Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2000   |   India

Sonali Ojha

Dream Catchers Foundation
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
Sonali Ojha is empowering street children to create and sustain a vision of the future through an innovative and participatory curriculum that will help them to leave the street behind and build…
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This description of Sonali Ojha's work was prepared when Sonali Ojha was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.


Sonali Ojha is empowering street children to create and sustain a vision of the future through an innovative and participatory curriculum that will help them to leave the street behind and build successful lives. By training organizations working with street children nationally and internationally in this new curriculum, she wants to add wholeness of spirit and emotion to the list of "basic necessities" children need.

The New Idea

Sonali has created with the help of street children a participatory, child-centered learning initiative that will help them to see the possibilities in life and connect to their inner source of worth, strength and confidence to move towards their own vision of the future. While most organizations working with street children address problems of food, clothing, and shelter, Sonali's key insight from working with the children themselves is that, in order to help them learn to live healthy, productive lives, they also need emotional support from the adults who work with them. Using this innovative and participatory curriculum as the catalyst for change, Sonali plans to train other organizations working with street-children in order to bring about a monumental shift in the focus of adults' work with street children. It will facilitate a process of reflection and discovery within each child as well as help adults working with children to learn more about their needs and aspirations. By responding as individuals and organizations to the children's needs, adults will be more effective in helping children struggling to leave street life behind.

The Problem

Over the last decade numerous organizations in India, Nepal, and other nations have responded to street children by giving them food, clothing, shelter, basic education, and job training. Much of the work with street children around the globe has proceeded from the assumption that once a child is provided with an opportunity and sufficient motivation, he or she will reach out to that opportunity. A package deal of opportunities, services and motivation has been offered to these children from a belief that when applied together, this deal will lead a child to make the decision to leave the streets and change his or her life.Despite the existence of such programs, there are few success stories. Because of the harsh reality of their lives, very few street children have the nurturing adults they need to sustain them throughout life and to shape their world-view. They are alone in their search for guidance, encouragement, and emotional support. As a result, the children feel trapped by their own negative voices and are more vulnerable to negative influences in society. Many of them continue to live on the streets and resort to self-destructive behaviors such as drug abuse, self-mutilation, and suicide.

The Strategy

Sonali is instituting her new idea in two phases: first working directly with street children to create a new, effective model, and then integrating it into the already existing organizations. In the first phase, Mapintee, the organization started by Sonali in 1998, worked with 4 groups of children living in the streets. The children shared, hesitantly at first, how they felt trapped by a negative self-image, but wanted help in developing a more positive direction in life. Sonali used their input to create the Santosh Learning Initiative. This initiative is composed of several elements. The children use an illustrated storybook about a boy named Santosh (meaning happiness or contentment) who faces challenges similar to their own. By reading the book as well as keeping a visual journal, they learn how to create and sustain visions for their own lives. They also use a series of interactive, language-free, multi-coloured cards that describe different feelings of a child. Through their own placement of these cards and exploring each card's relationship to the others, children are able to examine their memories and traumatic experiences. They are also able to recognize what devices they employ to cope with such experiences that often bring harm to themselves and others. Then they are able to identify the positive aspects of their lives and recognize that these positive feelings are as much a part of their lives as the negative ones. A second set of cards focuses on building a life away from the streets using the positive habits and behaviours they have identified. Sonali has designed the second phase of her strategy in order to effectively spread her idea. By training other organizations to use the Santosh Learning Initiative, she plans to fill the gap between adults offering an opportunity for a different life and helping a child reach out to it or make a success of it. It will enable adults to learn how children view their lives and collectively improve the quality of service that an organization is able to provide. Finally, it will initiate discussion within organizations that the wholeness of emotion and spirit can be viewed as a "basic necessity" in the lives of children and be a guiding principle in all interactions with them. The dissemination of the Initiative in India will begin with staff and employees of SKCV Children's Trust, one of Mapintee's partner organizations based in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh. In addition, two representatives will be present from each of the following organizations: CWIN in Kathmandu, Nepal; Rede the Crianca in Mozambique; CINI-Asha in Calcutta, India; Open Learning Systems in Orissa, India. Mapintee will first train and employ 4 teams of eight persons each in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and New Delhi to disseminate trainings with street children's organizations in those cities as well as in Kathmandu, Nepal. Then Mapintee will reach out to organizations working with street children in neighboring cities and towns of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and New Delhi that will include Goa, Pune, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar, Patna, Bangalore, Cochin, Jaipur and Lucknow as well as other districts in Nepal. Furthermore, Mapintee plans to train a team to conduct the Santosh Learning Initiative regularly with children in distress other than street children such as refugees and those rescued from bonded labor in order to explore the far-reaching potential of Sonali's model. Sonali's work has already sparked a great deal of interest from persons working with a variety of young people in the United States, and a number of organizations have requested training in the Santosh Learning Initiative. Currently, Mapintee is evaluating a number of projects in the U.S.A. including providing regular trainings for organizations upon request, linking with a San Francisco School Department's alternative school for teens, assisting a refugee program in California, creating an after-school program for teens, and creating a summer camp for teens. Sonali is also interested in exploring how her model could be made available to children in countries where economies are in transition, such as in Eastern Europe and Mongolia, where thousands of children and families find themselves caught in unexpected struggles.Sonali is convinced that The Santosh Learning Initiative will effectively improve the quality and standard of services provided for street children around the world. She believes that the services will become more relevant, focused and meaningful in the eyes of the children whom they seek to serve. The Initiative will significantly add to the skills of adults working with children. A young adult, part of the group that developed the Santosh Learning Initiative and who is now working with street children in Nepal said, "Santosh taught me a lot. I have changed my way of being with children. I have learned how to give love and be with kids from a place of love that has made them come back to me."

The Person

Ever since childhood, Sonali has wanted to work with people and has always reached out and thrived within groups of people. In college she was part of a Talking Library for blind students that read out loud college books for which a Braille version did not exist. A dynamic psychology teacher helped shape her interest in people, but was also quick to point out that a degree in pyschology would not be very useful in India. Therefore, Sonali studied economics and graduated from St. Xaviers' College in Bombay wanting to be a career diplomat. Her focus changed when she went to the United States to do a course on International Studies through Johns Hopkins University at the Paul E. Nitze School of International Studies. There she decided to focus her attention on the issues that concern children, women and human rights. In 1993 she helped to establish the The Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT) in Bombay. Comprised of retired judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India, the IPT both investigates instances of human rights abuse and campaigns for reform. Sonali became more focused in human rights work when she met Rita Panicker of "Butterflies" and joined her project in 1995 to learn how to introduce participation with and within children. In 1994 Sonali joined Street Kids International (SKI). While there she came to recognize herself as a seeker of answers who was relentless in her search, pushing herself and all those who worked with her to listen hard, think incisively and not give in until they saw in the eyes of the children that together they had reached a place of new awareness. After Sonali left SKI, she wrote a paper on her new idea of the Santosh Learning Initiative and invited her colleague Jim Lees from the U.S. to work with her in developing the curriculum. Together, they established Mapintee. Sonali now works full-time to take her new idea to all corners of the world.Sonali's idea matured as she worked at Street Kids International (SKI) where street children in Bombay helped her understand how education on drugs and HIV/AIDS should be carried out. During this time certain philosophical questions haunted Sonali. What keeps street children from moving forward and what do they need to build successful lives? What would truly make a significant difference in their lives as they contemplate change? The answers came from the children themselves.

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