Giving back to society: Hyderabad NGO, Udaan takes free classes for underprivileged kids

A volunteer teaching movement is helping many government school students meet their private school counterparts on an equal footing in English and computer skills
A volunteer teaching a class, S. Senbagapandiyan
A volunteer teaching a class, S. Senbagapandiyan

Sunil Bhukya, Sujatha Mary and Koti Yadagiri cannot contain their excitement. Students of Class IX at the Bandimet Government School, Patigadda, a congested neighbourhood in Hyderabad, the three friends will be staging a skit about the evils of online fraud in their class that evening—that too in English, a language they are trying to learn. Mary and Yadagiri will play the con couple while Bhukya is the victim. They have been enthusiastic students of Charu ‘ma’am’ for two years, who teaches them English. The government school is among the six that Udaan, a Hyderabad-based NGO, will focus on this academic year. “We almost forgot our English, but ma’am will help us,” said the happy three
would-be thespians.

Charu Shah’s 11-year-old organisation Udaan works in the education sector with the mission to teach English and computer science to government school kids. For the students she works with, she is Charu ma’am. “They often fail in these two subjects despite taking regular classes. We then take remedial classes for them. Good language and computer skills are the first steps towards becoming employable as soon as they leave school. We want them to be on par with students of private schools,” Shah says.

Volunteers are assigned classes on specific days in specific schools. In the 40-minute classes, they help students in mastering words, spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and syntax among other things. How did Team Udaan come about? Shah recalls, “Every August 2, my mother’s birthday, I distribute sweets to senior citizens and children. On that day in 2013, I dropped by at the Patigadda Government School, and the children flocked to me for goodies. I tried to strike up a conversation with them in English and realised they could barely string together a sentence. The fact that they were high school students was appalling. The headmaster came to thank me for the gifts and sheepishly asked if I knew anyone who could teach the children basic English skills.” It was a sign for Shah to act on the request. She started with two classes a week, teaching high-school students after school hours.

A volunteer displays his badge
A volunteer displays his badge

All of 62 now, she admits that the lessons she started when she was 49 years old have given her purpose. How does she teach so many students in such a limited time? “I have an army of 76 volunteers who work with six schools,” she proudly proclaims. The volunteers are all from Hyderabad and from various walks of life. When she started, Shah barely had four volunteers who helped her fill in for some classes. But now she needs to open a spreadsheet to assign the volunteers details of classes, schools, timings, maps and contact numbers.

Annapoorni TS, one such volunteer, handloom entrepreneur and English teacher, says she has been working with Shah for seven years now. “Tutoring the underprivileged is a great way to give back to society,” she says. Currently, Udaan volunteers teach students from Class VI to IX. The biggest challenge Shah and the team faced was convincing schools to give them a period during class hours. “Students would rush back home after school. But now teachers are giving up some time off their classes to squeeze in a class for us,” she adds.

Shah’s students, who completed their schooling, have interesting tales about cracking a job interview using language skills they learned from ‘Udaan’s ma’ams and sirs’. “Udaan means to take off. We want to enable a career take-off for kids,” Shah remarks. Although she does not maintain a database or metrics of the impact of their classes, the fact that more and more schools want such classes shows that their work is being recognised.

How does Shah find her volunteers? She often talks about her work at social gatherings, weddings, birthdays, and other social events. “I started spreading the word about Udaan during my morning walks while talking to people in the dentist’s waiting room when I had a procedure due, and various women’s organisations. Whether they wanted to hear me or not, I would talk about Udaan,” she confesses. Since the pandemic allowed corporate staff to work from home, Udaan’s techie volunteers took up virtual classes. They pooled their personal money to buy smartphones, tablets and laptops for students who couldn’t afford online classes.

Charu’s friends also donated erasers, steel water bottles, books, calculators and biscuits. “I call them Udaanites since they have always stood by me,” she affirms. The best part of running Udaan and volunteering her time and energy for students? “Hearing them putting in the effort, fumbling with words, and trying to form sentences entirely in English. And succeeding in the end.” Being a take-off specialist looks very rewarding.

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