(This story was first published on 15 October and is being republished from The Quint's archives for Diwali.)
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"Voice of Slums is changing lives. We are helping children dream and believe that it is not necessary if you are born in a family of ragpickers, you will also be a ragpicker. You, too, can do something big".Chandni, Founder, Voice of Slums
Chandni was five when she came to Delhi with her family. She used to perform street stunts with her father. After the untimely death of her father, she was forced into rag picking to feed her family and started living in a slum with her mother and two sisters.
15 years later Chandni founded an NGO called 'Voice of Slums' to feed the children in the slums and support their education.
This is her story.
"I used to go out at night around 3 AM for rag picking. I was very scared of the dogs on the streets. You will find many dog bites on my body. At night you don't find nice people, only drunkards who abuse you and try to take advantage of you. I faced so many difficulties, it was a tough time but I have learnt a lot and I am stronger now".Chandni, Founder, Voice of Slums
Imagine a little kid, coming back home after toiling all night collecting trash and watching other kids going to school. This was Chandni's daily routine. She also desired to go to school and wear a uniform. That's when she met with an NGO that was teaching slum kids at a bus stop.
Chandni started studying at this NGO. She would study during the day, sell flowers after school and rag pick at night.
It was at the NGO that Chandni learnt about child rights.
"The police used to lock us up in jail and there was no one to bail us out. My mother was also scared of the police. What if they lock her up as well? I learnt at the NGO that police can't put kids in the jail for selling flowers on the streets".Chandni, Founder, Voice of Slums
Determined to help kids like her, she joined the NGO where she studied. For 8 years Chandni worked with the NGO and helped educate kids in her slum and in the areas around.
Since the NGO only worked for kids under the age of 18, Chandni was told that she can't work for them anymore. In those eight years Chandni worked with over 10,000 slum kids and the NGO even made her their national secretary. She also got a lot of recognition and media attention for the same. She wanted to do more but she was back on the streets, selling flowers and corns with her mother.
That was when Chandni met the co-founder of her NGO, Voice of Slums and her husband, Dev Pratap Singh.
Dev also had a similar life. He ran away from home when he was 11 and lived at railway platforms for 3 years. From doing odd jobs, working at roadside restaurants to becoming an area manager for a company, Dev came a long way.
At an event, when he heard Chandni's speech, he felt inspired.
"After the talk my impression was that she is a big personality but when I saw her reality, I was shocked. I told her that she doesn't need an NGO to bring a change, she herself is a changemaker".Dev Pratap, Co-Funder, Voice of Slums
In 2016 when Chandni and Dev founded Voice of Slums together.
The idea was not just to feed malnourished children in the slums, it was to bring kids out of the slums and educate them. Slowly and steadily they progressed with their work and rented a building to get all kids under one roof.
"I didn't expect to be even wearing this dress or tie my hair like this to go to school and come back here for tuitions. I didn't even know the alphabets but today I am in 10th standard at the Voice of Slums and I am very happy".Shama, Class 10th, Wants to be a Computer 'Mastermind'
"After my father died due to COVID, we weren't able to pay the school fees. Our principal and teachers told us about Voice of Slums. We joined and it is helping us".Palak, Class 9th, Wants to be an IAS Officer
"After getting educated we will be confident and we will stand on our own feet. We wouldn't have to go to someone's house to do their cleaning".Gunjan, Class 6th, Wants to be an IPS Officer
Chandni and Dev educate a kid who has never gone to school and prepare them for a year so that they can be admitted in a mainstream school. They call this a 'bridge class'. According to the kid's age, they are prepared and later admitted to mainstream schools.
Voice of Slums' aim is to support the education of one kid from a family, so that they stand on their two feet, take their family out of slums and in turn also educate one kid from the slums, and that kid in future does the same for another.
I have spent my childhood in the slums. And the difficulties that I have faced I don't want these kids to spend their lives living in those difficulties. Every kid here says 'The day we will complete our dream, helping one kid is nothing, we will help many kids.'Chandni, Founder, Voice of Slums
Just like any other NGO, Voice of Slums also relies on public funding.
"Every month we have to think about our finances, we have to think from where we will arrange money to pay the salaries of the teachers, rent of the building, school fees of the kids".Dev Pratap, Co-Funder, Voice of Slums
"People have contributed through social media and that's where we have made our network. Some people joined us and helped us financially, they helped us grow and also showed us a path".Chandni, Founder, Voice of Slums
It is Chandni and Dev's indomitable spirit that they sail through tough times, keep making an impact and changing lives of the kids in the slums.
Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan Camera: Athar Rather