In June, we started holding sharing circles with 20 children being tried for sexual offenses at the Observation Home. In a session on gratitude, the children expressed the desire to do something for their teachers on Teacher’s Day. We started brainstorming and without realising it, all eighty children had been included, groups been formed and anchors appointed.

Since we were introducing the children to team work from our side, we used this opportunity to discuss effective leadership skills and introduced the term ‘anchor’ because leader and monitor have a very different connotation for them and in the Observation Home. It usually signifies a child who monitors other children and maintains control through violence. We discussed how as an anchor, you are holding the group together, taking responsibility for tasks, working in the shadow and helping team members grow.

80 children, 4 days and loads of enthusiasm!
A cooking team to prepare bhel (snack) and sharbat(juice), a welcoming team, an entertainment team, a decoration team and a card and invite-making team were all set to make Wednesday, 07th September special for their teachers.

The only condition laid down for them was that they all had to work together.  Of course, there were fights, but we saw them resolve these on their own instead of complaining and, or using verbal and physical violence. We were racing against time and did not have much volunteer support. The children lived upto every challenge that came up and a lot of ‘small shifts’ were visible.

The children were skeptical. How will this be executed? Who will show up? During the planning circles many had said, “This is going to fail,” or “No one will come”. Often, they gave names and repeatedly checked with us whether a teacher or officer would be showing up. All we would say was, “Let’s put in all our efforts; we don’t know who will show up.”  It was amazing to see everyone of them light up as Wednesday crept closer.

On Sunday, invites were made and decorations planned. The cooking team had prepared a requirement list and a plan of action without any assistance. The anchor of the cooking team, who usually doesn’t talk much, took full control of his team and guided them as they created a delicious snack for all. The enthusiastic anchor for the show made inane requests to be helped with the script. When he wasn’t working on the script he was busy helping the decoration team.

Krishna, a volunteer dance teacher came to the rescue and helped fulfill the children’s demand to perform a dance. 12 children choreographed a dance in less than six hours. The anchor for the dance team rediscovered his passion for dance along with his excellent leadership skills over those four days. A child battling anger issues, his wide toothy smile reappeared as he danced and his softer side temporarily displaced the mask.

Usually, children are called by their crime – Section 376 boys, rape children, or so – at the home. The children, along with us, decided to make heart-shaped badges where they could write their names and create an identity beyond their crimes. An activity planned for one hour extended to three and the children thoroughly enjoyed designing their own badges.

In a circle while making cards, I asked if I could charge her phone. “Don’t put anything here, it will be stolen,” “Oh! iPhone, this is the one I sold in the market for Rs. 6000/-.” along with many more comments came in. I had to raise my voice and shout. “Stop it! You may be experts in stealing but at this moment, in this circle, I trust you.” Afterwards, Rayna absent-mindedly left her phone around the place and it was returned to her each time she lost it. Invites were given to the teachers, probation officers, NGO workers, guards etc. on Tuesday. The anchor responsible for inviting the staff made sure all of them were there.

When knives were given to the cooking team, a child passed a sarcastic comment saying “Didi, everyone here knows how to use a knife.” (Many children cut themselves and indulge in self-harm with blades and some of them are also in for attempting Murder).  One of the children suggested that we appoint a “good boy” to oversee that knives were returned. This was another opportunity to tell them that we considered each one of them as ‘good’ and that we trusted them. We told them  how their crime was separate from who they were. And there is a lot more to children than just their crime. It was just that many of the children may have never heard this before.

Small gestures, big changes
On the day of the event, we saw all 80 of these children work as a team. We saw them back each other up instead of pull each other down. As the last decorations went up, and the onions and tomatoes were being chopped, some children who were not assigned responsibilities appointed themselves to do the swaagat (welcome).

All were ready to welcome the staff members by 15:30. Two children on the first floor stood with a big smile and folded hands to wish the teachers as they walked in. Six others stood in a line – one for apply tilak, one to put rice, one to hand each teacher a rose and the rest, who in turns, put the badges on the teachers’ shoulder. The anchor of the swaagat (welcoming) team gave up his position so that new children got a chance. The guards stationed outside the children’s room refused to join stating that the children did not respect them. Immediately, a few children who overheard the conversation came out, held the guards’ hands and led them for the event. It was beautiful to witness the small gestures they had planned to make everyone feel special. All the teachers, the superintendent, judge of the juvenile justice board and the probation officers were touched.

One of the anchors was seen counseling a team member who did not want to participate. This was a refreshing change from the brute force that life has taught many of them to use. Even small things, like the tone or the language they spoke in, began to shift in just 4 days. One monitor, who usually disciplined the rest through abuse or violence was challenged not to do so over two days and was successful. Their belief in themselves was boosted. One boy, who has been in the home for 9 months, said he has never seen anything like this and didn’t even think this was possible. Another fell in love with dancing and thinks he can dance even when he goes out, which he thought was not possible before.

When filling water for sharbat (juice), one guard shouted at four children, “Don’t dance around near the gate. What will work with didi(sister) won’t work with me. Crime children have to live like crime children.” We saw the children’s faces drop and experienced a little of what they felt the moment they were put back in that same place!

We feel blessed to be put in positions where we can bring back hope in the lives of these children who have become so hardened not only because of their circumstances and the crime they have committed but more so because of how the system and the society treats them as criminals or lost cases. For that day, we saw the beautiful human being in each of them, who are usually introduced to us as CRIME children.