This 40-year-old man travels 75 km daily to reach the organization. And what does his line of work includes? To teach and imbibe compassion among children instead of comparison. “I don’t abide by the conventional rules and I believe I am sort of a crazy person,” he says with a laugh. Adding to this he says, “when people come across our initiative, they get motivated enough to join our organization and leave their previous job.”
In a delightful conversation with Life Beyond Numbers, the co-founder of the Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation, Dhirendra Sharma said, “in our school, AC stands for Absolute Comfort and we believe that every child has the right to smile and live a happy life.”
“Students from 9 villages come to this school now and we are proud to say that there are no child marriages in the area. But, the task was always challenging because compared to other states in India, the caste system in Bihar is still prevalent and therefore it is difficult to approach and convince these parents to send their children to school, especially girls. It is very difficult to convince the parents to send their children to the school where everyone can study together.”
Started in February 2009, Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation (BTEF) has educational tools and motivational programs to ensure that the physical growth and psychological development of these needy children are not hindered. Started in February 2009, the co-founder Dwarko Sundrani (98), is one of the last living disciples of Gandhiji.
The foundation, based in Shripur Village in Gaya (Bihar), focusses on the well-being of the children of agricultural workers, who are locally known as Manjhi.
“People start their initiative from zero, I have started from minus forty,” said Dhirendra. “This is so because in the rural belt of India, particularly in Bihar where the caste system is firmly believed, it is difficult to make the parents understand the significance of education and the idea of togetherness.”
These children from the underprivileged section of the society do not desire fancy items but do crave for acceptance and love and therefore the schools by this foundation provide an emotionally safe environment.
Why Two Schools?
BTEF has 2 schools– Bodhi Tree School and Bodhi Tree Special School and why is it necessary? While Bodhi Tree School is for normal students, the differently-abled children opt for special school because they need special attention.
Sharma says, “We felt the need to create a separate school for disabled children because they needed special attention. These children are emotionally wounded when they arrive here and they have been called names and people make derogatory remarks about them, calling them behra (deaf), pagla (mad).”
The disabled children not only have to deal with physical deformity but also emotional wound, so it is necessary to make them emotionally strong again and equip them with confidence.
He continues, “Any emotionally healthy heart will ache if one looks at these children. There are children with down syndrome and Cerebral palsy and these children have always lived their life in denial and deprivation. All they need is acceptance.”
While 750 students attend the normal school, 50 children go to special schools. These children spent most of the time in either abusive and unhygienic condition, so it is essential to provide a safe haven for them.
Who are Smile Architects?
We do understand the significance of teachers at schools, but how different are the smile architects from them?
While talking to LBN, Dhirendra says, “This foundation doesn’t appoint teachers, they appoint “Smile Architects” to make these needy children smile and see life from a different perspective. We appoint teachers based on how compassionate they are as humans and that’s why qualifications take a back seat here.”
In this village of Gaya, most people are either farmers or labors, therefore the financial problem is something they deal with throughout the year.
“I have seen a 6-year-old taking care of a 3-year-old, so how will this child come to school when their parents are at work? People are not aware of contraception and therefore there is a lack of family planning in this region and therefore to make them believe that education is good for their children becomes a difficult task,” he said.
So, to counter this problem, the organization provides food, medical facilities, and shelter to these children so that there they can continue with their studies smoothly without worrying about the basic necessities.
Right to Smile
Here AC doesn’t stand for Air-conditioner but for Absolute Comfort. “We tell these children we have AC in the school and then when they look around and are unable to find them, we tell them the term stands for absolute comfort. We not only teach children 1 + 1= 2 but also 1+1=11. The foundation is more of a rehabilitation center as well and helps children who had troubled past. The main idea is to make every child smile and see life from a new perspective.”
Apart from that, the organization also distributes sanitary napkins to female children every month so that they are not hesitant towards using these hygiene products when they are on their periods. This has also decreased the dropout rates in schools and it was not the children who were provided with the sanitary napkins first, it was the teachers.
Dhirendra says, “At first we introduced sanitary pads to the teachers and not children. This was necessary because they too come from slums or the rural belt of the area and therefore teachers needed to try it first and then create awareness about hygiene amid female students.”
Apart from this, the foundation is targeting neighboring state Jharkhand where the condition of female children is no different.
What are Happy Experiments?
It might look silly or irrelevant to many but Dhirendra takes these slum kids for train rides as well. “You should see the look on their face, they are so amazed and happy to see these new things. The idea is to bring a smile to their face.”
To motivate and make children aware of the oral hygiene, there is Mr and Miss Smile competition, in which the kids willingly participate. Further, to make these children physically healthy- Yoga sessions and Sports Club are present in the premises as well.
Staying interconnected to everyone is an advantage because when you work towards something noble and positive, help from every person counts. Through this, we can also promote the idea of humanity.
We believe in co-education because we have seen the girls and boys do not hesitate to sit beside each other and therefore it leads to the better understanding of the opposite sex.
When the organization started functioning in 2009, there were 73% boys and only 27% were girls. Now the ratio of girls in comparison to boys has increased to 51%. This is a huge achievement because it is the change in mindset that brings change in the society gradually, says Sharma.
New Grade System
This school has a new grade system to combat the inferiority complex. It goes like this- A, AA, AAA. Therefore, a child doesn’t feel low when he/she underperforms. A kid who has scored A can always look forward to scoring AAA. This process has made them confident and hardworking to achieve a target.
“It is my request to all the parents that believe in your children, understand their perspectives and then help them solve their problems or clear their doubts. In schools too, a teacher needs to establish trust with the child and only then they can easily unfold many possibilities into reality,” he says.
The decisions you make from heart counts and there is no filter so you can see the transparency for yourself. I believe the longest journey of life it starts from the heart and therefore nothing apart from happiness can top our priority list.
No Salary Discrimination
The foundation believes “together we can create a positive shift in the society” and therefore maintaining equality in the organization is something they always look forward to. Here, no work is considered small and this is the reason the Principal and the cook almost draws the same salary, probably a few hundred less.
Currently, there are 42 employees working in for us and each child has different abilities so we should focus on that. Here, 67% of the staffs are women and there are 4 translators as well so that foreign staffs can understand their activities. People from across the globe come here to join the cause and now 4 members from Germany is working at BTEF.
Taking Lesson from the Past
Dhirendra says, “I am blessed to have a childhood where my parents didn’t have the money to send me to school because now I can understand and relate to the problems of these needy children.” Adding to this he says, “Through these children, I am reliving my own childhood again.”
He recalls how in his childhood, he used to wait for the Independence day because that was the only time, he could get free jalebis and because his height was an advantage, so he used to pick up as much as possible from the plate and distributed it among his friends. “We need to teach the children the idea of togetherness not how to run after money,” he says.
“I have come across few teachers in my childhood who gave me filtered knowledge, and therefore my thoughts and perceptions about life and the reality always met at crossroads,” Sharma says, it is necessary for teachers to be honest with children, whatever they teach should be from heart and unfiltered by all means. The bonding is very crucial in this case.
When our team appreciated his work towards the welfare of the needy children, Dhirendra says, “We are not doing something extraordinary and unachievable. This can be done by anyone.” Adding to this he says, “I believe that when we look in the mirror, we see a reflection of our body but if we want to see the quality of our soul, you need to check our intentions.”
We all should look for opportunities to help these underprivileged children in every step and help them prosper because no child should lose the right to smile!
Buddha once said, “Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” – and this is what teachers need to abide by when they take the responsibility of guiding children to create a better future.