The Weekend Leader - Friend makers

Big and small, in friendship kids from poor homes get mentors

Orchie Bandyopadhyay   |   New Delhi


Vol 2 | Issue 4

When 17-year-old Ruby opens a letter from her 'big' friend Zuleikha Gupta, 25, she is all smiles. Ruby, whose family income is Rs 7000 a month, has known Zuleikha, who works for Sesame Street, for more than six months. They meet twice a month and write letters to each other. While admitting that writing letters is a quaint but fascinating way of staying in touch in an age of text messages and e-mail, Zuleikha says, “We write about everything that is happening in our lives; about our friends and family, the latest movies we watched or the books we read.”

Zuleikha even gifted Ruby a copy of Arundhati Roy’s “God of Small Things.” During the Commonwealth Games, the two went to watch a boxing match. For Ruby, Zuleikha is her best friend. “It was a great day when we met for the first time. We clicked almost instantaneously. Now I can tell her just about anything and she always has something to say, which makes perfect sense,” says the Class 12 student.

Friendly matches: Delhi based NGO Udayan Care has a programme to find friends for underprivileged children from better off families 

Sanju and Akshay Chandna have an age difference of 10 years but that does not make a difference to either of them. “We hit it off like a house on fire,” says Akshay. Sanju is a class ten student whose father is a daily wage labourer and Akshay is a 24-year-old engineer working with a consultancy firm.

Zuleikha, Ruby, Akshay and Sanju, are part of the Big Friends Little Friends Programme in India that began in March 2010. The long term accompaniment programme was introduced by Udayan Care, a Delhi-based NGO working with children and women, in partnership with New Path Foundation, USA. The programme gives a young person (little friend) the opportunity to gain the friendship and mentorship of a sincere adult (big friend). But the real challenge lies in matching an adult volunteer with a young person from a disadvantaged community.

So far, there are 30 big friends and 30 little friends and the minimum commitment for volunteers like Akshay or Zuleikha is a period of one year.

Says Avik Swarnakar, Director, Volunteer Management and Advocacy, Udayan Care, “The matching process helps us in recognizing the unique potential in every individual; the more the matching is natural and spontaneous, the more are the chances of staying together. Matching is done when a conscious altruistic individual aspires to support a child from a slum pocket in the journey of life without any materialistic expectation.”

For Ruby, Zuleikha is more than just a friend. Ruby says, “My elder brother is very possessive about me and I used to get very nervous when he was around. I discussed this with Zulekha and somehow the talk I had with her helped me in overcoming that nervousness and fear.”

It happened with Sanju, too. His big friend Akshay says, “Sanju goes with the flow and is happy most of the time. He was upset once when he scored badly in science but when I told him he could do better next time with some more practice, he seemed to cheer up.”

“We are not telling them about what is right or what is wrong, we don't teach them either but we are just there to help them and at times they are there for us as well,” says a volunteer and big friend Nandini Sharma. Her little friend is 17-year old Manisha. When Manisha's elder sister was sick, Nandini was there to support the teenager.

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