This description of Alphonse Jemonie's work was prepared when Alphonse Jemonie was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1986.
Alphonso Jemonie has worked with hundreds of young rag pickers, giving them a place to assemble and a place to take classes to prepare them for employment. Having survived as an unskilled, unemployed youth himself, Alphonso wants to show the way for others.
The New Idea
As a factory worker in Bangalore at a large manufacturing company, Alphonso discovered that many of his co-workers had some leisure time to devote to outside activities. Recognizing the serious unemployment among uneducated youth, he consulted with his friends and co-workers and convinced them that together they could work to train these young unemployed so that they too could enter into the job market as productive participants. In 1984 he and a number of co-workers began devoting free time to training these youths in practical vocational skills.
Bangalore's 25,000 rag picker children have no opportunity for self advancement with the simple economic burden of survival to weigh them down. They lack the education and skills required for employment, and the pressures of family, gangs, and shopkeepers prevent them from entering school. The children work from three or four in the morning to late in the evening picking rags from the dust bins of hotels and shopping markets. Many of their parents are also rag pickers, and the parents depend on their children's income streams. To take time out during the day for school would place an overwhelming financial burden on the family. Orphan rag pickers work together under the wing of a gang leader, who pools their earnings to provide food, clothing, and even rudimentary health care. Leaving the safety of this very modest support structure is difficult for the children and often made impossible by the unwillingness of gang leaders to let them leave. Shopkeepers who buy the rags become economically tied to the children who bring them daily supplies of recyclable goods. The shop owners prevent their participation in any evening classes by giving them their wages very late. Thus, without a substantial push in the right direction, Bangalore's young rag pickers will remain hostages of the economic forces around them.
Alphonso has organized three small centers around the city of Bangalore, where unemployed youth and rag pickers can recieve informal training. The evening sessions and daily vocational classes are attended by school-going children, non-school going children, dropouts, and rag collectors. By providing a variety of services throughout the day, the centers give the youths the extra support they need to prepare themselves for being a productive part of society. One center focuses primarily on male drop outs, a group that is ordinarilly shunned and has no other resource for skill training or education. At a building owned by the local Catholic Church, Alphonso has established the Goodwill International Industrial Training Institute for boys between the ages of 12 and 25. Boys come to this institute to recieve training in a variety of practical skill areas including engineering, drawing, workshop calculation and science, metal working, and social science. At two other centers not attached to the Catholic Church property, Alphonso works with young women to give them practical manufacturing skills. The women learn weaving, knitting, doll making, dressmaking, and stuffed animal manufacturing. Most of their products are exported out of Bangalore; some of them even make it into the export market out of India. The young women are allowed to keep whatever profits they can make on the things they produce. Alphonso is now collaborating with the Bangalore state government on funding and other support for the centers. The government provides salaries for teachers and raw materials for students to use in the training classes while Alphonso provides the classroom space and the trainers. Then the government provides a certificate to graduates of the program; this certificate gives the trainees a stamp of credibility when they seek jobs with manufacturing companies in the area. The collaborative program with the government also teaches classes in literacy, family welfare, family planning, and health and hygiene. The overwhelming success of this program's graduates in securing employment demonstrates that this is a program well worth emulating. Alphonso and his colleagues have pledged to make the centers financially self-sufficient, but they will continue to rely on outside support until alternative fund raising methods, such as mushroom growing, can be established. They face an extreme challenge as they are providing opportunities to a segment of the Bangalore population which is usually shunned and ignored. The children they work with are abused because of their illiteracy and their social status; however, through the centers and various programs which Alphonso has established, these children are breaking out of the social and economic traps which have traditionally bound them to their miserable lifestyle.
Alphonso Jemonie empathizes with the children he helps because he too was once an unemployed, unskilled youth. He suceeded in advancing himself and secured a factory job. From that vantage point he could understood what the rag picker and unemployed youth need in order to bring them into the mainstream of society. Thus, Alphonso set out to give those children the guidance and support they lack.