Last month, on Teacher’s Day, startup entrepreneur Lalitha Bhat got a special phone call. “I wanted to wish you because you are more than a teacher to me,” said the 18-year-old girl whom Ms. Bhat has been mentoring over the last six months.
Though Ms. Bhat never met the girl, she developed a close friendship with her through weekly phone calls via an app-based programme launched by Bengaluru-based NGO Mentor Together. The programme, which was launched at the start of 2017, aims to connect working professionals with girls in rural Karnataka and Maharashtra. It recently invited applications for its next batch of mentors.
While the NGO has provided face-to-face mentorship to young students in five cities in India since 2011, it faced difficulties in scaling to rural areas. “We came up with the idea of starting a structured mentorship programme through phone calls,” said founder Arundhuti Gupta.
As part of the programme, volunteers are trained by professionals and then matched with adolescent girls to provide guidance in life skills and career decisions. So far, 200 mentors and mentees have been matched, with girls coming from villages in Mandya and Somanathapura in Karanataka and Dhayari and Velhi in Maharashtra.
African firm Praekelt and Mumbai-based trust Rosy Blue Foundation provide technological and financial assistance.
Since the programme involves girls in the age group of 14 to 19, care is taken to bring the community on-board and have stringent selection process and background verification for mentors (only female professionals are allowed to apply).
“Parents may have apprehensions about their daughters talking to someone they don’t know for an hour every week. So, we got in touch with panchayat members and block education officers and they took the concept to community members. We held town hall meetings where we explained to parents what a mentor is and how the process would be supervised,” said Ms. Gupta. In each area, they have recruited community workers, who meet the girls regularly and supervise the mentorship programme.
Volunteers, who completed the training, found that distance was no longer a barrier — the only criteria was familiarity with the language. According to Ms. Gupta, they currently have a Kannada speaker in Chandigarh mentoring a girl in Mandya, and a Punjabi woman based out of Bengaluru who knows Marathi mentoring someone in Maharashtra. Although face-to-face meetings were not mandatory, many volunteers had expressed interest in meeting their mentees.
As for Ms. Bhat, who hails from Puttur, the app Mentor To Go gave her a chance to give something back to community.
“I’m aware of the problems faced by rural adolescent girls, I was lucky not to face them as I had a good ecosystem at home and school,” she says. Her mentee considers her a close friend and confides in her. “She had been depressed because of some personal issues and I succeeded in bringing her out of it,” she added.
Sometimes, the mentors help the young girls find answers to questions they may hesitate to bring up at home. “My mentee didn’t know the difference between a male friend and boyfriend, and I helped her understand that she was in a relationship without realising it,” said one of the women, who is part of the programme.
And, for young girls on the other end of the line, having someone to learn from has helped them plant a surer foot in the not-so-easy game called life.
(Originally published here.)