Yurt on Wheels: A Work in Progress

05/27/2015 | By Karthik Shankar

This post originally appeared on blog.up.co

I completed my Master of Social Work at Madras University, after which I got the opportunity to work for three different nonprofit organizations. My work gave me vast experience on children at risk, women’s empowerment, and other community development programs.

In 2007, I was relaxing at the Pondicherry beach when I met one young gypsy community boy begging on the beach road. I asked him about his schooling, his livelihood and his day-to-day life. He told me he used to erry beach when I met one young gypsy community boy begging on the beach road. I asked him about his schooling, his livelihood and his day-to-day life. He told me he used t sell toys, balloons and jewelry at the beach in the evening. When he couldn’t sell the goods, he started to beg to feed himself, which is normal for boys like him.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to work with street-living children on their rehabilitation; these children included mainstream Gypsy community children. The rehabilitation program provided shelter facilities and helped them to continue school and pursue informal education; we also offered a care & support program. However, it was difficult to continue the program due to a lack of funds allocated for Gypsy community development programs.

In 2013, I was selected to participate in Kanthari, a leadership training program that is also known as the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurship (IISE). IISE is located in Trivandrum, Kerala. The course helped me to develop the different social entrepreneurial skills I needed to start a project for the Gypsy community in Pondicherry. After completing the course, I started Yurt on Wheels. In the initial phase, Kanthari supported me with startup funding and mentoring support.

On 3rd March 2014, Yurt on Wheels was legally registered and started to work with Gypsy community children. In india, there are 60 million people who belong to nomadic,semi-nomadic and de-notified tribes. They’re known as Narikuravar in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (Nari- Fox, Kuravar-People). The communities belong to the Hindu religion and the government categorizes them as “Other Backward Classes” (OBC). In some other parts of India they come under “Scheduled Tribes” (ST) and “Scheduled Castes” (SC).

These groups have mainly engaged in hunting animals. This is prohibited, so their livelihoods have been challenged; as a result, they move to different places to sell jewelry, toys and balloons during the weekend in public places and during festival periods. Due to a lack of awareness, Gypsy children don’t have access to school at all or dropout early. Girls marry early and there’s no access to government facilities.

 To help Gypsy community children, Yurt on Wheels started informal education classes for the children who have dropped out of, never been to, and couldn’t access school due to moving to different places for their livelihood. Currently, there are 15 children accessing informal education. The basic education we offer teaches children to read, write in Tamil and English, learn the alphabet, and gain life skills. Once children complete basic education, we prepare them for the 8th Standard exam in The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). If the children are  interested in continuing school after completing 8th Standard, we will mainstream them into formal schools or help them to continue the livelihood training program which strengthens and improves their lives.

While implementing the project, I found difficulties and challenges in the community. There were two major issues which I was faced with: one, it was difficult to change Gypsy cultural mindsets around sending children to informal school. Even if the child is coming to classes regularly, especially girls, they’re not allowed to continue education once they attain puberty. Two, the Gypsy community’s main source of income is selling jewelry, nickels and toys. Parents were only trying to engage their children to earn money by moving to different places, so it was hard to teach all children for one period of time.

Since the Gypsy community’s lifestyle depends on its livelihood, it is very important for children to learn different skills which improve their lifestyle in order to earn money and continue their education. UnLtd Tamil Nadu supports us so we can conduct livelihood training programs for community children. In order to start the livelihood project, we are undertaking a market study to understand traditional skills and marketing trends. This will help us develop the project in a successful way.

Yurt on Wheels has reached some of our milestones of the past one year: we’ve successfully registered the organization, received a Permanent Account number (PAN), conducted surveys in the Gypsy communities, selected children for the informal education program, successfully organized a skills training workshop for the Gypsy communities in collaboration with Blind Rock in Nepal. We’ve also organized a summer camp for the Gypsy community children in collaboration with TYCL (Trust for Youth & Child Leadership), successfully attended a fundraising training at KKID (Karl Kubel Institute) in Coimbatore; and received interns from the Pondicherry Social Work Department, Kasturaibai Women’s College, and Kanthari. We were organizing classes for children under the tree but community members have provided space inside the community where we can teach and keep all the educational materials.

We’re still facing challenges in terms of building a sustainable model, finding team members, getting human resources support, and finding a financial support to continue our project. You can learn more about us at: https://www.facebook.com/yurtonfoundation or www.yurtonwheels.org.