I remember the first time I set foot in the Apni Shala office in July 2016 – rain coming down hard outside, and the office smelling of freshly brewed coffee. I was welcomed by a team of 11, all huddled in one room, having a meeting. After a brief introduction, Swetha, the co-founder, gave me a little tour of the snug, homely office space, made more cozy by the overcast sky outside.
Come August, I officially joined Apni Shala as a 2016-17 Fellow. And this is where I pay homage to the wonderful time spent under this foundation’s tutelage.
The initial days of my fellowship were spent with the entire team coming forth and orienting this wide-eyed girl with the work. This slowly progressed into me accompanying other fellows to the field and observing how they facilitated life skill sessions with children from our partner organisations. Having joined Apni Shala almost two months after the other fellows, I missed the formal induction and training. In spite of that, the enthusiasm with which I was welcomed and inducted, even though they had to do everything all over again, made me feel encouraged and at home.
“I have my own classes now?!” I exclaimed when I learned that I had been assigned classrooms and centres, and was to start facilitating sessions from the coming week. Up until then I had only wondered if I really will be able to do justice to the work that the organisation does, and that like other facilitators, if I too will be able to establish a connect with the children. So when I learned that I finally will be able to work with children, it was hard to suppress the excitement.
The first session I ever facilitated was with a chirpy, vibrant group of 10-12 year olds who instantly welcomed me and washed away all my uncertainty and fear. I exited the classroom with the widest grin I had worn in a long time, constantly gushing to my mentor (who observed my session) about how happy I felt. It felt like this was what I was meant to be doing. I was surprised at how just the start of my time at Apni Shala had given me this sense of direction that had been missing in my life. She couldn’t help but grin back at me. This gave me a lot of hope.
The following weeks and months at Apni Shala were filled with the same passion and drive that I had felt in my initial days. The liberty that the organisation allows its team to experiment while delivering the programme – customised to cater to different student groups, is challenging and thrilling at the same time. It made the work dynamic and new each day. And I believe that this sentiment will be echoed by all of us working at Apni Shala.
Multiple workshops on subjects relevant to the work we do, from Teacher Language to Child Sexual Abuse, ensured all of us were on the same page and were prepared for whatever challenges the field might throw. Plus, weekly meetings with the team, and with individual mentors, where we discussed the week gone by – what worked, what didn’t, what questions we have, what can we do differently, et al – motivated the team and created an environment of accountability. It encouraged us to work efficiently, take initiative and be creative.
This made the fellowship a huge learning curve for each one of us.
Since this was my first stint of working with children, I had decided to have zero pre-conceived notions about my work. In hindsight, I feel that it was the right thing to do because it let the reality design my reactions. I had done my homework, of course, and I had been observing sessions facilitated by my peers. But it is a completely different story when you’re in charge of delivering a life skill session to a group of 25-30 children; when you realise that you’re doing something important, something you’ve wanted to, and that you can’t afford to not make it work – simply because you want it to work. With this conviction comes the courage to take decisions in the face of unprecedented challenges. How am I going to make this work if 40% of my children are absent? How will I make this work if my session space is occupied today and we have no space to sit and conduct a session? How will I make this work if the group is not enjoying this elaborate activity that I planned? How will I make this work when I can see that the children are distracted and disinterested today? How will I make this work if I myself am not in the required headspace?
Thinking about it now, I can see how the information that I received from the organization helped me feel prepared enough to face these challenges head-on. It enabled me to make decisions on the spot, and decide how I can make the particular situation work in favor of the children and I. This in turn gave me the confidence I needed to wake up every day, go out on field, and see children make things take shape – whatever shape it may be; whatever they want it to be.
And this would probably be my takeaway from the year I spent at Apni Shala as a Fellow – being prepared, having faith, and letting life design itself, for me and for others. After all, that’s what this organisation did for me. It let me shape myself, color myself with whatever shade I fancied. And everyday I wonder if I could succeed in doing that for all the children I worked with. To be honest, I’m still baffled by how much I’ve learned from my time here; by how satisfying and at the same time, disquieting my work has been. Nevertheless, much to the dismay of my cynical friends, the “honeymoon period” of my job never really ended – still hasn’t.
About the author: Meghna holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, Economics and Sociology from University of Lucknow. She has worked as a public policy intern at Rakshak Foundation, and joined Apni Shala’s fellowship straight out of college