After investing twenty years of her life in financial services, she decided to take a turn that changed her life. Over a period of time, she had overserved the decline in the quality of education that the underprivileged children received in India. After volunteering extensively with the children, she realised that people around her were interested in making a difference in the life of these children. In 2012, she posted a request for clothes and stationery on a social media platform and generated over three-thousand phone calls from people ready to contribute. This is the story of Anubha Sharma, founder of Angel Xpress Foundation (AXF).
“I never planned to work in the field of education; I firmly believe that it is destiny that brought me here. I say this because the sequence of events and the ease with which everything came together right in the initial phases of AXF will convince the biggest of non-believers in the concept of a preordained destiny,” she said. Anubha mentions her friend and co-founder Beenaa Advani, who also gave up her career to dedicate her life to the betterment of education.
The covid-19 lockdown had tested everyone’s willpower. When asked Anubha about how she kept herself and the staff motivated, she said, “I am not someone who finds it easy to quit something before giving it my all and on this journey, I have found a number of people who are equally self-motivated. We have fought past hurdles and difficulties as a team that is unwilling to give up. I think our pride prevents us from allowing anything we create to die down and I speak here for the entire 100+ AXF leadership team who have braved odds and challenges on multiple levels. While we constantly fight to hold our positions, we have been willing to allow events to flow through and we help each other to find solutions,” she added.
The team at AXF took to the co-existing slums around the high-rises in the city of Mumbai and promoted ‘learning centres in parks.’ This initiative was designed to bridge the gap between the first-generation learners who reside in slums and their educated neighbours who have the social and are willing to contribute to the community.
Challenges along the way
The pandemic brought great disadvantages, particularly to children from underprivileged backgrounds. Remote learning was barely an option for them, with no access to phones or digital platforms. This led to many students giving up on schools, causing great damage to the overall growth and quality of education. The school and students of AXF also encountered problems but, they were focused on finding solutions. So, when the school experienced a drop in attendance, regular interactions were encouraged between volunteers and students/parents to keep them informed of changes and provide aid wherever possible. The lack of devices, as well as internet data packs, were a concern too, for which, regular donation drives were conducted which helped many of the students to continue regular access to their classes. During the pandemic, a few students relocated or moved back to their village. This disrupted the access to their study material and resources. The volunteers found a solution to it by learning to share materials online with them.
Now, in the post-pandemic era, the teachers work rigorously with the students. The disruption in their studies has caused a gap. Students were unable to grasp the lessons online, they were not able to study on regular basis, and therefore, a revision or bridge course was introduced at the beginning of the academic year 2022. There is also a shortage of online volunteers as well as in-person since some are still apprehensive about the pandemic. For the time being, senior classes are to be scheduled according to the hybrid model. But the post-pandemic era also had a positive impact on the AXF Foundation.
With the commencement of offline teaching at the centres, students have started attending the school regularly, a social connection is slowly getting established with children and volunteers and there is now ease in using online resources. The centre hosts various activities and workshops for children and the curriculum has now become more focused on life skills as well as introducing new subjects apart from English and Maths. With help of the WhatsApp groups that were formed during the pandemic, volunteers now communicate with students on an ongoing basis, not limited to face-to-face interactions.
Innovative method of teaching
When asked about the medium and method of teaching, Anubha said, “Our medium of teaching is English. We truly believe that we play the role of facilitators rather than teachers. This means that we help the child learn inherently and organically from the inside rather than teaching from the outside. When the child is invested in his/her learning they retain the information for life.”
“For instance, if a difficult word pops out of the lesson, we do not instantly share the meaning. Instead, we give a context and use that word in several sentences, allowing the child to comprehend the meaning. This way, they remember it better and it makes them feel like they have contributed to the class,” she added.
Views on NEP 2020
In a conclave on ‘Transformational Reforms in Higher Education under National Education Policy’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the new National Education Policy (NEP) will be the foundation of the new India. Anubha expressed her positive views on the policy too. “The new policy emphasizes holistic and multidisciplinary education instead of rote learning. The promise of reducing the school syllabus and making learning a fun-based and complete experience for school students is appreciable. The policy also focuses on providing vocational and technical education to students so that they are better equipped to enter the workforce,” she said. “Students will now be tested on their abilities to apply concepts to solving real problems rather than on how well they remember things from books. This syncs with the philosophy of AXF. I hope the gap between urban and rural areas will gradually reduce, with policy focussing on using technology in education to make it more accessible and effective,” she added.
Pat on the back
With the help of nearly 1400 volunteers and teachers, almost 2500 students receive lessons at centres that operate out of parks in six locations across Mumbai city. The Angel Xpress Foundation proudly calls itself ‘a free service provider for Mumbaikars who want to help children in their neighbourhood’. They train the volunteers free of cost and encourage engagement with this cause.
The NGO counts adaptability and their spoken English module as one of its main achievements. With adaptability, they have been able to maintain a robust English language program and the spoken English modules that increased one-to-one interaction between student and volunteer was successfully achieved.
Anubha’s dream and vision for the students of AXF are that every child should be empowered to be their best selves so that they can confidently interact with the environment outside the foundation. In her message for educators who are trying to follow the same path, she emphasises giving every child an opportunity to learn and grasp a model which can be easily adapted by others. “We always tell the kids that making mistakes is a good thing because it means that they are trying. If they are treading on the wrong path or are unable to solve problems, then we are there to help. The effort will surely reap benefits over time. It is our confidence in them that enhances their confidence in themselves,” she shared her message to the students.
Call for action
“I have seen many near-miraculous recoveries and inexplicable melting away of barriers. This helps in maintaining a firm belief that we must give our best, no matter how tough the time may be,” she said.
Angel Xpress Foundation seeks employee engagement for mentorship, soft skills career engagement and teaching in their centres. Professional assistance in sectors like understanding and using digital platforms, training, contribution to academic innovation and data analysis are welcome. One could also sponsor a centre or sponsor a student of the NGO. We urge the readers to visit their website and reach out to the members to contribute and engage in this cause for change.