Jithin Nedumala

Ashoka Fellow
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India
Fellow Since 2017
This description of Jithin Nedumala's work was prepared when Jithin Nedumala was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

Jithin is enabling children in India’s orphanages to escape the cycle of poverty by supporting them to overcome their feeling of abandonment and building their self worth.

The New Idea

The care system for children-at-risk in India has failed in supporting these children to break the cycle of poverty they were born into. Jithin believes that despite solutions to address this problem, like remedial education and mentoring, the innovations in the space have not addressed the deep sense of abandonment children in shelter homes feel. Coupled with them being treated as second class citizens from whom nothing much is expected, the system robs them of aspirations that go beyond just managing to survive.

Jithin is mobilizing a movement of young leaders who volunteer in shelter homes, and enable these children to become emotionally healthy by overcoming their sense of abandonment, supporting their education, building transition readiness in them and providing them crisis support and mentoring even after they have left the shelter home. Simultaneously, the young volunteers are preparing the ecosystem of schools, work places, to be inclusive of these children and make them feel valued.. Jithin is showing that this critical, and till now overlooked, support for children in shelter homes will free them from exploitation, give them freedom of choice, and the emotional strength to cope with crises in life, resulting in social mobility for them, which has so far been structurally absent in the system.

Using his success metrics in orphanges with the diverse child care system, Jithin is building a coalition of child support organisations, shifting their impact measurement from just measuring how many children are passing through the system with basic skills and subsistence skills, to measuring the number of children who escape the cycle of poverty. Jithin is influencing the organisations in the coalition to recognize that supporting children to overcome their sense of abandonment and giving them aspirations, is the key to them achieving social mobility.

The Problem

India ranks 112th in the Global Child Development Index, after even Iraq and Uganda. Out of 440 million children in India, 176 million children are in urgent need of care and protection. Every state in India has state run shelter homes for children without families, or whose families are too poor to care for them. However, these shelter homes are poorly resourced, with the staff to child ratio of 1:60, children have to fed at Rs. 6 per meal (10 cents). At they go to a vernacular medium public school, where they are made to study in a classroom separate from the other children. As a result, less than 8 per centof the children from shelter homes graduate high school. By law the children have to leave the shelter home when they

turn adult at the age of 18 years, and in the best case scenario, they get unskilled jobs with subsistence incomes, returning to the same poverty their parents faced because of which they had to give their children up to a shelter home.

There have been many interventions in India to support the healthy growth of vulnerable children, if not many within shelter homes specifically, then with street children or children living in slums. These organisations provide everything from remedial education, to skill training, life skills, mentorship and so on. Although many children have benefited from these programs and achieved good learning outcomes or learnt skills, most of them have remained in semi-skilled blue-collar jobs and have not had social mobility to the middle class. World Bank’s 2015 report, “Addressing Inequality in South Asia”, claims that the chances of escaping poverty in India has reduced by 20% in the last 10 years, because as the economy grows it’s only low paying non-secure unskilled jobs that are increasing, which maintains intergenerational poverty.

Even the most successful child support organizations in the country are measuring number of children who have gone through their program, or at best what skills they learnt, but because of the long term nature of the evaluation, are not measuring if the children were actually able to use the support to escape poverty. So, in spite of the numerous innovations in the space intergenerational poverty is perpetuated.

The Strategy

Jithin’s vision is to enable children in shelter homes to escape the cycle of poverty that made their parents give their child up to a shelter home in the first place. He believes these children can only achieve social mobility to a stable middle class life, where they have freedom from exploitation, freedom of choice and the ability to cope with emotional and financial crisis, if they are supported to overcome their feeling of abandonment, build their self-esteem by feeling valued by society, and held to high expectations. Thus, Jithin’s focus is not on improving academic performance of children in shelter homes, but on building the self -esteem of these children, making them feel valued so that they can overcome their feeling of abandonment.

When Jithin first enters a shelter home, through his organization Make a Difference (MAD), they start by working with the youngest children, adding new batches only as the first batch progresses upwards. This ensures that each child receives the necessary foundational inputs of emotional upliftment at the right ages and early enough to make a significant impact on their longer term trajectory.

MAD’s modules are designed by psychiatrists, and experts in child psychology, yet giving volunteers, who deliver the modules to children, freedom to design their own activities under these modules. For example, academic research shows that helping a peer builds a child’s self worth, so the psychiatrists have created this module from their expertise. Within this the volunteers can design their activities like peer-led learning, playing games in pairs where an older child can help a younger one, to achieve the goal of building the children’s self worth. Another example is appreciating and loving one self, within which volunteers have designed activities like making the children draw a body map of themselves and writing on each part

what they love about themselves, and if they are not able to come up with anything, as they often are because of their low self esteem, they invite the child’s friends to write in things they love about their friend, and the child feels valued by their community. Volunteers are also trained to identify children who need more intense emotional support, and refer them for sessions with psychologists.

