An Interview with Nirupuma Venkataraman about her work in U&I Organization
By Hajira Mehreen Qurishe | Chennai, India
“When one teaches, two learn.”
When most of us are practically burnt out from online classes, there are children out there who consider these classes a luxury. To be taught and to have the curiosity over learning that is instilled in them is such a treasured privilege for these kids. U&I is a volunteer-driven charitable organization based in Bangalore, India. The co-founders Ajit Sivaram and Sathish Manchikanti realized their vision for U&I through some simple visits to the Institute for Mentally Handicapped Children along with a few friends where they would hang out the special needs boys at the home. They realized how much impact simple acts of ordinary people can make in the lives of the neglected. This was back in 2011. What started with a handful of friends has now grown around to 2000 volunteers who dedicate their time, energy, and talent to be the change in a kid's life. Today, U&I reaches 1600 children in 52 learning Centers across 20 cities in India through their ‘Teach’ program. They are also continuing the work that started in the home for special needs boys by expanding their care program to 4 other homes.
I recently got the chance to interview one of the leaders of the Centers located in Chennai, Nirupama Venkataraman. Through her words, I got a glimpse of her volunteering experience which was heart-warming and impactful to hear at the same time.
H: How did you come to find this organization? Can you tell me more about how you got started there?
N: I was supposed to join U&I in 2016. A lot of people at my college volunteered there and I wanted to, too. I even attended the interview and the person who took my interview was delighted with me, she selected me on the spot. But due to some unavoidable circumstances present then, I couldn’t join.
In 2018, I was working at another job, doing financially well and I decided to apply again. I immediately got a call this time and someone else interviewed me. It went well and I finally got to be a part of U&I.
H: I admire your persistence in wanting to work as a volunteer. Can you elaborate on your volunteering experience there?
N: I joined U&I in 2018 as a volunteer. It felt like a dream come true. I was put in the learning circle with all the younger kids. The great thing about U&I is, we don’t sort our kids based on their school levels. We have our pre-assessment format with which the kids are evaluated and the volunteer helps them understand the question.
You could be 15, but if you struggle with the alphabet, you’d be assigned a volunteer who can help with it. Zero judgments, Zero questions. Nothing but love, empathy, and sharing knowledge we already know.
H: It's amazing to hear about the attitude the volunteers embody while teaching the students. It emphasizes the importance given to learning. What motivates you to continue this work?
N: I fell in love with every one of those beautiful children there. Such small hearts, yet they’re deeper than anything I’ve seen. My love for the kids made me sign up for any and every extra activity for the organization. Volunteer recruitment, outreach program, mentorship programs, fundraising, I’d sign up for everything. My biggest motivation would be to look at the artwork my kids made for me or the affirmations a fellow volunteer or leader would have given me.
H: That’s the sweetest thing. I’m sure you must have many such sweet stories to reminisce.
N: I remember missing class one day. We have a strict 80% minimum attendance policy. So, our volunteers barely miss class. I had minor surgery and didn’t go. When I went there the next week, there were 7 pairs of small, tiny hands clinging on to my shirt, chirping, “Akka Akka Why didn’t you come last week?” (Akka means elder sister in Tamil). That day, I knew I would die for my children.
H: That’s so heart-warming to hear about. So, what's your current position at U&I?
N: So, at U&I you can start as a volunteer, and based on the time, interest, and energy you put off, you can become a leader mentoring other Centers.
I remember being asked by one of my leaders if I would “do ketto.” I said ‘yes’ with no idea what it was. Turns out, I was going to fundraise and mentor fellow volunteers. I mentored my Center when I was a volunteer. After becoming a leader, I mentored 3 Centers last year. Every time we fundraise, we all think of our kids and say “anything for the kids.” I’m a chapter leader. I now mentor 3 Centers and have 7 leaders working with me. Leaders take care of their Centers like I did last year. And, I take care of them.
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H: What kind of opportunities are given to the students beyond the curriculum?
N: The first thing is not to restrict them to the school method. Giving them communication and education tools provided by U&I. Giving them one on one attention, not just for academics. Teaching them how to build relationships and confidence. We also conduct programs with our kids, to identify their talents. We have a career day where we can bring a friend who can tell them about unconventional and/or achievable career options. As much as possible, our volunteers also look for signs of impending mental health struggles with our kids and let the leaders know so that counseling can be arranged for the kids.
H: That’s great. So, how does this volunteer-driven teaching arrangement work?
N: Classes happen on weekends. Some Centers conduct the classes on Saturday, some on Sunday, and some on both. The timing is 2.5 hours per weekend, per volunteer. It is a 9-month long commitment since that’s the length of an academic year. Most volunteers don’t discontinue unless it’s a dire emergency or unavoidable. And the 80% attendance is so that the kid doesn’t feel left out or abandoned.
H: Does the organization provide financial support for the students who want to pursue higher education in college?
N: We may not be able to provide for every child. But yes, we work on providing funds for students who aspire to do higher education. In some cases, the care home they are staying in will be able to provide because of the funding they receive from kind-hearted people.
U&I supports wherever we can. We also have an annual fundraiser that we run. The funds we raise go into providing supplies, sustaining our existing Centers, sustaining the organization, conducting mentorship and training events for the volunteers and leaders.
There is a boy named Praveen (name changed) who was part of our system a few years back. He is now pursuing medicine and we raised funds for him within our community. The last time I visited him in the care home, he was gearing up in his hospital suite to go serve in the covid ward.
H: I admire the lengths you guys go to make education accessible for these kids. So, what plans are in the store for U&I in the future? Are there any expansion plans?
N: Definitely! Expansion is always an option. I know many people in our community, at a leadership and management level who say “The true success of U&I is when there comes a day when U&I is not required anymore.” And, until that day, we’ll keep expanding.
H: I hope that day comes soon.
N: We all do.
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Thank you for reading my interview with Nirupama Venkataraman. It was an eye-opening conversation personally for me as I am touched by the work and time the volunteers put in for kids mostly belonging to underprivileged backgrounds. It made me reflect on the ripple effect of kindness that makes such a great impact on these kids' lives through this organization. If you are interested in knowing more about the organization and if you are willing to donate to help the cause. You can do so through the links mentioned below.
To visit their official site: https://www.uandi.org.in/
To donate to support their cause: https://www.globalgiving.org/donate/9664/u-and-i/