Gypsy Youth Tells of Picking Iron and Missing School

by Nicole Duciaume
ChildFund Regional Sponsorship Coordinator
Americas Regional Office

Following a morning presentation by our ChildFund India National Office colleagues on program history, areas, priorities and future goals, we anxiously pile into vans and set forth.

After zigzagging for about an hour through the busy streets of Chennai, we make an abrupt left turn onto a worn dirt road, which will take us to a ChildFund project with the Kalaiselvi Karunalaya Social Welfare Society (KKWS).

Founded in 1983, KKWS began partnering with ChildFund India in 1999. KKWS works in 15 villages and settlements, including six gypsy communities. Through our work with KKWS, we have enrolled more than 1,000 children in ChildFund programs. Approximately 800 of those children have sponsors. The major source of livelihood for gypsy families is iron and rag picking, as well as making beads and other traditional handicrafts. This is true of the family I met.

Getting to know Daniel (r), Venkatesh (l) and their father.

Daniel is 13 years old, and he has two younger brothers, Venkatesh, 8, and Guna, 5. Daniel is in second grade and his younger brother Venkatesh is in third. I thought I misunderstood their ages and grades and asked for clarification as to why Daniel was five years older, but a grade behind his younger brother. It was then that he told me what his life was like before ChildFund and how things have changed for him and his family since.

As the son of gypsies, Daniel did not attend school. He spent his days alongside his father picking up iron scraps. The labor wasn’t necessarily hard (you use a long stick with a rag-covered magnet on the end; as you walk around you trace the ground with the magnet and brush any iron scraps into a bucket to later sell to iron metal workers), but the hours were long.

Daniel would work from as early as 4 a.m. until late in the afternoon, and sometimes late evening if there was a recent festival that promised extra scraps. In leaner times, the family would beg for food, eat discarded food out of the rubbish piles along the streets and use slingshots to kill and eat squirrels and cats.

When his younger brother Venkatesh was enrolled in ChildFund programs, Daniel began non-formal education classes. He has made vast improvements in school (everything from his handwriting to self-expression and literacy) and now knows more about hygiene and balanced nutrition.

He attends school from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and can get help from the teachers at the local kindergarten if he needs assistance with his homework, since his parents are illiterate. Daniel tells me his favorite subject is math, though he also enjoys environmental sciences. After school, when he has finished his homework, he plays with the other children in the community, something he didn’t have time for when he worked.

Now he has a new dream — to become a policeman when he grows up so he can help people.

Tomorrow, I will tell you more about Daniel’s younger brother Venkatesh and the rest of the family.

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