Make a Difference provides 2-4 volunteer caregivers, teachers and mentors for groups of 4-6 children who spend at least 4 hours a week (typically 2 two hour sessions) each with children where they build a bond with the child, create a safe space and provide academic and developmental support. Apart from this, once a month the volunteers take the children out of the shelter home for an exposure activity that helps them understand the world outside the shelter home, the primary purpose being changing their expectations about what they should be doing once they leave the shelter home. Once a year Jithin organises an external Dream Camp where children are encouraged to think about their future and start planning for and believing in it. All these three activities together set-up the relationship between the children and MAD caregivers; and lays the expectation foundation with the children, that there is more out there than what they have experienced so far, and that Make a Difference will be there to support them through their journey.

Ninety per cent of the 4000 children supported by MAD, across 63 shelters in 23 cities, successfully finish high school and pursue higher education as compared to around 8 per cent otherwise. Seventy-eight per cent of the children pursue careers of their first choice. Jithin’s impact analysis shows that aside from the interventions themselves, the major driver of improved outcomes is the child’s consistent exposure to high achieving youth (the volunteers) consistently, which makes them feel valued because they are cared for by the best people in society, have positive role models to aspire for and builds in the confidence in them that they can achieve this.

By law the children have to leave the government shelter home at 18 years, but MAD continues to support them to build emotional resilience through their After-Care program. In this program, the young people who have just left the shelter homes are brought together in self-help groups so they can support each other through crises of living by themselves and the challenges of college education. The groups also contribute money into a common savings pool that can be borrowed interest free by anyone to tide over a financial crisis, like sudden healthcare needs.

Jithin is able to deliver this human resource intensive support for children in shelter homes, scaling at a rapid rate, because the strong volunteer network he has built allows him to operate at 5 per cent of the cost of any other organization of this size. The volunteers go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates if they are value aligned to MAD. They are inspired by the vision and given the self-belief that they can tackle this large scale national issue of ensuring equitable outcomes for children in shelter homes because of the power of their collective. The volunteers are given intense training and challenging roles that enables them to grow. After the training they are given ownership to contribute to, start and run new programs and build support for the children by applying their own creativity and

talent. This way of collectivizing has resulted in MAD having the strongest, most committed and long term volunteers in the country, as certified by the Great Place to Work organization, that included MAD as the only non-profit in its list of awardee organisations.

Jithin, through his organization, Make a Difference, has mobilized over 4000 volunteers every year, that contribute 550,000 volunteers hours, working on everything from teaching and mentoring children, working with schools to improve the formal education system the children are part of, fund raising, managing government partnerships, media and communications, mobilizing more volunteers and so on.

Going forward, Jithin is building a coalition of organisations working with vulnerable children, that might be providing remedial education, life skills, child rights awareness and so on. While they have measured number of children they have worked with, or if the child learnt a certain skill, Jithin is encouraging them to measure if the children were actually able to escape the cycle of poverty. As these organisations begin to realise that their support to the children was not enough to enable social mobility, Jithin’s insight that a child must first be supported to build emotional strength before they can receive and utilize any other service, will become the new norm in the sector.

The Person

Jithin grew up with an emotionally distant father, trying to navigate his unpredictable behavior of when he would approve of Jithin and when he would withdraw. Jithin played professional basketball in school and in high school moved into an elite school because they had the best basketball team in the state. He felt compelled to earn more money than his middle class family could give him as pocket money to keep up with his affluent classmates.

Jithin started an event management company in high school. He went scoping for young talent in colleges and trained them so the talent he supplied for events was of a much better quality than of other competitive companies. By the time Jithin got to college he had a point of contact in every college and had over a 100 people working events every day. But he soon got bored, and handed over the business to the points of contacts in the colleges.

Academics were not interesting, so Jithin sought out stimulation in travel, until he lost one of his close friends in a drowning accident on a trip he had organized. Jithin struggled with his purpose and identity through a rough police investigation and house arrest. At the age of 19 , looking for new areas to explore and learn about, Jithin walked into a government orphanage near to his home to spend time with the children. He bonded deeply with the children over their stories of abandonment by their parents. One of the children Jithin was particularly close to, had to quit the orphanage to work in a factory. Jithin tracked him down to ask him why he wasn’t going to college and realized that English language was the barrier to further education.

He started Make a Difference (MAD) in 2006, at the age of 21 years, mobilizing first his friends, and then a large volunteer community, to teach English to children in shelter homes. They got the best English teaching curriculum from Cambridge, convincing the writer of the books to give them subsidized prices. After a few years Jithin realized English was not enough to support the children to go to college and pursue their careers, and MAD transformed into a overall mentorship program for the children. Over the years, Jithin

continued to explore what would really cause these children to transition from at best getting subsistence jobs when they turned 18 , to actually escape the cycle of poverty. He wanted to see these children succeed like others, by pursuing degrees, having careers and transitioning into a stable, middle class life. The new vision for MAD was born out of this constant evaluation and reflection.