Mohammad Ali is a slight, scrawny, shy child. His father passed away in 2006, and he became the sole bread winner of his family. He earns money by selling items on the streets of Islamabad. He is only 10.
Wary of the world yet bursting with unrealised potential, Ali was living a life many children across Pakistan and the developing world are subject to, a life on the streets. He was spotted by his ability to make an air-plane from a discarded cigarette box, a talent that’s simple but with guidance and the right direction could make a huge impact in his life. Ali was encouraged to make paper planes with better supplies and taught to use better techniques. Six months on, he earns Rs 500-600 a day ($6-7) selling his little paper planes outside a café, enough to look after his family and buy fresh supplies for more planes. He is learning how to read and write with hopes of going to school in fall.
All this is happening because of a small organization called Lettuce Bee Kids (LBK), an organization that does not take donations.
How a small organization is tackling a BIG issue
Pakistan has a problem, like other developing countries in the world, with children working and sleeping on the streets; making a living by picking trash, selling items and cleaning cars. Often they just beg for money, or worse, offer sexual favours. These children, some as young as 3 years old are amongst the most neglected, exploited, victimized and abused in Pakistani society. According to charities which work to protect street children in Pakistan, up to 90 per cent are sexually abused on the first night that they venture outside. The exact number of street children in Pakistan remains unknown but United Nations has been attributed as estimating the population of street children worldwide at 150 million. According to the current UNICEF statistics, estimates 30 million in Asia and 1.2 million street children only in Pakistan.
Lettuce Bee Kids has a mission: to reintegrate street-children back into the society as contributing and respectable members. They have a solution, a self-sufficient, entrepreneurial solution that has the potential to change lives.
The Idea. The Method. The Fun.
LBK hinges upon four basic guiding principles, which will encourage social inclusion and self-actualization to these children and helps generate revenues for the LBK eco-system to be self-sufficient.
- The more you draw, the more you draw [Lettuce bee Design]
- The more you grow the more you grow [Lettuce bee Deli]
- The more you play, the more you play [Lettuce bee Band]
- Adopt a grandparent [Lettuce bee Yours]
Each of these four elements is a mini entrepreneurial adventure that offers social inclusion opportunities for the children as well as a DIY sustainability model that I haven’t come across before. The Design arm of LBK has just come out with its first range of greeting cards and the Vegetable garden tended by the children is well on its way too.
The most endearing thing about LBK is that when you look at the pictures from their activities, you see thrill, elation, joy! These are not one of those activities where you see a mix of false reverence and self-importance on the pious faces of the volunteers, where the beneficiaries are in awe and the organizers roam around with heads held high and chests heavy with the weight of their own selflessness. The LBK activities look like fun, pure simple joy for all involved. Whether it is a picnic or the art day or a monster drawing competition, the joy on the faces is real and the thrill palpable. You can’t have one of these pictures pass through your Facebook Timeline and not long to be a part of the fun.
Going Beyond the 3 Meals
LBK is not just about providing food, admission into the nearest public school and a new pair of shoes. It aims to give these children same chances in life, the “regular” children have.
There is a planned community centre, a space where children can come ‘hang out’ and socialize with the volunteers who come to teach them, and play with them. In addition to access to books, games and toys the community centre will host specialized activities including the ‘Adopt a Grandparent (Lettuce Bee Yours) initiative.
Health & Counselling Centre, driven by volunteers, will focus on providing street children with access to basic health facilities with emphasis on sensitive but relevant issues, e.g. sexual health, drug awareness and substance abuse counselling.
Perhaps most importantly, LBK recognizes that the knowledge disparity between private school and public school system in Pakistan is massive. LBK is communicating with private schools to take on LBK kids as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the conduct, performance and attitude of these kids will be guaranteed by LBK. This alone will give these children a better chance at life.
Refusing Donations, Growing Wings
Like many Pakistanis abroad, living with the guilt of not doing enough for people back home, I try to entomb my shame in a monthly donation cheque. Imagine my surprise when I offered the same to LBK, and was politely refused.
I was told that LBK’s four-point agenda when put into practice together, has the potential to revolutionize how society thinks of and treats under privileged children. Rather than focusing on charity and donations, LBK aims to generate revenues through design products and deli items to sustain its core activities as a social enterprise. While the emotional reward of being self-sufficient and the pride of not relying on charity is immense, this DIY sustaianbility model also has the potential to change the landscape of social enterprise in the country. Once the pilot project, and model facility, proves to be a sustainable development venture, the model can be taken to scale and replicated across the country.
Creating Bonds, Establishing Ties
LBK is unique in its approach about helping under privileged street children not as an act of giving or kindness but as an act of ‘establishing ties’ - where society and the children are equal contributors and stakeholders towards a self-sustaining Eco-system. I can’t even begin to imagine the benefits that will come by creating human connections that are immutable by race, culture, creed, religion or politics. I can only dream of a time where we will have more organizations like LettuceBee Kids, organizations that force me and others like me to venture outside our comfort zones and learn to contribute more than a part of their earnings, to be part of solutions that address problems by creating opportunities that deliver long term benefits. Organizations that lend a helping hand without compromising on the dignity of the children and help them develop into proud, fulfilled, productive individuals.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“What does that mean –’tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox.
“It means to establish ties.“
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince
Disclaimer: I have no association with LBK except that I believe they are doing exceptional work and deserve attention and encouragement. Please take a look at their website and tell me you aren’t as moved as I am.