India is home to more than 225 million children ages 10 to 19 years. At Lakshmi Devi Academy (LDA), KHEL’s school for underserved youth in Dehradun, India, we provide a comprehensive education designed to give our children the tools to reach their full potential as individuals and leaders. Helping our kids become productive adults requires collective action on education, health, employment, personal development and interpersonal relationships. The Adolescent Resource Centre (ARC), instituted at LDA several years ago, gives our children the tools they need for their lives outside the classroom.
ARC covers many overlapping areas of development. We discuss life skills and livelihood. The children learn decision making and relationship skills, and they spend time in personal contemplation. We share with them what kinds of changes to expect during adolescence, how our social attitudes might change during this time, and crucial information on reproductive health. We talk about nutrition, health, hygiene, what constitutes a balanced diet, and common and infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Throughout this year long process, we encourage curiosity, open discussion and problem solving.
The ARC councilors, Madhavi and Karishma, stress that confidentiality is a critically important part of ARC. Our kids and staff all live in the same community. The advantage to this is that everyone looks after everyone else. The disadvantage is that everyone knows everyone else’s business, and gossip among or about teenagers can be devastating. Many of our kids don’t have access to personal space in their homes; sometimes a living room doubles as a family bedroom, and in that same space there may be a small area in one corner for cooking. This makes confidentiality vital to building trust with our children because their thoughts and feelings may be the only space where they do have privacy.
In India, one student an hour commits suicide. Although this is mostly in the college age group, we don’t want any of our kids to become part of this statistic. Madhavi and Karishma talk individually with students who, for example, aren’t taking their studies seriously or who are showing signs of depression due to their family situation. Some common problems our kids face include not being allowed to continue their studies after 8th class, being neglected and/or abused, and pressure from peers to smoke cigarettes (this last is mostly among the boys). We can’t solve these problems for our kids, but we can help them develop the necessary skills to navigate through their challenges, and give them a safe, confidential space to voice their concerns.
ARC helps our kids to take more of an interest in their academics because they can see how an education affects their overall development. They begin to understand, for example, how eating a balanced diet influences their ability to study, how social activities enhance interpersonal skills, and in general, they gain a better understanding of how all the various aspects of life fit together to help them make the most of their talents and skills.
Most importantly, LDA’s kids are learning to accept and respect the differences among their classmates including religion, class, caste and gender.
We are deeply thankful to everyone who makes ARC possible at LDA: Dhyana Mandiram Trust (DMT), Rural Development Institute (RDI), our donors, and Karishma and Madhavi. And last but not least, our wonderful and extraordinary children who, on a daily basis, overcome many hardships to pursue their dreams of becoming happy and productive adults who can contribute fully to their society.