An inspiration, an example, a catalyst of change… These are the words used to describe a 12-year-old boy in Tamil Nadu, who has managed to bring one of the biggest gifts possible to his community: The gift of education to 25 children, just like him.
His name is Sakthi, a boy who has lived up to his name before he even reached his teens. Born into the nomadic Narikuruvar community in Tiruvannamalai district, Sakthi, through the strength of his will, has managed to convince several families in his tribe to send their kids to school.
And for his efforts, he has been nominated for the International Peace Prize for Children for the year 2017. An award, previously won by Nobel laureate Malala Yousifzai and given to children who contribute significantly for the rights and upliftment of vulnerable minors.
How Sakthi went to school
Sakthi, who has five other siblings, was eight years old when he decided to leave school. He faced repeated abuse in the hands of teachers in government schools and was constantly on the move with his parents, to make a living. He had resigned himself to a future selling beads and begging but little did he know that fours years later, the world will look up to him.
In 2014, Hand-in-Hand, a non-governmental organisation, identified Sakthi's community in Tamil Nadu as marginalised and approached them to send their children to their training sessions. This was meant to eventually include dropouts in mainstream education. This program was partially funded by the government's Sarva Siksha Abhiyan scheme.
But it was not an easy task, only a few families agreed to their terms, and Sakthi's was amongst them.
"I was playing with the boys when my uncle came and made me join the Bharathiyar school," explains Sakthi. "There were four of us. We used to keep crying and wondering why we were forced to go there," he adds. This centre was near his tribe's settlement but soon he had to be shifted to a Residential Special Training Centre (RSTC) in Poongavanam.
‘He has transformed the community’
Here, teachers focussed on helping these children catch up with subjects and also taught them everyday hygiene. From wearing tattered clothes and looking dirty and unkempt, Sakthi went on to become a stickler for cleanliness, and practiced what he was taught even at home.
"When I go looking so decent during Diwali or pongal, other parents see me and ask where I am from. I tell them I eat well, sleep well and study well," explains Sakthi. "I tell them that if we study well then we don't have to slog it out in the fields. That convinces other parents, and they want their children, too, to join the school,” he adds.
Through sheer determination, this young child brought a steady flow of tribal children to school. The community which neglects the education of girl children, was now ready to send even their daughters to school.
His achievement was not small and Hand in Hand which has seen the difficulties its volunteers face on the ground to convince these families decided it had to be recognised.
"Sakthi not only transformed himself but he also brought great change in his community. That is why we decided to nominate for the award. He is the youngest amongst all 169 nominees for the award," says Dr Kalpana Shankar, the NGO's co-founder.
Sakthi is now being called a 'catalyst for change' but he is not satisfied with the work he has done.
"The way I made 25 people join, I want more to come. The children I brought will go back to their hometowns and bring their relatives and friends. Twenty five should become 30, 30 should become 40 and so on. They will all bring more people," he says. "I will teach them to be like me, to act like I do. Then they will study like me and inspire more people," the 12-year-old promises.
Sakthi is currently out of the residential training programme and studies at a government school in Kanchipuram district. His education is funded and he stays in a hostel. He aims to be a software engineer and says he wants to work hard for his family.
"I don't want them to suffer this way for a livelihood. When I grow up, I will take my mother in an AC car even to the well and bring her back by car. I will make sure my family is happy," he says earnestly.
And as for the award? Sakthi is blissfully unaware of its significance. For him, the desire to uplift his entire community comes without any want for recognition.
"It just goes to show that even the smallest of charities can lead to a sea of change," says the co-founder of Hand in Hand.