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Voices from the Frontline: Sitare Team talks about COVID-19 Impact

Sitare Foundation works in five cities in India–Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ajmer, Bhopal, and Indore. In every city, we have a city coordinator, or “den mother” as we often call her, who supports and guides students in that city. Our city coordinators–Sonika, Ankita, Nisha, Dishani, Anjali–have a multi-faceted role that extends beyond being points of contact between students and the Foundation. They are the backbone of our program; our students often refer to them as their “second moms.”

“Students called us frequently as they wanted to share their feelings. Counseling became far more critical than education at this time.”
Bhopal City Coordinator

On March 25, 2020, India went into a nation-wide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our city coordinators immediately sprung into action by getting in touch with every Sitare student and their parents. When they couldn’t get in touch with the family, they contacted the student’s relatives or neighbors. Fortunately, we were able to connect with over 95% of our Sitare families.

The deep connection between the coordinators and the students often meant that our city coordinators were the first to get a call from the students and their families when they needed help.

“Even if we get a message from a student at midnight, we call them right away, just so we know what is happening with her.”
Indore City Coordinator
“These families lost their earnings as the lockdown was implemented, they had to move back to their joint families in villages to mitigate food shortage.”
Jodhpur City Coordinator
“The parents are daily wage employees and their family often have four or five children to feed. Due to being unemployed during this time, they started facing severe financial problems.”
Jaipur City Coordinator
“We coordinators didn’t want to give false hope to the student but wanted to strengthen their mental well-being.”
Ajmer City Coordinator

Our coordinators’ continuous hard work has allowed us to track students’ physical and mental health. Initially, the daily calls from our children were filled with questions about their educational future, e.g. “When will we get back to school?” or “Will we move to the next grade this year?”, and “When will we start learning again?” Our coordinators of course did not have any definitive answers to the kids’ question. They had to strike a balance between being upfront about the unpredictable nature of the lockdown and maintaining a positive outlook.

However, as the lockdown dragged on, our families started facing increasing food shortages. 

“When the second stage of the lockdown began, the food shortage deteriorated because people didn’t have wages in hand to buy any supplies. Especially in Indore, where there was a complete lockdown and even the privileged people like my family faced difficulties.”
Indore City Coordinator

Our top priority was to provide food security to our students and their families. We worked with several charitable organizations as well as government agencies to ensure our children were not going hungry. We can not thank the Robin Hood Army enough for all they did to feed our students and their families in these trying times. They were available to provide food packets for families in every city. In addition, the Akshay Patra Foundation helped us by supplying ration in slum areas. In the end, with our collective efforts, 98.45% of the families had two or more meals a day (Figure-1). For the two families living in areas where no aid was able to reach, we paid for their groceries at the neighborhood store ensuring they had enough to eat.

Figure 1: Our efforts to fight food insecurity.

Beyond the food shortage, quite a few unanticipated issues cropped up. Here is something we had not imagined would happen: a young girl living alone with her father began menstruating for the first time during the lockdown. Unfortunately in Indian society, there is still a huge stigma associated with menstruation. Due to this stigma, our child was embarrassed to tell her father about what she was going through. However, she entrusted her “second mom,” our city coordinator with this information, who then talked to her father and made sure she was provided with all the needed supplies. 

As the lockdown went on, our students became increasingly anxious about the health and safety of their families. Their calls increasingly were about the lack of income and fear of infection.

“I got a call from a student, Sneha, saying that her neighbors were tested COVID-19 positive and she and her family were all going to die. Students were under the impression that COVID-19 will not stop and everyone is going to die.”
Bhopal City Coordinator

During this time, we were shocked when one of our own students from Indore, a fourteen year old girl, Vaishnavi, tested positive for COVID-19. Sonika, our Indore city coordinator was with Vaishnavi every step of the way.

“Vaishnavi is my responsibility. She was in the finest government hospital of Indore and took all the treatment with real zeal. Being at such a young age, it was really difficult for her to be alone, isolated away from her parents. She was quarantined and not allowed to meet anyone from her family. She had a phone with which she called her family every day. When I spoke to the doctors, they also recommended helping Vaishnavi with her mental health and motivating her to keep up with the treatment. Helping Vaishnavi and her family with their mental health and guiding them on steps needed to be safe (masks, washing hands, etc.) became a part of my job.”
Indore City Coordinator
Figure 2: City-wide awareness about COVID19 by the end of June

As you can see in Figure-2, we were successfully able to educate our students and their families about the precautions they need to take during this pandemic, and where to go in case they needed medical help. The collective efforts of our coordinators, students, their families, and all stakeholders who assisted us have shown that through compassion and caring we can overcome any challenge. In the next blog, we will talk about how we have worked on maintaining our student’s learning in these COVID-19 times. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please reach out to us at [email protected].