A formidable network of services, as astounding for its variety and reach as for its impact! Look at the figures: 354 Street Presences, 100 Shelter Homes, 117 Children’s Homes, 233 Street Education Centres, 63 Vocational Training Centres, 29 Advocacy Units, 35 Missing Child Search Units, 26 24-Hour Childline Centres, and a host of other projects across 72 cities and towns – undeniably the most vigorous expression of Salesian India’s concern for the ‘Young at Risk’, the most neglected and vulnerable section of the country’s youth.
The expression ‘Young at Risk’ (YaR) embraces children and young people whose safety, growth and development are put at risk through indifference and neglect on the part of parents as well as society. Generally, the term refers to runaway children, school dropouts, rag-pickers, street children, child workers, young drug addicts, orphans; those abandoned, abused or exploited; refugee-children, victims of war, violence and calamities.
Inspired by Don Bosco, the Saint of the Streets, in the past thirty years or so the Salesians in India have clearly established themselves as the pioneers and path-breakers in bringing new hope for children in difficult situations. Interestingly, their ‘move to the streets’ in the 1970s was triggered off by the helplessness of a City Corporation.
In 1974, the Mayor of Cochin was confronted with a problem. He had on his hand 110 young delinquents – an unruly pack, indeed, of rough and tough pickpockets, shoplifters, rag-pickers, runaways and what not! The police had rounded them up from the city’s railway stations, bus stands, market places and streets. The Hon’ble Mayor was convinced that keeping them confined in a ‘settlement’ under police surveillance was not the best solution, but he couldn’t see any alternative till, of course, he heard of Don Bosco. He approached Fr. Varghese Menacherry, the Director of Don Bosco Youth Centre at Vaduthala. “Would the Don Bosco people be able to do something for these delinquent children? They are troublesome kids, but we need to do something for them,” he pleaded. Fr. Varghese nodded in agreement and added, “Definitely. They need to be taken care of; they need to be guided and taught some skills to help them earn a living.”
The Corporation authorities promised to provide the place to keep them and also to meet all the expenses of looking after them, if only Don Bosco would accept them. Fr. Varghese contacted Fr. Thomas Panakezham, the Provincial of Madras, who gave the project full support and encouragement. And so, on 31 May 1974, the Salesians received the first batch of 110 youngsters from the Municipal Corporation of Cochin in an old godown of the Corporation in Palluruthy, which they christened Sneha Bhavan (House of Love).
Thus began a new chapter in the history of Salesian Youth Ministry in India – a conscious movement towards ‘street children’, those roofless and rootless young people one finds everywhere, especially in the cities, eking out an existence by picking up things from around railway stations, bus stands and market places. Soon Sneha Bhavan’s ripple effect began to be felt across Salesian India, especially among the younger generation. More and more Salesians began to show a new interest in working for these young people.
In 1977-79, Fr. Joe Fernandez did the first-ever scientific study on ‘street children’ in India, as part of his Master’s in Social Work at the Madras School of Social Work in Chennai. As his study was nearing completion, Door Darshan, the national TV channel, (then in its black-and-white infancy years) telecast an interview with Fr. Joe, highlighting some of the important findings of his study. Several photographs, taken by Fr K. J. Louis, showing the life of children on the streets were also shown on the TV during the interview. Soon UNICEF got interested in these photographs and bought them up from Fr. Louis for their campaigns during the 1979 International Year of the Child.
Without doubt, Fr. Joe’s study of the ‘paper-pickers’ of Madras did create a new awareness of the phenomenon of street children. In fact, beginning from 1980, the Salesian students of theology at KristuJyotiCollege, Bangalore, started venturing out into the streets of the city, contacting the rag-pickers, under the banner of ‘Project Outreach’. In course of time, through the young priests who passed out of Kristu Jyoti, this initiative found echoes in all the provinces of India. However, it took the provinces a few more years to launch specific works in favour of ‘street children’.
A National Forum
In the 1990s, Salesians working with ‘street children’ in the various provinces of India, felt the need for greater networking, and by the end of the 90s a National Forum for Street Children was formed. The name was soon changed to Don Bosco National Forum for the Young at Risk, to include not only street children, but also the many other categories of children whose lives are at risk due to various reasons.
Salesian intervention on behalf of the Young at Risk begins with the ‘first contact’ on the streets, railway stations, bus stands, markets, etc. Regular contacts and the consequent relationship help the youngsters to shed their fears and anxieties. They are then invited to come to the drop-in centres, day-care centres or night shelter homes where they have facilities to rest, relax, speak with the staff, and write letters to their families, if they wish. This gives them a sense of belonging to some place and a feeling of security that one does not normally find on the streets.
The Don Bosco Project for the Young at Risk comprises the whole gamut services that young persons on the street need to enable them to get back to normal life with a sense of self-reliance and dignity. It includes counselling, medical care, spiritual and recreational facilities, networking with other agencies for defending child rights, non-formal education, job-oriented vocational/technical training, job placement, family contact, family reunion and follow-up.