|Salesian Work for the Young at Risk|
A formidable network of services, as astounding for its variety and reach as for its impact!
Look at the figures:
The expression ‘Young at Risk’ (YaR) embraces children and young people whose safety, growth and development are put at risk through indifference and neglect on the part of parents as well as society. Generally, the term refers to runaway children, school dropouts, rag-pickers, street children, child workers, young drug addicts, orphans; those abandoned, abused or exploited; refugee-children, victims of war, violence and calamities.
Inspired by Don Bosco, the Saint of the Streets, in the past thirty years or so the Salesians in India have clearly established themselves as the pioneers and path-breakers in bringing new hope for children in difficult situations. Interestingly, their ‘move to the streets’ in the 1970s was triggered off by the helplessness of a City Corporation.
In 1974, the Mayor of Cochin was confronted with a problem. He had on his hand 110 young delinquents – an unruly pack, indeed, of rough and tough pickpockets, shoplifters, rag-pickers, runaways and what not! The police had rounded them up from the city’s railway stations, bus stands, market places and streets. The Hon’ble Mayor was convinced that keeping them confined in a ‘settlement’ under police surveillance was not the best solution, but he couldn’t see any alternative till, of course, he heard of Don Bosco. He approached Fr. Varghese Menacherry, the Director of Don Bosco Youth Centre at Vaduthala. “Would the Don Bosco people be able to do something for these delinquent children? They are troublesome kids, but we need to do something for them,” he pleaded. Fr. Varghese nodded in agreement and added, “Definitely. They need to be taken care of; they need to be guided and taught some skills to help them earn a living.”
The Corporation authorities promised to provide the place to keep them and also to meet all the expenses of looking after them, if only Don Bosco would accept them.
Fr. Varghese contacted Fr. Thomas Panakezham, the Provincial of Madras, who gave the project full support and encouragement. And so, on 31 May 1974, the Salesians received the first batch of 110 youngsters from the Municipal Corporation of Cochin in an old godown of the Corporation in Palluruthy, which they christened Sneha Bhavan (House of Love).
Thus began a new chapter in the history of Salesian Youth Ministry in India – a conscious movement towards ‘street children’, those roofless and rootless young people one finds everywhere, especially in the cities, eking out an existence by picking up things from around railway stations, bus stands and market places.
Soon Sneha Bhavan’s ripple effect began to be felt across Salesian India, especially among the younger generation. More and more Salesians began to show a new interest in working for these young people.
In 1977-79, Fr. Joe Fernandez did the first-ever scientific study on ‘street children’ in India, as part of his Master’s in Social Work at the Madras School of Social Work in Chennai. As his study was nearing completion, Door Darshan, the national TV channel, (then in its black-and-white infancy years) telecast an interview with Fr. Joe, highlighting some of the important findings of his study. Several photographs, taken by Fr K. J. Louis, showing the life of children on the streets were also shown on the TV during the interview. Soon UNICEF got interested in these photographs and bought them up from Fr. Louis for their campaigns during the 1979 International Year of the Child.
Without doubt, Fr. Joe’s study of the ‘paper-pickers’ of Madras did create a new awareness of the phenomenon of street children. In fact, beginning from 1980, the Salesian students of theology at Kristu Jyoti College, Bangalore, started venturing out into the streets of the city, contacting the rag-pickers, under the banner of ‘Project Outreach’. In course of time, through the young priests who passed out of Kristu Jyoti, this initiative found echoes in all the provinces of India. However, it took the provinces a few more years to launch specific works in favour of ‘street children’.
In Bangalore, what started off as ‘Project Outreach’ soon developed into a chain of ‘street presences’. By 1984, the first Centre for Street Children was established at Magadi Road, with Fr. George Kollashany as director, and other Salesians and professional social workers on the staff. From this stage, the different works for the ‘street children’ in Bangalore province kept growing and later became identified under the name BOSCO (acronym for Bangalore Oniyavara Seva Coota), with five centres in Bangalore city alone. Other centres were opened in various cities of both Karnataka and Kerala such as Hospet, Devangere, Tumkur, Gulbarga and Trivandrum.
In 1985, the Province of Madras launched its first work in favour of ‘rag-picking street children’ in Chennai under the banner of Anbu Illam (Abode of Love), with Fr. Vincent Mariapragasam pioneering the project. Today, through a well-knit team of 110 full-time and 25 part-time staff they reach out to the youth at risk, in five centres in Chennai city -- Park Town, Mannady, Royapuram, Vyasarpadi and Kodangaiyur.
In Mumbai Province, from 1983 onwards, young Salesians doing their theology in Kristu Jyoti started volunteering to spend their summer holidays with the children on the streets and railways stations of Mumbai. This, in due course, led to the opening of “Shelter-Don Bosco” in March 1988 at Wadala with Fr. Bosco Pereira and Fr. Raphael Lobo taking the lead to look after Mumbai’s street children.
