On a chilly winter morning this year, I woke up to deliver a virtual spoken English lesson, the first in a series of many, to a bunch of visually challenged students in the Vizag district of south India. I, along with a very able and competent team, had been working on this project for a couple months and we were very excited about this venture.
I am a finance professional and have experience in designing and implementing communication and rehabilitation programs for students with special needs. When I moved to the US, I was looking for volunteer opportunities that could utilize my skills. And that is when on a lucky day, I met Ram.
Ramakrishna Raju, better known as Ram to us, is the founder of Vision-Aid and has perhaps been the most zealous and passionate individual I have ever come across. I remember the first time we spoke and he introduced me to Vision-Aid and the work they have done. I was, no doubt, impressed by the glorious achievements, but what fascinated me even more was the sheer enthusiasm that filled his voice when he talked about their mission and goals for these children. This encouraged me more and moved me to sign up in the November of 2015. I also really enjoyed meeting other members of the Vision-aid leadership team like Mr. Syed Ali Rizvi, as we started the early planning of the pilot.
I was then introduced to the other members who were on board for the pilot spoken English lessons. Priscilena Shearon, based out of Tennessee is a qualified teacher with over 14 years of teaching experience which was a huge asset for our team. Together, we worked over the next 3 months, coming up with a beginner’s guide to the English language. Two important considerations defined our plan for the coming months: first, visual aids, which are often very effective in imparting important skills and lessons, could not be used; and two, the language barrier could make it seemingly impossible to get across what we wanted to say to the students. While the volunteers based out of US were very well equipped with the English language, the students in Vizag had no experience with English. Moreover, there was no common language for us to communicate in.
Our efforts would not have been possible without the excellent support staff in Vizag. Ms. Ramadevi Mangu is the teacher at the Vizag center of Vision-Aid. With her bilingual ability, she was able to ease the learning and comprehension process for these students, whose primary language is Telugu. Ms. Aruna, another junior staff member at the Vizag center, and Mr. Ramesh, the technical support, were also key players for our pilot to be a success.
We started off with a basic evaluation to understand the level of each participant. I was anxious when we first kicked off; expectations are often high and the pilot session of the pilot program could have easily been a disaster. But the welcoming smiles and enthusiasm of the students dissipated all my fears. I eagerly looked forward to every session after that. In a span of 12 weeks which involved biweekly sessions, multiple Skype meetings, homework assignments, and supplementary resources, we were able to impart elementary spoken English skills to the students. The end of the program evaluation showed marked improvement in the level of each student. The pilot was a success but our journey had just started. We are now in the process of developing a comprehensive learning platform for spoken English for all centers of Vision-Aid with the goal of extending the benefits of the pilot far and wide.
I have been involved with students of all ages and backgrounds all my life, whether as an educator, a mentor, or a facilitator. It is always a gratifying experience when I realize that my meagre contribution could make someone better equipped. Working with Vision-Aid has been more special solely because of the students who made me put in my best to give them the best.
It is not often that you find that the students you are trying to inspire end up inspiring you. In my attempt to make a difference at Vision-Aid, that is exactly what happened.