He knows the pitiable condition of children living in in Marathwada, a severely drought-affected region in Maharashtra. He knows how these silent victims of drought are forced to drop out of school, often making them vulnerable to traffickers.
“I come from such a region so I’m familiar with the situation there as well as the multiple problems right from electricity and medical care to lack of access to education,” Santosh Phad says.
Addressing the Ever-Increasing Education Gap
Having studied in Marathi medium government schools in Mandwa and then engineering in Beed, Santosh really needed to catch up with the rest of his peers when he went to study MBA in Mumbai.
After completing his MBA and securing a job with a finance company, Santosh (31) went back to Mandwa for a visit. Little had changed. While the schools had become bigger, the quality of education was what he remembered, or had plummeted further. Worse– the drought had made things miserable.
He says, “Basic amenities like libraries, computer laboratory, digital classroom, etc., were not present. These amenities are common in government schools in metros and sub-metros.” To address this ever-increasing gap in education standards in rural and urban schools, Santosh founded ThinkSharp Foundation, an NGO, in 2011.
The ThinkSharp team
‘Study Mall’– A Safe Haven for Rural Students
Santosh decided to apply the concept of 'malls' to education in rural pockets. When you think of a mall, the image of a place you might go to after a day's work to explore and for recreation will instantly conjure up in your mind. A Study Mall, on the other hand, is a free-of-charge, after-school programme for children to learn, grow and play. ThinkSharp creates a space that has books (academic and non-academic), computer, and offer various art, craft, educational games and sports equipment for children to play and learn.
In 2013, he, with the help of his team members Bhagwan Jadhav and Shraddha Bhange, launched ThinkSharp Foundation’s first ‘Study Mall’ in Surangali, Maharashtra.
The first Study Mall at Surangali
Some children come here and study on their own, while some others explore the facilities available to them, and teachers or volunteers engage children in various activities like storytelling and poetry recitation. Santosh says. “Rural children feel connected to the place and always voluntarily clean and arrange their Study Mall. There is a clear sense of belonging and ownership for the children.”
"More importantly, these children no more have to accompany their parents to the farm.They can come to the Study Mall and utilize their time constructively," says Santosh.
Slowly, says Santosh, support poured in from all corners, and ThinkSharp Foundation opened two more Study Malls in Varangaon and Vangani. Today, ThinkSharp Foundation is supported by Google, Reliance Capital, Pratham Books,Voltas, YVO, Resilspur, Imprints and family and friends. And in a period of three years, the foundation has been able to impact the lives of 1500 kids.
School children at the Study Mall
The results of the Study Mall has convinced more principals to ask for these facilities. Schools have seen an increase in attendance, better learning in classrooms, increase in overall study time and better reading and writing skills in children. The teachers are also motivated to use computers to make their classes much more interesting.
Funds for a fourth Study Mall
How You Can HelpInspite of his successful career, Santosh wants to reach out to as many less priviliged children as possible and make a difference in their lives. He dreams of setting up one Study Mall in each village, and the next step is setting up the fourth Study Mall. This Study Mall is planned for Chikatgaon, to help students in the one primary school in that area. This school has a very poor classroom set up and a StudyMall can help the children reinvent their academic life.
“These kids are self-motivated. They want to come to the study mall. Their parents are more than happy to send them here because they can see the difference in their grades and overall attitude towards education. This motivates me and this is why I want to set up one Study Mall in every rural village of India,” Santosh says.
On one particular occassion, Santosh received a handwritten note from a kid, wherein she talks about how much she enjoys studying at the Study Mall based in Vangani.
"I study in Zilla Parishad school No. 3. Earlier it was very difficult to learn Geography, Marathi, History, English, Science etc. We didn't have the maps for Geography, couldn't visualize the ancient kingdoms of History, couldn't see the science experiments. But then our teachers got together with ThinkSharp Foundation and got a projector and 5 tablets and also opened a library. These are the problems faced in our school and the solutions that helped us," she writes in her note.
You can help Santosh continue working for this cause. Your contribution can give the students of Chikatgaon a Study Mall. Donate here.
Reworked version of an article that appeared in SocialStory