The work was extended to Gujarat in 2001, where Bosco Snehalaya was launched first in Baroda and then also at various other centres like Ahmedabad, Maninagar, Anand, Nadiad, Godhra, Bharuch, Ankleswar, Surat and Valsad.
In Kolkata the work for the street children began in December 1985, in a 3-room shelter at Howrah, with Fr. Anthony Thaiparambil, pioneering the project. The shelter, christened Ashalayam (House of Hope), has today grown to a chain of 23 rehabilitation homes for boys and girls as well as two night shelters across the City of Joy, bringing new hope for thousands of young people every month.
In Andhra Pradesh, in 1989, the Municipal Corporation of Vijayawada invited the Salesian community of Don Bosco (Pezzonipet) to open a shelter for the rehabilitation of street children in the city, replicating the Sneha Bhavan of Cochin, Kerala. A plot of land, very close to the railway station, was leased by the Corporation for the purpose. That was the beginning of the Navajeevan (New Life) project which in due course developed into a magnificent network, under the leadership of Fr. Thomas Koshy and others.
In 1996, Navajeevan-Vijayawada received the prestigious National Child Welfare Award and the following year, the Government of Andhra Pradesh recognized Navajeevan Bala Bhavan as a Fit Institution for the care of delinquent children. Today the province has a network of 15 Navajeevan centres across Andhra Pradesh.
Salesian work for street children in Delhi, the capital of the country, was launched in 1997 from a rented house in Uttam Nagar, West Delhi, under the banner of Ashalayam by Fr. Anthony Thaiparambil, who had pioneered the work also in Kolkata in the early 1980s. It began with 25 children who were weaned from the streets. Today Don Bosco Ashalayam, New Delhi, reaches out to thousands of children and young people at risk from its 13 centres spread across the length and breadth of the capital.
Tiruchy Province, there are two flourishing centres for the Young at Risk -- one in Salem, started in 1988, and another in Coimbatore, started in 1991. Besides these two centres, several projects in faovour of the Young at Risk were launched in the recent past, particularly in the wake of the tsunami disaster of 2005.
In Guwahati, the gateway to the North-East, Snehalaya, the work for the young at risk, was launched in 2000 under the leadership of Fr. C. T. Lukose. Today they have five centres in Guwahati city. There are 4 Salesians, 8 Sisters and some 30 lay staff are engaged in the work.
A National Forum
In the 1990s, Salesians working with ‘street children’ in the various provinces of India, felt the need for greater networking, and by the end of the 90s a National Forum for Street Children was formed. The name was soon changed to Don Bosco National Forum for the Young at Risk, to include not only street children, but also the many other categories of children whose lives are at risk due to various reasons.
Salesian intervention on behalf of the Young at Risk begins with the ‘first contact’ on the streets, railway stations, bus stands, markets, etc. Regular contacts and the consequent relationship help the youngsters to shed their fears and anxieties. They are then invited to come to the drop-in centres, day-care centres or night shelter homes where they have facilities to rest, relax, speak with the staff, and write letters to their families, if they wish. This gives them a sense of belonging to some place and a feeling of security that one does not normally find on the streets.
The Don Bosco Project for the Young at Risk comprises the whole gamut services that young persons on the street need to enable them to get back to normal life with a sense of self-reliance and dignity. It includes counselling, medical care, spiritual and recreational facilities, networking with other agencies for defending child rights, non-formal education, job-oriented vocational/technical training, job placement, family contact, family reunion and follow-up.
Homelink is a web-based service maintained by Don Bosco YaR Forum to facilitate their work for the young at risk, enabling them to maintain and share up-to-date information on child related issues, across the country. The system generates instant reports based on child profile, missing children, staff, centre, sub-centre and various analyses of reports at local and national level.
To help find missing children, the Don Bosco Forum for the Young at Risk has a website: www.missingchildsearch.net. Created in association with UNICEF, the site is a real boon for parents and organizations interested in locating/restoring missing children.
Parents and relatives can directly place on the site information/photos of the missing child. Besides this, YaR staff who are constantly present around bus stands and railways stations throughout the country are a great help in locating missing children and putting the information on the site.
The moment a centre gets details of a missing child, it is uploaded on the website so that anyone who has information about the child could get in touch with its guardians.
As soon as information on a missing child is posted, the site immediately generates a search, using the database it already has.
Information goes across the net and sometimes within minutes, a missing child is located and communication reaches the family.
"This website will bring together various child rights organisations giving them an opportunity to work together," he said.
YaR-Bangalore Office alone receives some 25-30 cases every day, says its Director Fr. Edward. Last year alone they restored 2155 children to their homes.
It is also a major partner of Childline India Foundation and extends its services for thousands of children in distress across the country.