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Shaheen Mistri is an Indian social activist and educator. Before launching the Akanksha Foundation, her interest in children’s education led her to volunteer as a teacher in diverse organizations in Mumbai. Didi is Shaheen’s story narrated by her.
The Missing Piece
Ever since she was a young girl, Shaheen yearned to have a greater purpose in life. She lived a privileged life, yet she felt a piece of herself missing. Her life in Jakarta was the supposed perfect life, however, when she was once taken to an orphanage for the first time, something inside her clicked and she wanted to learn more about them. When she visited India for her vacations, the destitute children would pique her interest and curiosity and she spent most of her time volunteering at some or the other institute or orphanage.
It was through these summer experiences in India that she began to see inequity. In the summer of 1989, Shaheen made the revolutionary decision to stay in Mumbai. She enrolled herself in St. Xavier’s college and began her new journey. After college, she would explore the sprawling, low-income community areas.
It was then that she came across a girl, Sandhya who lovingly welcomed her in her tiny house. Both eighteen years, yet completely different with regards to language still formed a beautiful connection. Here, Shaheen found her first batch of students who she would teach a few English words or songs. They lovingly called her ‘didi’ and it was as if Shaheen had found herself a new identity, that missing piece of herself.
The notion behind Akanksha was simple: India had people who could teach, spaces that could be used as classrooms, and funding to educate all of the children. The children required a space free of the distractions of the neighbourhood. As a result, the search for the first Akanksha centre began. She approached twenty schools in the city and asked if they could use one of their classrooms for three hours every evening. For the most ridiculous of reasons, they all declined.
Finally, the principal of Colaba’s Holy Name High School consented to provide a classroom. That became the first Akanksha centre. She enlisted the help of St. Xavier’s volunteers and devised a basic framework for what they would teach. In 1991, Akanksha became a legal entity. Over the years, the programme grew naturally. Akanksha has grown from a single class of 15 children to 58 centres and six schools serving over 3500 children.
There are those who are willing to go to any length to achieve their goals. For them, success entails more than just money or popularity; it entails something more. Many young people are involved in social enterprises, which require a great deal of dedication and hard work. They strive to make a difference by reaching out to the community in their own unique way. Success for them is happiness for themselves and others.