The Vaanavil school was started R Revathi in the year 2005 at Keezhakarayiruppu village in Nagapattinam. Vanavil, an alternative school, was started after the 2004 tsunami in Nagapattinam for children from marginalised communities. The children belong to the Adiyan (Boomboom Maatukaaran) and the Narikuvar tribe.
A journalist, R Revathi landed in Nagapattinam as a volunteer and worked ten days after the devastating 2004 Tsunami hit Tamil Nadu. A curious Revathi, followed a child begging on the streets when food was available in surplus. “The child led us to the 43 families of the Boomboom Maatukaara tribe who were being ostracized from receiving any kind of relief measures from the government or volunteers,” says Revathi.
This nomadic tribe was not considered to be a part of the fishing community in the district and hence ended up living outside the margins. "That’s when we thought of setting up a bridge school, a temporary one that would enable them to fit into mainstream schools later."
The stigma the children faced gave Revathi and her friends a new resolve: to start a school where the children would also be well-fed, since it was the lack of food that made them beg.
"On May 14, we hired a house and by June 6, the nameless school began functioning. My friends and I put our own money into starting the school. Very soon, we realised a bridge school for one year will not do. Such long-term neglect cannot be addressed in a year. So we formed the Vanavil Trust."
Vaanavil, in that sense, was started specifically for children coming from this nomadic tribe. Today, the school also has children from other tribes like Narikorava and Irula studying in it.
Revathi says, “I had no money and the community was surviving on the money that the children were earning by begging. We were struggling in the beginning as I was new to Nagapattinam and running institutions. Children were our first priority as we built stronger relationships with the community and convinced them that education is the way forward. It was ensured that the school is a happy place and children are involved in the process of decision making. Children knew that they have ownership.”
It was, however, a huge decision for the community that always lives on the fringe to accept help, shares Revathi. “A child today can earn Rs 500 from begging, back then it was Rs 300. If you had three children you’d earn Rs 1000 – which was not an easy amount to forego for them. Therefore for the community to agree to support Vaanavil was a huge decision,” she explains.
“When we first began Vaanavil the children were terribly malnourished. So is the case with everyone in such nomadic tribes. The pregnant women do not get nutritious food, they usually make fish curry and rice, and the children are born malnourished. Our biggest goal, therefore, was to make sure the children are well-fed,” she says. “We have been able to bring down malnourishment among children significantly and that has been our biggest success,” smiles Revathi. She cooked and taught the children for the first four months after she started the school. “Later a woman from the community itself joined to help with the cooking. Our first teacher joined after six months of starting Vaanavil.”
The school that was started with just a handful of kids today has 180 students. While Vaanavil has 90 students studying from Class 1 to 5, the rest are sent to a government school in nearby Puducherry for higher education. The students are housed in Vaanavil itself and commute to their school or college.