When you walk into Ashok Nagar near Agra, you get a sense that this is a neighbourhood that is thriving.
Sure, there are piles of leather scraps along one side of the road leading into the community, but they are piled neatly and have been sorted into different coloured stacks, ready to be uplifted and recycled.
The paths are clean and free of rubbish, the houses are tiny but painted in bright pinks and greens and blues and the children are clean, well dressed and full of fun. All of the school aged children are going to school – none of them are working in the family businesses – and much of the credit for that can go to World Vision's Community Development Officer, Jamila Isaac.
Forty years old, she left a secure government job and took a significant pay cut to take up the role of Community Development Officer and her achievements are impressive. Just over half the children were going to school when she arrived at Ashok Nagar; now it's one hundred per cent attendance. She says it's all down to gaining the parent's trust.
''I started by using real life success stories from other communities and also my own story, and my children's stories, about the importance of education. Me, my parent were illiterate, but they educated me. My life now is secure, my children's lives are secure, and I told the community that if they educated their children, their lives could be the same.'
She also stresses the importance of cleanliness and hygiene. There is a roster of groups to take care of the toilets and the water pump and the families take pride in keeping their homes spotless and the roads clear of rubbish. But Jamila says there is still so much more that needs to be done.
''I have two immediate priorities. When I first came here, no kids had their births registered. They need birth certificates if they want loans from a bank, or to get scholarships, or to go into private schools. So that needs to happen. The parents need to get their children's births registered retrospectively. Also there is no child marriage as such in this area now, but we have to keep up the education around that and make sure people don't rush their children into marriage.''
Watching Jamila interact with the families, you can see the respect she's accorded and the delight she takes in seeing people doing well. That doesn't mean she's not afraid to crack the whip from time to time.
''Love is important but so is educating people, so I certainly tell them off when I need to!'' she laughs.
This child of illiterate parents graduated from university with a Master of Arts, majoring in Sociology and a Master of Social Welfare and she believes there's every possibility that a bright child, with the right support, can make it out of the community and into the professional world, just as she did all those years ago.
''One of the girls from here, she was in the 12 standard when I arrived, now she is working as a teacher at the Remedial Education Centre here. She has a BA and a BComm and she's using the money she earns here to go towards her MBA."
With Jamila on your side, being a child of illiterate parents and being born into a poor family does not necessarily mean your fate is predetermined. Every child under Jamila's watch is encouraged to aim for the stars.
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