Published: 01st July 2021
Meet Akarsh Shroff, a BITS Pilani student whose NGO in Bengaluru helped thousands of rural students access education
We speak to Diana Award winner Akarsh Shroff about his NGO and how they have managed to keep thousands of kids connected to education during the pandemic
Crowdsourcing is tough. Ask Akarsh Shroff, Co-founder of S.P.A.R.K (which expands to Socially Responsible and Productive Karnatakans), an NGO. The first crowdfunding campaign they ran in January 2020 raised only Rs 15,000.
The 20-year-old BITS Pilani student, who was awarded The Diana Award, started the NGO to bring together young social leaders and inculcate in them social responsibility and channelise their energy into making sure education penetrates even to those who don't have access to it. And it was towards this goal that they were crowdsourcing. But when they saw that not a lot of funds were coming their way on Ketto, they did what any social enterprise would do — they went back to the drawing board. "We had to build more credibility. So we started working on annual reports, project assessment reports — the works. We built our social media profiles, shared pictures and testimonials," informs the youngster.
The impact was immediate. The second time around, they raised a whopping Rs 20 lakh through an online fundraiser. Full speed ahead, they started funding what needed to be done while the country was going through the most stringent lockdown ever. Meals were given to 7,400 families with children, ration kits to another 575 of them and four kilos of rice — this was their reaction, next came the prevention part. Distributing masks, sanitisers in orphanages and slums.
It's the third phase that caught our attention the most. "In Gundenahalli (Nelamangala Tehsil of Bangalore Rural district, Karnataka), we worked with the panchayat to help children with as many as 200 digital devices so that they can participate in online classes," says the youngster who was born in Michigan, USA. Akarsh and his team also coordinated with the respective gram panchayats on the outskirts of Bengaluru and started a digital centre at the local anganwadi. Children would come to these anganwadis and watch the content online while maintaining a healthy social distance.
Rural areas are where the attention was waning and that's why this NGO particularly wanted to focus on them. And that's not it. Though the government had capped the school fees, most underprivileged still couldn't afford it, "A lot of these children are from single-parent homes with insufficient income. Therefore, children go to work at hotels, factories and so on. As a result, the dropout rates at schools have been high. For this, we provided a total of Rs 1.8 lakh as scholarships to children to continue their education."
In March 2020, Akarsh applied for the Ashoka Young Changemakers programme and he was among the 19 candidates shortlisted. "I met many changemakers who were working for various social issues and were trying to make an impact. We learnt how the government and other stakeholders collaborate to solve these issues," explains this 20-year-old. The experience also helped prep for the next big thing.
Now comes the third crowdsourcing initiative in 2021. They gathered Rs 20 lakh again and this time, they did it in just 14 days. After a thorough assessment of the needs of six districts of Karnataka, with the help of medical officers, district officers and so on, they helped government hospitals and PHCs with 18 oxygen concentrators, 500 oxygen masks, 150 oximeters, more than 1,000 PPE kits, 400 litres of sanitisers... it's an exhaustive list, take it from us. "In association and collaboration with Sir CV Raman General Hospital, we set up a 12-bed facility there and we intend to set up more of these. This was one of our highlights," he says.
Another interesting concept of theirs is their Vision 2040. They have developed a curriculum that aligns perfectly with the NEP and the focus is on all the right things — like children's early development, making children computer literate, improving their communication skills and so much more. It's at a nascent stage so Akshar, who was brought up in Bengaluru, prefers not to reveal too much but what he does mention is that the curriculum is being piloted at Gundenahalli with the help of an NGO called Reap Benefit. With this, their focus is right back to what they started with, education.
Speaking about beginnings, it all began with Akshar being a part of the Social Welfare Committee back in his school. Visits to blind schools and other schools made him realise how insufficient the academic knowledge of students there was. "I shared these issues noticed at the schools with my friends and even they said they wanted to work for such schools and students and make a difference. That's how my friend, Prerana Sunilkumar, and I started S.P.A.R.K," he recalls before adding, "When I approached my friends with the intention to help back then, no one knew how to. The most obvious answer was donating money. My parents run their own NGOs so I knew we could do more, after all, I used to tag along with them since I was eight," he shares. This was back in 2018. Now they have over 500 volunteers.
Both Akarsh and Prerana have designed a host of programmes, of which the most popular were Utsaaha, Ullaasa and Vineeta. Their linguistic skill development initiative Utsaaha, interpersonal skill development project Ullaasa, academic mentoring via Vineeta and LEAD, Library Enrichment And Development initiative. Their presence is in 11 different centres including five orphanages, five government schools and one after-school programme.
In this way, they impacted 5,000 underprivileged students. COVID might be a detour, like it is for all of us, but surely, they will hit the road running. And till they can, there are other issues that need attention.