Catching Them Young

Chennai-based organization Bodhi is committed to 'people development'. The brainchild of Dr N Raj Mohan, Bodhi now works with schools to counsel children - work the team considers important in the face of the ever-growing fallouts of the stress of modern living.

Raj Mohan grew up in a large joint family in Tamil Nadu and, even with a PhD in Behavioral Sciences under his belt, he was dogged by the feeling that something was lacking in the way that he had been handled by teachers and relatives. He wanted to do something to help others who feel as he did. His marriage to Bharathi Raj Mohan, a specialist in criminology and corrective administration, firmed these nebulous aims. The whole thing then fell into place after a meeting with Kalavathi Amarachelvam, who attended a workshop he organized on experiential learning (which is based on the assumption that critical reflection on experiences is the key to learning). She suggested that he should take his methods and advise beyond corporates to the common person.

When the Raj Mohans set up Bodhi in 1998, Amarachelvam gave up her well-paying job to join them as a director. All three of them stress that Bodhi, like the legendary peepul tree in Gaya, only acts as a catalyst to change - a force, which points people in the right direction. "People are usually adept at sizing up others, but when it comes to themselves, they're often at a loss," says Amarachelvam.
In the seven years of its existence, Bodhi has worked its way from corporate bigwigs, downward to entry-level professionals, to college students, and finally arrived at the optimum age to spur self-discovery - high school. Between Standards IX and XII, to be precise. And that's where they're focusing at present.
Bodhi has formulated a career guidance system that includes psychometric testing, which has won the gratitude of many a confused young person. The method involves assessing four factors - a person's interests, internal motivators, aptitude and personality - to generate a range of careers at which s/he is likely to perform at peak levels. Take the case of the teenager who wanted to become a chartered accountant but was shown that law was a more viable career option for him. The boy, who had never done well academically, now experiences the thrill of being a top performer at the national level.

Raj Mohan explains that Bodhi does not make decisions for its clients, it only clarifies their vision. The organization has formulated a career guidance cell, which offers various facilities, including online counselling, in collaboration with schools. It has recently tied up with the Velammal Group of schools and is looking to widen its scope.

Bodhi offers to place counsellors in the school, to deal with career and other issues. It has a 14-member team of psychologists, behavioral scientists, academics, counsellors and industrial consultants. Bodhi's product, ACT - Assessment, Counselling and Training - is available for children, parents and teachers. This programme reaches out to individuals, helping them to overcome problems ranging from career and scholastic through emotional, behavioral and family issues.

In the course of their work, the Bodhi counsellors have noticed a worrying rise in the numbers of disturbed children, victims of circumstance and lifestyle. There are acquiescent children burnt out by performance pressures, children who rebel against the demands of ambitious parents, and children confused by the conflict between their own interests and the career routes that parents map out for them.
Raj Mohan tells us about a girl, 7, who was genuinely puzzled when her counsellor suggested she talk her problems over with her mother. "But when can I talk to her?" the child asked. She then proceeded to itemize her daily schedule, in which every minute was accounted for by a wide range of curricular and extracurricular activity.

Or look at the only child of an extended family of doctors. The pressure on the girl to take up a career in medicine was stupendous. Her family was absolutely unable to relate to the fact that she had no interest in the subject. She bowed to pressure and went to medical college, but poor performance and despair drove her to attempt suicide. "Her father came to his senses when I finally asked him whether he wanted a doctor or a daughter," says Raj Mohan. The girl is now doing well in her chosen field - engineering.

There are success stories aplenty, but there are also cases where Bodhi could not help at all. A young girl, 13, was brought in for counselling by her parents. She was abusively, even violently, opposed to the idea, and Bodhi's counsellors could only watch with regret as she forced her parents to abandon the attempt. "They had left it too late," says Raj Mohan. "Things had got so out of hand that she was the person in control."

A prime focus in Bodhi's programs is fostering empathy - whether between parent and child, teacher and student or one individual and another. This is a quest that the Raj Mohans sought in their private life as well. They moved out of the plush rented home they lived in, to a one-room tenement in a slum. Their daughter, Lavanya, then in Standard VI, remembers that period clearly: "The bathroom we shared with three other families had no door. My mother had to pull a saree over the doorway when I wanted to use it." Looking back, the girl, now in college, realizes that the 45 days the family spent there were nothing compared to the fact that people live out their entire lives in such conditions. "I want to do something for people," she says firmly.

Fostering empathy is the goal of the summer classes Bodhi conducts. The participants are sent out - with supervisors, of course - to bond with a cross-section of people: vendors, carpenters, masons, child laborers. The children experience how these people live, share their daily chores and cares. And they emerge different people. "I'll never say 'no' to brinjals (egg plant) and lady's finger," avers Arun, 10. He is shaken by the fact that a child of his own age has to subsist on whatever he scrounges as a worker in a caf�, in order to send his meager earnings home for the upkeep of his little siblings.

"If we want a country of people who hold their heads high, we have to foster dignity," says Amarachelvam. "Our teachers should be taught to handle students with dignity, not treat them as worthless." Adds Raj Mohan, "Parents have to achieve that fine balance of guidance, veering neither to over-protectiveness nor to destroying individuality." When children have a sense of worth - of themselves and of others - and know themselves well enough to make an informed choice about their future, we will have a nation of happy people.


More by :  Susan Philip

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