Formerly an investment banker and venture capitalist, Vishal Talreja has built a network of volunteers that offer vulnerable children opportunities to increase their chances for normal childhood development.
The New Idea
Vishal is building a volunteer-run initiative that provides vulnerable children—children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children who are gravely ill from cancer or who are HIV-positive, children who are orphans and street kids—with opportunities to have fun and learn concrete skills that allow them the possibility of eventually becoming integrated into mainstream society. Sports activities, art classes, field trips, and other opportunities offered by Vishal and his team yield visible results in the behavior and capabilities of participating children, many of whom otherwise have very limited chances for normal development.
While the transformative effect on children’s development is the end goal, the genius of Vishal’s idea rests in part with the design of his approach. First, his initiative is run by over 200 well-trained and committed volunteers who are encouraged to initiate and implement effective projects to support vulnerable children. Second, strong partnerships and unique fundraising efforts attract substantial aid from individuals and from businesses in the community. In one arrangement, for example, Xerox prints high-quality posters depicting real dreams of participating children. Volunteers then “crush” the posters, placing them in special bins in offices and shopping malls. Passers-by are encouraged to “uncrush a dream” by removing a poster from the bin and covering the cost of realizing the dream depicted on the poster.
Vishal’s initiative has begun to attract considerable attention from the Indian and the international press. Creating a dedicated citizen and corporate base to support society’s most vulnerable members, Vishal is building an important model for communities throughout India and beyond.
Many charitable institutions working with children from vulnerable communities offer support for basic needs. Such help is critical, but most institutions are unable to offer the additional support that is necessary for normal childhood development. As a result, vulnerable children become increasingly dependent on basic, institutionally provided aid and, simultaneously, they become increasingly isolated from mainstream life. With increasing isolation comes an inevitable stunting of children’s emotional growth, and a corresponding diminishment of their potential to enter mainstream society. Part of this problem stems from significant disparities between the economically affluent and the economically disadvantaged, disparities that seemingly preclude social interaction between the two groups. Indeed, there seems to be little common ground, even for children, upon which to create an empowered future for all. Some mainstream citizens genuinely want to improve life for vulnerable children in their communities, but they don’t know how to contribute or where to start. And they don’t want to begin something that may end with their absence, even for a short period of time. Hence, they retreat into their own world, choosing not to become involved, and thereby unwittingly exacerbating the problem.
Vishal’s initiative, Dream A Dream, helps to transform the lives of vulnerable children by offering them a wide spectrum of enrichment opportunities. At the forefront of his effort is a broad network of citizen sector organizations and community-minded businesses, and a large cadre of well-trained and highly effective volunteers.
First, Dream A Dream excels in building strong, long-term partnerships with businesses, organizations, and institutions interested in children’s issues. The terms of these partnerships are detailed in memorandums of understanding, which clearly define the roles of all partners. In general, Dream monitors the growth of individual children, constantly updating children’s profiles and defining for each child subsequent steps for fostering healthy childhood development. Then Dream secures resources “in-house” or from the vital network of partnerships to meet individual children’s needs.
For example, Dream and two leading sports academies have initiated a popular sports program which boosts the confidence of participating children and strengthens their interpersonal communication skills as well as their ability to cope with emotional stress. And a partnership between Dream and a government-supported children’s club provides art programming which enables children from diverse backgrounds to interact in positive and creative ways. This partnership, for example, offers paper collage workshops that enable children to express themselves through creative, interactive art projects—activities which also enhance their capacity for concentration, communication, patience, and physical dexterity. The resulting artwork is exhibited and sold, with sale proceeds funneled back into other creative programming for children. Thus a cycle of investment and reinvestment in the future of vulnerable children is achieved.
In yet another arrangement, Dream partners with local toastmasters to conduct public speaking courses that build reading and public speaking skills in Dream children. This partnership has enabled children who could not speak before an audience to confidently research, prepare and deliver speeches of several minutes’ duration.
To sensitize the larger community to issues faced by vulnerable children, Vishal and his colleagues create arenas for meaningful exchange between children and volunteers of various backgrounds. Dream Fun Days, for example, are daylong outings that expose children to new and diverse people and environments while encouraging relationship building across social strata. Activities are intentionally designed around themes that naturally lead to the integration of diverse groups. In another effort, Dream forms partnerships with mainstream schools and other organizations to produce Dream Festival, a cultural festival for children which is effective in breaking down prejudices on all sides.
