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Anubha Sharma, Founder at Angel Xpress Foundation


Great Companies: How did you get your idea or concept to start this NGO?

Anubha Sharma : I grew up in Kolkata, I'm the eldest among 3 siblings. Had a remarkably unremarkable childhood of a typical middle class background. We spend most of our time playing, reading, listening to music. I was never academically inclined but I loved to read. I've lived and worked in Kolkata, Delhi and I finally moved to Mumbai in 2007.


Before founding AXF, I was a financial services professional. I had worked my way up from an entry level executive to eventually play regional and then national roles over my 20 year career.


At one point, the corporate rat race began to take too much out of me and when the opportunity presented itself, I made the choice of shifting from the corporate to the social sector.


My passion for social change stems from the fact that I was an idealist as a child and dreamt of a world that was fair and just. I've always felt that if we were all to individually contribute towards a better world in little ways, it is bound to happen.


I am a person with a lot of conviction and the ability to unshackle myself from society's definition of success. I trust my instincts and follow them with faith. I also believe it's ok to take chances, to try, to fail, and to change your mind about things.


I believe a great deal in destiny and have been egged on in my path by several people as well as circumstances that convinced me that what I finally decided to do with my life is what was meant for me. To feel that what you were meant to do has found you can be among the best feelings in the world.


I find freedom in giving freedom to the children - empowering them with the necessary resources, so that they are free to choose a future they want, despite their circumstances.


I Completely subscribe to J Krishnamurthys philosophy - that there has to be a shift in consciousness from me and mine to we and ours. This is what has led to my starting AXF


I believe I've found a solution to a problem that can help make this world a better place.


That Ive been able to do this despite being a very ordinary individual is something I hope will inspire.. i’m not qualified to be anything really, I'm just a practical problem solver. something all of us can be.


I was wholly inspired by personal experience. I moved to Mumbai in 2007, among the first things that had struck me when I first arrived in this city was the complete contrast of slums and high rises juxtapositioned against each other.


When I was first invited to volunteer to teach underprivileged children while on a walk on a suburban promenade, I was hesitant, unsure if I had the requisite skills or patience. However I soon found myself enjoying the interaction with the bunch I was assigned. They were lively, curious and happy despite their obvious deprivation. Their threadbare clothes, scrawny bodies and inability to afford the simplest of things had a deep impact on me. We know about the social divide intellectually but it’s different when you are sitting next to a shivering child in the early morning January chill and thinking about just how much kids in your family had that they did not even use.


Kids in educated homes learn so much from their parents, extended families and their surroundings that shape their personalities and their abilities as much as the education received in schools. These kids seemed to have no adults interested or invested in them that could teach them about the world; nor did their schools seem to have imparted much in terms of knowledge. It was sad that no new opportunities would open up despite the years they were spending supposedly getting schooled.


I drew inspiration from my first brush with this city's generosity when over 3000 people reached out to me in response to a social media post asking for warm clothes. I was convinced this was a sign that I was meant to use my capacity to work for social good and quit my commercial career to start on a social experiment in a bid to lay a blueprint that can help us as a society to look beyond our homes and actively participate in the creation of an aware, responsible and able future generation.


Over time I hope we trigger a social movement wherein volunteerism becomes a lifestyle choice for every educated Indian.


Our intent is to reach 10,000 children a year by training 2500 committed volunteers by 2025.


I am passionate about using my capabilities to find solutions for a fair and equitable world by creating practical ways to bridge the gap. I am also passionate about safety and empowerment of children. Behind my tough and practical exterior, I am extremely sensitive and compassionate. i believe in God and am deeply spiritual in nature

How did Angel Express Foundation begin and why this name


In 2011 I decided to give myself a year off to explore and try experiencing a different life from what had become a life of discontent, boredom and drudgery for me.


One of the things I wanted to experience was my long-suppressed desire to work for a social cause. I started out volunteering with the Spastics Society of India and eventually chanced upon a street school, along my regular jogging route. Events thereafter made it seem like I was being called upon to do something more with my life right away and not wait for another ten years post retirement; which was my original plan. In January 2012, a Facebook post asking for old clothes for the children I used to teach went viral and resulted in 3000+ calls from strangers within a week’s time. Hundreds of people actually landed up at the NGO I was supporting, to give donations and offer support, including actor Jackie Shroff. My friends and my spiritual teacher urged me to move ahead in this direction. It seemed like the path before me was decided and set by the universe; and that I had very little say in the divine decision.


