The journey of Project KHEL

The above article appeared on World Pulse(https://goo.gl/JWMGMC) on 17th August 2016.

She came up to me and graciously asked, “Aap bhi hamare saath khelengi?” (Will you also play with us?) What struck me the most about 7 year old Divya, apart from her neat appearance and focused attitude was her excitement and enthusiasm about games and the well-mannered behaviour. As I told her that I am here indeed to play with all the kids, she took me by the hand and led me to a circle of her friends. “Bhaiya, may I come in?”, she asked dutifully and entered only once granted the permission. I was awestruck! How can a 7 year old be so disciplined? I had to know more!1-worldpulse

Gomti Nagar is considered one of the posh areas of urban Lucknow. It was, therefore, a surprise to me when I found out there is a community of underprivileged slum dwellers living in the heart of Gomti Nagar. Luckily, the kids had access to a wide ground to play in and luckier still, they had found their perfect playmate in Vicky Bhaiya. He was their superstar and once I saw the man in action, teaching them about sports, the value of team spirit and discipline without as much as wasting a minute in plain lecturing, I realised why!

There were kids in the age group of 7 to 16. While some of them engaged in regular studies by attending a nearby school, few of them did not go to any school. Divya and her two older sisters went to JMD Public School, which is a low income private school. They also went to evening tuitions in a Seva Sansthan operating free of cost. Further, they were a regular part of KHEL-shaala and ‘Made in Maidaan’ initiatives of Project KHEL which seem to have benefitted them enormously. Divya’s father ran a puncture repair shop while her mother was a housewife. All the kids here had similar stories.

It was in the year 2010 that Akshai Abraham, a sports enthusiast since childhood, started dreaming of a world where kids from all sections of the society would get a platform to play together and the power of play could be harnessed to bridge the societal gaps and infuse the kids with the confidence to challenge the status quo. Talking about the importance of sports in his life Akshai says, “My school education had a lot of focus on sports and extra-curricular activities. Sports played a big role in shaping my character and help me deal with many problems and difficulties including the early demise of my father. Sports has stayed with me throughout my life. Though never a real competitive sportsman, I played all sports whenever there was a chance and it helped me make friends, relieve stress, connect to colleagues and peers in a unique manner.” With a clear vision of impacting the lives of underprivileged children, it was, finally, in mid-2012 that Project KHEL(where KHEL is an acronym for Kids Holistic Education and Lifeskills) was born. However, the journey from its birth to present status as a respected name in Lucknow has not been easy.

“I do not really have an ‘aha’ moment that led me to work in social change.I was motivated to return to India and join the social sector in 2001, when I was visiting Austria for a year, as an exchange student with AIESEC. After working in the sector for several years I finally quit a lucrative job to found a start up in 2012. The idea of using ‘play’ – a means that children enjoy the most – to empower and inspire them to become positive change agents of their own communities had been lingering in my head since 2009-10 and in 2012 I gathered the courage to take the plunge into social entrepreneurship.

As true with any given start up, my journey has been filled with struggles, but every time I hear of one of my children who has stopped abusing or is playing and interacting with the opposite sex or a lower/upper caste like an equal, helping each other rise to perform a little better I know I’m treading the right path. Not to mention some of the most amazing and passionate people in my team who always inspire me to push myself a little harder!” reflects Akshai.

The social entrepreneur’s vision has truly manifested full-fledged and I could see the glimpse of passion, dedication and commitment to the cause in the course of that remarkable evening in Gomti Nagar.  Accompanying some of the kids were their baby siblings. It was interesting to see 7 year olds taking such great care of their younger siblings, taking up such a big responsibility at such a young age. They were responsible for carrying them around, crossing the road with them and making sure they are not crying or hurt and all this while they are supposed to be playing and concentrating fully on the game. It was truly a herculean task, if you ask me!

As we played dodgeball, throw ball and many other interesting games, all thoughts left my mind and I remained immersed in the spirit of the game, fully lost in the moment. No lessons on mindfulness were necessary then as it was all put to practice through one simple game. I played along with the kids and wondered why I ever stopped playing these wonderful childhood games! Why do we stop playing as we grow up? More than the kids, I was the one learning and growing through my very first ‘Made in Maidaan’ session in this centre. Soon, Vicky ‘Bhaiya’ became for me what he had always been for the kids- a wonderful coach who was more like a friend you enjoy a lot with!

Perhaps the true beauty of sports lies in the fact that kids become more energised afterwards instead of getting tired. As the one hour session came to an end and palms were extended for the Goodbye high-five, each kid wanted to hit the hardest but didn’t want to leave. They wanted to stay, play some more, talk to their favorite Didi and Bhaiya and even take them home.

After bidding the students farewell for the day, the team engaged in a detailed discussion on what worked and what didn’t work in the day’s session. I was amazed by the accurate attention to detail given by these youngsters, not missing even the minutest flaw or positive point in the entire session. For me this highlighted the quality of professionals they were and their individual levels of involvement with the cause. They were all motivated to make a positive difference in the society and worked very hard in planning and executing all their sessions by asking for and implementing feedback each time. They were regular in their sessions and always punctual.

Pondering over the session and gazing at the vast community in my purview, I spent a few moments in reflection over what the founder, Akshai Abraham had mentioned while discussing Project KHEL’s approach, “With the intention of providing holistic value-based education Project KHEL uses a play-based Life Skill Education programme for underprivileged children that taps their energy to bring positive personal and social outcomes enabling them to become change agents in their communities.

We have adopted a preventive approach and work with adolescents to ensure a future generation with a pluralistic mindset. Engaging with early adolescents through a play based programme taps their energy in a productive way, therefore restricting participation in anti-social activities. Having a team of educated young people with their mind and heart set for social good, helps us achieve just that.”

As I left the center with the promise of returning the next evening, I pondered over what a tremendous difference one hour can make! In the last hour, I had made new friends, learnt new games, played a lot of my childhood games only this time with great discipline and teamwork, petted goats and basically, became a kid again. I wanted to come back and play again every single day like I had done in my childhood. I couldn’t be more grateful.