CHENNAI: In a large football field, covered in green grass and surrounded by nets, a large group of children parry and pass the ball to each other. The sound of their laughter spills into the street. Teaching these children are N Umapathy and N Thangaraj, founders of Slum Children STEDS-SDAT, an NGO dedicated to improving the lives of the children in and around Vyasarpadi through football.
Thangaraj explains that there is a misconception about Vyasarpadi, which is said to have many anti-social activities and elements. “Most of the anti-social elements in the area come from another region and settle down here. The young men are then roped into criminal activities. People over here do not have the required amenities like running water and electricity. So, getting into gangs is an easy option for them,” he says. This, coupled with high drop-out rates, leads to the local community turning towards other sources of income.
Tuitions to football
When Umapathy and Thangaraj began the NGO in 1997, their efforts were targeted to increasing the literacy rate in the area by holding tuition classes for the children. However, this had few takers, and thus in 2003, they decided to change their methods.
“Football keeps the children interested and busy. We hold classes every day in the mornings and evenings for girls and boys. We also have chess and carrom lessons. There’s a lot of child labour and criminal activities that the children slip into, and we try to keep their minds and energies on the game so that they don’t slip back into it,” he says. The classes are held by Thangaraj, Umapathy and C Suresh, with the latter two being national-level goalkeepers.
Uma Shankar was seven years old when he began his football lessons, and now at the age of 18, he plays professionally with Ozone Football Club in Bengaluru. He is the youngest member of the team. “I owe a lot to this place and to Master (Thangaraj). He helped and trained me, made sure I was able to succeed and play well. I hope to play internationally, and I am learning a lot under my coach and teammates in Bengaluru,” he says. Thangaraj hopes that they can groom a younger generation of talented and skilled athletes, who can represent the state and hopefully, the country.
But training passionate youngsters is not their only objective. With the help of a few donors, they hold special classes from classes 10 and 12 students, as well as for those children who have not received any level of education. They also try to help drop-out students return to school and assist them in pursuing higher education. Thangaraj says they have helped more than 10,000 children in the area.
“Education and sports aside, there are some qualities that every child must have — respect, manners and kindness. We tell all our children to greet us with ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. For some of the kids who have joined later, it’s difficult, because they’re used to saying vaa da or po da, but they too, learn how to be polite and respectful,” he says. The NGO also conducts seminars on children’s health and wellness in the slums in the area.
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