Starting with twelve volunteers in 1999, Dream now has over two hundred active volunteers who are trained through dedicated workshops, discussions, and activities. Dream training aims to educate volunteers about the issues faced by vulnerable children and to provide volunteers with the knowledge and skills to initiate and lead child development projects. Valli Velan, for instance, is a young Dream volunteer who organized the formation of a highly successful “shakti,” a human chain that drew attention to vital human connections across socioeconomic sectors. In addition to substantive training, Dream offers volunteers the opportunity to contribute their time and resources at their own convenience. The organization maintains extensive volunteer performance records which are shared with volunteers to help them see the extent of their contributions. In addition, volunteers, partners, and other well-wishers are kept updated on all Dream activities through a bi-monthly newsletter.
In addition to its strong partnerships and volunteer corps, Dream A Dream is also notable for its fundraising methods, particularly its emphasis on nurturing relationships with donors by creating win-win strategies for all parties. For example, “Dine for a Cause” is a Dream program whereby one can dine at a “Dream Table” in selected restaurants, contributing proceeds of the meal towards sponsoring a Dream child. Participating restaurants “win” a positive reputation in the community, diners win a delicious meal and the chance to contribute in a convenient way, and Dream wins new funds—and sometimes new volunteers.
The organization approaches businesses primarily for financial resources and in-kind services. A partnership with Xerox, for example, produced a campaign called “Help Uncrush a Dream.” Many children’s dreams land in the trash because children have inadequate support networks. In this initiative, children draw, paint, and write out their dreams. Xerox converts these dreams into high quality posters which are then crushed and placed into Dream “trash” bins in corporate reception areas, cafeterias, shopping malls and large stores. Citizens are invited to uncrush a child’s dream by removing a poster from a bin, then providing the resources for the young artist or writer to realize that dream.
Vishal has a national vision for Dream A Dream. He is currently building a dynamic and committed board and management team to work with him in developing a plan to expand to other cities, towns and villages. By 2006 he aims to have a volunteer base of over 500, serving 500 children. His team is also working to ensure that the core values of Dream—such as respect for differences, organizational and financial transparency, and basic rights of children—guide each stage of the expansion. A focus of Vishal’s five-year plan is Dream House, a center that will offer all Dream A Dream services under one roof and provide a volunteer training center and model for the creation of other such centers. Mainstream children will pay for services at Dream House, thereby strengthening its sustainability.
Dream A Dream has been covered extensively in print media and national TV, with ESPN covering Dream sports programs.
Vishal Talreja grew up in Bangalore, where he excelled in academics and assumed significant leadership roles. During his childhood years, he remembers wondering why he was not allowed to play with street children, or why he was restricted in what he was allowed to give to the children of his family’s maid.
During his university years, he became interested in the business world. He helped start “Launch Pad,” a unique management forum which organized a business festival and several workshops and conferences focused on topics related to management, marketing and finance, and brand launches. This project quickly drew the attention of the university student community and teachers throughout Bangalore. He also held top leadership positions with an international association of students in economics and management. Under his direct guidance, several chapters, including one in Finland, won widespread acclaim.
Later, Vishal and a friend set up Technology Holdings, an investment bank in Mumbai. When they decided to field venture capitalists, Vishal’s persistence and Web research resulted in their finding and meeting many of The Indus entrepreneurs. It was during this period that Vishal began to spend a lot of time trying to understand the requisites for healthy development in children and the status of children in his country. He spent many weekends with Ashoka Fellow Matthew Spacie, studying his strategies to improve the lives of children. Then in 2002, believing it was the right time to take the plunge into a career as a social entrepreneur, Vishal resigned from Technology Holdings to work full-time on his own ideas to give even the most vulnerable children the opportunities necessary to realize their dreams.
Vishal calls upon a wide network of old friends and colleagues in his work. His own karate master in school, for example, helped him create an environmental curriculum for Dream children. A mentor at Xerox, where he worked his first post-college job, and colleagues from the international student association with which he was involved, are also active participants in Vishal’s efforts. In addition to Ashoka Fellow Matthew Spacie, Vishal works with children from Freedom Foundation, Ashoka Fellow Ashok Rau’s organization. He has begun working with Ashoka Fellow SLN Swamy to build a year-long outdoor curriculum for vulnerable children.