't shy away from pointing out that volunteers can't expect to be welcomed with open arms by the school or children. When you think of a reading room, you imagine children sitting in a circle, raptly listening to a narrator but that's a child in whom the habit of listening is cultivated. When your life revolves around taking care of siblings, bringing home a salary and going to school for the mere advantage of a mid-day meal, sitting down to listen to a nicely dressed aunty might be the right time instead to bunk class and score some drugs.
What bothers me the most about this endeavor is the inherent risk that the NGO is taking with children. Best case scenario: volunteers who sign up persist and enjoy their interaction thereby creating a positive impact. Worst case scenario: volunteers don't show up or if they do, they do so intermittently and so are unable to form relationships with the children. Also, this program is only for 3 months so what happens to the time these children have had with the volunteers once the program stops? The counter argument to this would be that volunteers would feel inspired to continue after the 3 months - the rate at which this would happen however, can only be guessed. I'm not sure how costly an experiment this would be for the children. My friend over at Planet Why has an interesting post on why she decided not to involve their NGO with teach India and why such a campaign is still powerful.
Overall, I feel positive about the initiative. If nothing, it has sown the seeds of being a social citizen; introducing a powerful antidote for us to use when the twin poisons of greed and ambition overtake our senses and we need a humbling experience to remind us of our place in the circle of giving and taking.