I met Beenaa Advani who went on to become AXFs co founder at this time, she was one of the respondents. Together we started out teaching 18 children at Bandra Bandstand which was our first free learning center in Mumbai. The name Angel Xpress came about because of the definition of the word Angel as someone who is entrusted with helping for the greater good, Xpress is to denote the speed and direction we bring into the lives of the kids we reach.


The idea caught and by 2019 we were teaching over 2200 children with help of 700+ volunteers in 20 locations across Mumbai.


Even during the pandemic we have supported 1400 axf families with regular rations. Provided emergency ration assistance to over 1000 non AXF families & have engaged with over 1000 volunteers to continue free tutoring & mentoring online for over 1400 students. In 2021 we have expanded our Youth Engagement Program to include all subject coaching as well as career guidance, soft skills and digital literacy for students from grades 8 to 12, besides daily lessons in english math and lifeskills for students from grades 3 to 7. We will be working with over 3000 students online in 2021 and will lso introduce several new centers in collaboration with citizen groups as well as other NGOs. 2020 has seen a serious upswing in employee volunteering and we have been one of the beneficiaries. We have introduced a short term spoken english program which works best for both corporate employees as well as student volunteers and helps our students acquire confidence through one on one mentoring. We expect to be working with over 1500 volunteers in 2021.


The baackdrop

With 70% of India's 1.3 billion population below poverty line, large scale migration to urban areas in search for sustenance is resulting in burgeoning slums and a disturbing social divide. 600 million youth will be added to India's population by 2030, a large chunk of whom are today children living in urban slums.


Absence of educated adults to guide these children, coupled with poor schooling, lack of nutrition, inadequate basic possessions, having to work in income generating activities or housework, generates low self esteem, lack of initiative, maladjustment and underdeveloped personalities. Exposure to violence, antisocial elements leads to poor value systems and straying into drugs and criminal activities.

Solution:


Urgent intervention is required to ensure these children become adults who are educated, responsible, aware and productive thus generating prosperity for themselves and their families.


Angel Xpress Foundation has successfully implemented an idea that uses coexistence of slums and high-rises to bridge the social divide, in Mumbai, India, home to over 22 million people of which 41.3% live in slums.


Socially conscious educated citizens, stay at home mothers from affluent homes and active retirees are recruited and trained to set up a community service program in their neighborhood. Volunteers tutor and mentor school going children from nearby slums in freely available community spaces like shaded parks for an hour daily. They also raise resources to operate the program, and engage in redistribution drives to address deprivation.


Great Companies: What are the various activities of Angel Xpress Foundation

Anubha Sharma : Angel Xpress Foundation is an attempt to start a civic movement that generates voluntary sharing of knowledge and resources to create prosperity for all by bridging the social divide.


we have been working towards bringing first generation learners residing in urban slums, in touch with their educated and affluent neighbours in community spaces; with the aim of creating interactive opportunities, both for tutoring/mentoring to improve language, logic, reasoning, life skills and values through daily lessons in English and Math, as well as opportunities to share/redistribute resources that help address deprivation.


Angel Xpress Foundation’s flagship program; Mumbai's Free Learning Centers is a program designed to create a social movement that will enable educated citizens to easily adopt volunteerism as a lifestyle choice in order to help bridge the economic gap.


Through this program, free franchise in terms of consultation, training and operational resources are provided to educated socially conscious citizen groups who want to perform community service.


Underprivileged students and their parents understand that education is a crucial means to end poverty but are helpless as the government schools and other schools catering to the underprivileged that they attend, fail to deliver.


Our idea, transforms behavior of underprivileged children through education and life skills to finally improve livelihood. We use the phenomenon of slums coexisting with high-rises to bring volunteers together with underprivileged children in community spaces like parks.


In our model of citizen participation serves as a key tool in our program. This mentorship and educational program is a platform for members of rich and poor communities to come together, interact, and share knowledge and resources. It is different than NGOs which are simply imparting education to underprivileged students.

We are also unique in that we are in the creation of self-sustaining community service programs that can be run independently with minimal resources that will not have to depend on grants and donations.It is a responsive program where our volunteers are assisted by the central services but can adapt it to the need of the community that they seek to serve. In this regard, each of our learning center is unique in terms of strengths, opportunities and challenges.


The AXF free learning center program is a long term intervention that brings about real change, children join us when they are 6 to 12 years of age and typically stay with us till they are 18 or even beyond as part of our youth engagement program aimed at 15 to 18 year olds wherein we are also building an alumni network.


Great Companies: What makes Angel Xpress Foundation different from hundreds of other NGO's?

