For Lucknow’s Pooja Rai, it seems like just yesterday that she left her high-paying job as an architect-engineer to fulfil her lifelong mission to improve and uplift the lives of underprivileged children in India.
It all started in 2015, when Pooja was in her final year of architectural engineering at IIT Kharagpur, in her free time, the then 23-year-old would volunteer at a care center for underprivileged children and donate whatever she could be it her time or essentials. On one such visit, Pooja saw a heart-wringing sight, the children did not even have toys to play with, they were attempting to play badminton with slippers, while some played with huge cement pipes that we often spot near construction sites.
Pooja observed the paradox, “I thought, on one hand, we are studying design to build huge fancy buildings, on the other hand, here children (underprivileged) have nothing much to play.”
Pooja decided to help the children and turned to her classmates for help in building a playground, but as they were all broke students they could only offer their time and effort. They reached out to IIT alumni who donated enough money for Pooja and her classmates to be able to get all the materials to build the playground. Once the care center also agreed to the construction of the playground, Pooja approached Michelin tires, a leading tire manufacturer, and told them about her charitable idea, and they donated tires for building the playground, the entire cost of the playground came up to Rs 1 lakh.
After that one time, Pooja did not give building playgrounds much thought, and when campus placements came around, the graduate got hired by a startup called Stayzilla as a product manager. She worked there for a year and a half and admits that she received a ballpark of around 300 requests to build playgrounds like the one she did at the care center. This is when Pooja started to seriously consider taking up building playgrounds as a full-time career.
Pooja shares, “As a product manager, I was already earning Rs. 20 lakh per annum. With a simple lifestyle, I did not have many expenses, and I also realized that true happiness comes from giving back and you simply can’t be happy if you don’t love what you do.”
So in 2017, Pooja left her job and started an NGO called Anthill Creations that builds playgrounds across India along with five of her friends. However, this information wasn’t received well by her parents who were quite disappointed that their daughter had left a great job for a life of instability, but after a few moments of doubt, they came around and supported their daughter wholeheartedly as they could see her beaming with happiness. And in the past five years, the NGO has built 283 playgrounds across 18 states of India including Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Assam.
Since the playgrounds are filled with toys, equipment, and games made of tires and similar scrap material, they don’t take longer than 4-5 days to build, and depending on the size of the playground they can cost anywhere between Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. Pooja shares that the NGO doesn’t function independently and that they work with local NGOs and community members in the area where the playground will be built. She shares, “We work with individuals, community members, governments, and corporates, they help us with funds to build the playgrounds. Although the playgrounds are almost like DIY project and made with used tires and scraps, they can last for about 10 years.” The NGO also trains community members to maintain the playgrounds.
Pooja has researched and found that the correct usage of space can alter people’s behavior. She shares that while it may seem like everyone must welcome the idea of playgrounds she has met with a lot of backlash while trying to convince people about the same. She shares, “Everyone gives a lot of importance to education, but the time away from books is equally important for children. Playgrounds help children develop physical developments, social and emotional skills, and we make our first friends in the playground. The people we sometimes have to work with really need to be convinced of the importance of this, but we do our best. And when people finally notice the positive effect of these playgrounds on students’ performance and behavior, that is the real achievement.”
This story is submitted by Bilal Khan and edited by Alfea Shaikh.
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