“The kids can’t wait to meet you,” gushes the voice of Ashok Deshmane, as I struggle to cut through Pune traffic to reach its outskirts. I’m just as eager to meet these kids and my excitement is palpable. Knowing their incredibly humbling story, I wondered how best to get them to like me. It felt like going back to school all over again. Ashok reassures me, “All you need is an open heart and warm smile. They’ll like you.”
I wonder if he realizes that he has both of those in enviable quantities.
Rescuing Children from Drought-affected Areas of Maharashtra
Ashok is the founder of Snehwan, an organization that rescues children from drought-affected areas of Maharashtra, and tries to rehabilitate them into a better life. When the terrible drought in Marathwada this year claimed the lives and livelihood of countless farmers, our collective hearts went out to them and their families. The parched situation in the region has been the cause of many a farmer’s suicide. Marathwada is being touted as the farmer suicide capital of India, a title that its people are not pleased to wear. Ashok, however, decided to take control of the situation and provide the children of farmers who have committed suicide, a future to look forward to; a way forward from their traumatising past.
Ashok Deshmane with the children from Snehwan.
Working Day and Night for Their Better Lives
Snehwan is nestled cozily amongst lush trees, open grounds and the green pastures of a village-like community in Bhosari, Pune. When I enter the premises, Ashok welcomes me with tea and conversation. Ashok quit his 9 to 5 corporate job recently to take Snehwan forward full-time. “I can’t concentrate at that job. My mind is constantly with the kids," Aashok says.
Considering there are nearly 25 orphans to take care of, no one can blame him. “All I really want to do is enable them to have a normal life like every other child. I don’t want them to feel that their past can stop them from having a bright future,” says Ashok. A fundraiser on Milaap helped him get things going, he said.
I eagerly step out to join the kids who are sitting on a small playground outside Snehwan. Ashok gathers them around and they flock toward me with unusual discipline. What follows is a demonstration of willpower, effort, and good intentions.
They introduce themselves with their full names, standards in school and the region they are from. The kids then sing rhymes, prayers, and songs for me. They demonstrate their physical abilities through gymnastics. Their eyes light up when I tell them I used to play kabbadi in school. “We love Kabbadi!” they yell with joy and promptly start playing the sport within a minute. I was asked to referee, a role I was elated to take on. I ended up with a few scratches and enormous joy.
The children play kabbadi every evening after their school.
A gut-wrenching moment was when the kids sang a song about the importance of parents, like it was the sweetest song in the world. I didn’t understand if I felt great happiness or terrible grief to listen to these children sing about their late parents with hope and respect. It was hard to believe that only a few months ago, these children were facing a bleak future. Appreciation for Ashok’s single-handed efforts amplified three-fold.
Ashok has been sending them to a school nearby and tutors them in the evening with the help of his mother. It is quite a sight to watch them sit together and study, sharp at 7 p.m. The discipline with which they approach their schedules is staggering.
Ashok has taught them breathing exercises and a few yoga asanas. Morning 6 30 a.m yoga sessions are a part of their daily routine.
“Many of these children are very talented at different things. If you tell them kindly how good they are at something, they will work very hard to develop it rather than let that compliment get to their heads,” says Ashok. Ashok himself has been responsible for these children to realize their potential.
How You Can Help
It is commendable how Ashok has been dedicating his time and life to the betterment of the lives of forgotten farmers’ children. Contribute to Ashok’s efforts to build a brighter future for these children. Donate here.