Anubha Sharma :

Unique Advantages: We advocate for individual social responsibility in members of the community so they can look after each other through sharing of resources. The program run by AXF is a responsive program; our volunteers have the freedom to and are assisted so the center services can fit better to the need of the community that they seek to serve. In this regard, each of our learning centers is unique in terms of strengths, opportunities and challenges.

Angel Xpress Foundation is primarily a citizen engagement platform. Our volunteer engagement has enabled many individuals such as stay at home mothers, retired officers and youth who are now the leaders in their community. – The center timings, the accommodation of services offered by locals eg weekend volunteers, students etc in the best possible manner, sourcing tie ups with bodies offering medical, dental, health check-ups, counselling etc is all locally managed.

AXF focuses on filling the gap between the rich and the poor through redistribution of education, and material and opportunities from the haves to have-nots.


Our program empowers women to be leaders in their community. All our Learning Centers are headed by strong women who confidently manage all aspects of running a center. This gives them a sense of fulfilment and they feel acknowledged for the impact they can make at large.


Students are taught critical and logical thinking as well as collaboration which helps in a shift in mind set to cooperation and responsible living. We have records of many stories where behaviour of our kids has been found to be remarkably different from the usual violent and aggressive behaviour that is characteristic of children from similar backgrounds. Our children look up to our volunteers and relate to them as mentors, hence there is a desire to obey and cooperate


AXF offers free franchise, consultation and resources to citizen groups interested in community service to help underprivileged children in their own neighborhood through its Free Learning Center Program.


Great Companies: What are the struggles and challenges you face?

Anubha Sharma : It started with a senior person who I had gone to for advice listening to my plans in early 2012 and saying, its all very well but who is going to do all this, you and which army.....That my bull headedness would not allow me to be fazed in the face of such derision was a wonder.


We have overcome not being taken seriously at multiple levels. We have effectively addressed irregular attendance from kids, disinterest, suspicion from parents, resistance towards training from volunteers, resistance from certain community groups who were either suspicious of our intent or did not want slum children using common/public spaces that they considered their due and while in most cases we have found cooperation, in some cases, we were even opposed by certain authorities who are distrustful of a civic movement that urges people to use public spaces for intervention and free interaction between different social classes. We have even been dismissed by corporate groups as a non serious movement by a few women playing teacher which was bound to go nowhere.


We have proved ourselves over and over again through sheer hard work and commitment. Today we are an organisation that is being run by a team of barely 25 people on rolls with another 100 volunteers playing leadership roles in various capacities. to manage the over 10 lakh hours of lessons that will be disseminated by our volunteers in the academic year 2021. In addition to this we have distributed over 1 crore worth of relief material to our beneficiary families in 2020 and hope to continue to support our student families with support like ration kits, devices, data pack recharge etc this year as well.


Several donors who gift useful items for kids as well as opportunities for outings through the year. Our kids know regular attendance and disciplined behavior is how they earn their privilege for donated gift items, fun activities and outings. Regular parent teacher meetings have fostered a better understanding and appreciation of what we are trying to achieve in the community, positive impact on behavior of kids attending AXF classes has also convinced parents to take us seriously. A robust pedagogy, interesting and varied training and team building efforts have helped us build a cohesive community of volunteers that is growing organically. Funding has been another challenge we have overcome by finding corporate partners who believe in our vision and support our mission.


Great Companies: How do you plan to grow in the future? What does 5 years down the line look like for Angel Xpress Foundation ?

Anubha Sharma : We are reaching out to corporate houses, schools catering to the affluent, clubs and other NGOs working with volunteers to bring together citizen groups that are interested in supporting development work in their neighbourhood. We are hoping to increase the number of centers to 30+ and the number of volunteers we are working with to 1500 in 21/22. By 2025, we hope to be working with 2500+ volunteers a year to help 10000+ students across the country. With the pandemic forcing us to go online, we expect the model to remain a hybrid one going forward, we have just launched a Dubai centers whence 25 residents of Dubai have come together to provide lessons for a group of students based in Mumbai who did not have access to free tutoring.


Great Companies: If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?

Anubha Sharma:The world has been taught to be obsessed with prosperity at the cost of anything and everything, even at the cost of a future for our children and we are at a stage where we are talking about the current and not future generations perhaps even ourselves being impacted by our own actions or inaction as the case may be, its important to be responsible and believe in what you are doing.


Passion for the work that you do, a practical logical approach to addressing problems, willingness to get your hands dirty and taking care of details, and taking your team along by giving people chances and allowing them to grow is the only road to success..


Our Website: www.angelxpress.org




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