Published: 02nd June 2021
Setting the record straight: How Vidya Shankar has harnessed the power of education to iron out juvenile delinquency
Vidya Shankar, Founder of Relief Foundation, has been doing a lot for kids — from rehabilitating juvenile delinquents to propagating early childhood education
While working at the Juvenile Justice Board as a Member Magistrate, Vidya Shankar met a boy who was brought in for trial. The boy had robbed a physically disabled man and Vidya was shocked to learn of his deeds. Curious, she decided to speak to him to know why he did what he did. "I found out that he's an orphan and has been brought up by his aunt, who was absolutely tired of his activities. The boy was intelligent though and spoke politely," recalls Vidya. What Vidya found out from the boy determined her life's trajectory. "I wanted to know why children would go to such lengths and why our system couldn't protect them from harm," explains Vidya. That is when she decided to explore a viable solution to reach out to such delinquents, which she found in the form of early childhood education.
Vidya believes that what these children need, what any child needs, is a sense of protection from the community as a whole. After working with the Juvenile Justice Board in Chennai for several years, Vidya finally decided to quit in 2005 and focus on education. "I educated myself on effective ways to prevent children from delinquency and deviation. I felt that what these children needed was a strong early childhood education system at the local level that involved the community and brought about an inherent sense of protecting these children. Montessori education propagated this to a large extent and that is what I decided to focus on," says the 56-year-old.
Kids at a balwadi
To gather knowledge about the type of education being imparted to children below the age of six, Vidya travelled across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala from 2006 to 2008. She visited balwadis and found out that not much was happening there. "There was a lack of understanding of child psychology and developmental tenets," says Vidya, who decided to develop a model that doesn't challenge the existing system but instead assists and enhances it. After pursuing a Montessori training course in 2010, Vidya set up a local school called Cascade Montessori Resource Centre at a village in Tiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu as a pilot. This was under the aegis of her organisation, Relief Foundation.
Relief Foundation was founded 23 old years ago by Vidya and some of her friends who were all adoptive parents. "Back then, we wanted to help children who don't get adopted. We studied a lot about the laws on child abandonment. Many of these children end up in orphanages even when they have living relatives. We decided to help these children find suitable homes — whether it was through foster care or adoption. Institutional care should be the last resort. It was during this time that we decided to start a transition home for these children and that is how Relief Foundation began," explains Vidya. The transition home was a place for abandoned children to live while they were waiting to be adopted by their relatives or some other family. They managed to place around 15 children in foster homes that eventually led to their adoption.
Kids during their art sessions
It was during her work at the foundation that she was invited by the Tamil Nadu government to become the chairman of the Juvenile Welfare Board and then, she eventually also became a Member Magistrate of the Juvenile Justice Board, which eventually led her to pivot to education. Her position at the Juvenile Justice Board was due to her social work with children. Presently, Vidya has also managed to set up rural centres of Cascade Montessori Resource Centre in Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu. "There is another centre that has been set up by this one girl whom I had managed to help, in her hometown of Mayurbhanj, Odisha," says Vidya. She hopes to start new centres in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh by the end of this year.
But it is not just in rural areas that Vidya hopes to make her mark. In cities like Chennai, Vidya has a separate model that she is exploring. "The city centres are separate from Relief Foundation and these are parent-partnered collaborations. A group of families come together to educate their children. Very few resource persons have to be hired from outside as most of these parents are Montessori trained. The parents who are trained help other children as well as their own as guides, volunteers and supporters," explains Vidya about the process that's followed at Cascade Family Learning Services, the name given to the urban learning centres.