GIVING underprivileged children equal opportunities is key to helping them break away from the vicious cycle of poverty.

Non-governmental organisation (NGO) consultant Simpson Khoo, who has worked extensively with the urban poor, said children from such families have a slow head start in life and without intervention, this trend continues into adulthood.

“Children who lack basic needs, who are poor in literacy and numerals as well as living skills, are highly likely to drop out of school, work for low wages and continue living in poverty throughout their lives.

“However, with early intervention by the community to address what is lacking, these children will likely stay in school, do better academically, earn better income and elevate their families’ social standing, ” he said at the first Eradicating Urban Poverty seminar organised by Federal Territories Ministry to gather input from various parties to formulate a master plan to solve urban poverty.

Khoo, who was speaking during the session for NGOs, said such intervention needed to start from young.

“Children from medium and high-income groups do better because their parents are likely to be educated and can guide them in their studies or afford to send them for tuition. But children from low-income families are likely to have parents who are uneducated and busy working, with not much time or money for their children.

“So, the first step is to ensure children from poor families get basic needs like good food, clothes and even family bonding.

“Secondly, many of these children perform poorly in school starting from Year One. The syllabus is very tough in that the pupils are expected to be able to read right from the start, ” he said.

“The inability to cope with the syllabus right from the beginning causes them to continue falling behind in studies throughout the schooling years. Prolonged low self-esteem causes them to be conditioned to think that their lives are doomed with poverty and that is how they would live forever, ” he added.

“So, we need to increase literacy and numeracy skills in children, and finally teach them positive values, living skills and financial skills to excel in life.

“This is a proven model that will work because I have many success stories by applying this method in the last seven years of working with the urban poor. Many of them are now doing their diplomas and degrees, and giving back to the community by volunteering their time for community development efforts similar to what they have benefited from, ” Khoo said.

Second chance

MySkills Foundation founder and director S. Pasupathi said his organisation, which provides opportunities to vulnerable youths between the ages of 13 and 18 since 2010, has witnessed many success stories.

He said it was rewarding to give school dropouts a second chance at succeeding in life.

Pasupathi, who was also on the panel at the seminar, said most of the recruits were from poor and broken families, with malnutrition, social problems and were weak in their studies.

“The current education system does not have an option for those who do not perform academically. So, once they drop out of school, they do not know what to do and end up susceptible to negative influences.

“In recognising this, we want to offer a safe space for these at-risk youth to excel in life by teaching them vocational skills to get them absorbed into the job market. However, we realised the problem was much more complicated, ” he said.

“These youths carry a lot of emotional baggage from the problems they faced since childhood. Some go through very traumatic events and they do not know how to overcome their emotions. So, now we have changed our tagline to ‘Transforming Youths Beyond Skills’.

“We want to ensure that when they leave our campus, they leave as a confident and empowered individual with an enterprising mindset to earn a good living with pride and dignity intact, ” he added.

Pasupathi said after years of operating from shoplots, the foundation raised enough money to purchase a 15ha land in Kalumpang, Hulu Selangor, to build a proper campus.

“About half of the land is being utilised now. We have a dedicated block as administration and technical training centre and other blocks with facilities in progress such as a gym, indoor sports complex, bath and toilet complex, cafeteria, kitchen and hostel residence complex.

“We have built an event hall which we plan to rent out to self-sustain our operations. The boys are temporarily using that facility as their dormitory, ” he said.

MySkills Foundation chief executive officer Devasharma Gangadaran said all of the maintenance works on the campus were done by the boys.

“We have 150 boys now. Since we teach them skills like electrical wiring, plumbing, welding, landscaping and air conditioner servicing, any such works that need to be done on campus are assigned to them, ” said Devasharma.

“We have a cook who prepares four meals a day. There are four to five boys who are keen to become caterers and they help him out daily and learn the ropes. They also have on-the-job training at our social enterprise, De Divine Cafe in Brickfields.

“There are two boys who like to mow the lawn, one of them is autistic. So, we let them mow the two football fields regularly and they do it happily.

“We also provide training to become a barber. Since we have 150 heads to be trimmed, the boys get a lot of hands-on training.”

The campus also has land for farming, and the administrators ensure it is put to good use.

“One hectare of land is used for farming. We have planted a variety of vegetables like spinach, water spinach, mint, brinjal, okra, chilli and fruit trees like coconut, papaya and lime, which are mostly used for our own consumption. The excess is given to donors to show our gratitude or sold for profit. We have also ventured into manufacturing and selling moringa capsules – Mymoringa – from our moringa plants, ” Devasharma said.

He said MySkills also has 30 female recruits who are based at the headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

“Besides soft skills and motivational classes, we are giving the girls secretarial training.

“The girls will also be moved

to the Kalumpang campus once their residential block is complete, ” he added.

Devasharma said the youths were also taught about finances, which was an important subject.

“Because they come from poor backgrounds, many are conditioned to think that they will forever be poor. So, we teach them to save money and think about being enterprising.

“With the skills learned here, coupled with hard work and determination, they can lead independent lives once they graduate. They can fit perfectly with the rise of the gig economy. The challenge is to make them understand their potential, ” he added.

Devasharma said they also find attachments for the graduates to get on-site training.

“One company paid RM1,300 monthly for interns and most of the boys sent there are very happy with the arrangement and perform their level best.

“That particular company paid RM2,800 monthly starting salary for permanent staff and these boys were vying for it. I can see the change in their mindset. So, it shows that if such opportunities to earn a good living are made available to them, there will be a change in their attitude.

“One of our graduates who we hired to service our water filters contacted me one day to say that he had RM40,000 in savings and wanted to invest. He is 22 years old.

“I was sceptical but recommended an investment agent and later found out that he made the investment.

“We may not be able to change everybody but we have definitely made a difference in reshaping the future of many at-risk youths for the better, ” he said.

Devasharma said institutions such as MySkills were needed to break the poverty cycle.

“We cannot change their family circumstances, the place they live, their unhealthy surroundings or the school system. But what we can do is to take these youths who will shape the future, out of that toxic environment and give them a spark of hope to change their fate.”

He said at the Kalumpang campus, students were given a conducive living space, nutritional food and skills to set them up in life.

Students, he said were free to move around the campus and play in the evenings as there was also a basketball court and activities like yoga and athletics.

“Since MySkills was established, we have reached out to 12,000 vulnerable youths, enrolled 1,600 students with 62% graduation rate, ” he said.

It may seem like a drop in the ocean but for those youths who have succeeded in breaking free from the cycle of poverty, they now have a very real chance to make something great of themselves.

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