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Dilshad Mehershahi, co-founder of MANN talks about the foundation & challenges of running Mumbai’s foremost special needs NGO.

Co-Founder of MANN talks about the foundation & challenges of running Mumbai’s foremost special needs NGO.

One of the most noble callings in the world is to set aside one’s privilege and dedicate time to the service of others. On February 27th, World NGO Day, we check in with one such person.

Dilshad Mehershahi is a co-founder of MANN, a Mumbai-based NGO that helps prepare individuals with special needs for the job market, by imparting vocational training over a period of one to three years. In an interview with DOER Life, she opened up about her experiences founding MANN, the challenges that the social sector faced because of the pandemic and how MANN overcame the crisis.

What is the story of MANN? 

MANN began ten years ago, when we realised that there was a need to provide age-appropriate training and services to  adults with disabilities, especially those who can’t afford these services provided outside. Often, people with disabilities from underprivileged backgrounds have not had any formal training and have spent their formative years at home.

Early on in our career as special educators, Beverly Louis, Geetanjali Gaur and I realised the need to impart job related skill training adults over 18 years. We piloted this idea by starting a weekend hobby class to expose the underprivileged adults to various experiences. The feedback from the parents was very positive and they encouraged us to regularise the class  and this was when Mann was born.

With a vision to train these adults to live a productive life and contribute to society we registered as a charitable trust and began with a group of 25 adults and 4 founders – 3 of us educators and Gautam Lalwani whose business acumen, completed the team. 

Over the past ten years, around 450-500 individuals have enrolled with us and benefited through the training at MANN. More than 150 of them are currently working jobs, of which 91 are engaged in mainstream employment in corporate, retail, hospitality, food and beverage establishments. The rest are working in home programs, wherein handmade goods produced by them are sold under the MANN label, and the earnings are paid to them accordingly. On an average, all of them earn 8000 to 1000 rupees per month, which is a huge help for their families as well. 

Not to mention the massive boost in self-confidence that they get. Their identity changes from that of a human being, who is regarded as being “special”, to that of a contributing member of the society. That’s a huge boost for them.

The opportunity to work and earn and the belief that they are capable enough of contributing to society, boosts their confidence massively. They were once looked down upon as being a burden and now are instrumental in their own development and that of their families 

What prompted you to take up this specific cause? Was it tough starting out? 

All three of us were unintentionally motivated towards this cause, which is why we started training and continued working as special educators. Though the circumstances for all of us were different, we had a common drive to help differently abled people. 

It was a challenge, as we had to find a suitable space and look for sources of funding. Funding was critical because we knew  that we wanted to help the underprivileged, and so we could not charge those individuals or their families. We started by catering to a 50% quota of underprivileged trainees and today we have increased the percentage to 80%.

Can you run us through the details of how MANN helps individuals with special needs become more independent, and enable them to work jobs?

Sure. When the beneficiary first comes to MANN, we conduct a basic assessment to understand the level of the beneficiary and counselling sessions with the beneficiary and the family to understand expectations, ambitions and communicate to them what they can expect from the training. These initial interviews help us assess which program is best suited for the beneficiary.

So for example, if we can tell that a beneficiary is proficient at cleaning, cutting and cooking tasks, then he or she will be more suited to the Food and Beverages sector. 

This specialised training process usually takes between one to three years, depending on capability and aptitude. As you can imagine, this is a very individualised process, as there is no one size that fits all.  

Along with the job skill training, we also train beneficiaries in life skills. For instance, functional skills like looking after oneself, dressing, grooming, being punctual, travelling on public transport, etc are critical skills, regardless of the sector. 

Travel training is especially important, and probably the most challenging for us. Since 80% are from underprivileged families, their parents cannot pick up and drop them everyday, leaving their own jobs aside. So we create maps that they can follow, tell them what routes to take and teach them to call or seek help during emergencies as well.

Wow, that must be quite challenging, as the public transport system of Mumbai can be tricky, even for those without special needs.   

It is challenging, but our trainees do it so well! I’ll just share a case with you: One of our beneficiaries lived in Mahim, but his job was at Sanpada. Initially, we only trained him to take the Panvel train to Sanpada as it was a direct route. After the training however, when we followed up after six months, we realised that he independently taught himself  to change trains via Wadala! And he is telling us, ‘It’s so easy! Just get down at Wadala and get on another train, what’s the big deal?”

Come rain or shine, he travels everyday on his own now, and again, that is a huge confidence boost for him. After living in a sheltered environment, you’re able to travel on your own in a big city like Mumbai! So that’s why this overall skill development is very important. 

Once this training is done, we match the graduate’s skill set to a suitable and accessible employment opportunity. But it doesn’t end there. Once we have zeroed in on a job opportunity, we sensitize the employers and co-workers who are going to be working with the beneficiaries and then we move to the on-job training period. This period lasts for anywhere between two weeks to a month, wherein our trainer goes with the graduate to the workplace everyday for 2 weeks, to ensure he/she is well-adjusted to the surroundings.  We provide the hand-holding to the employer and the beneficiary to ensure that they can sustain the employment. We also sign an MoU with the employer that clearly states that our beneficiary will be under their employ. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit all of us in different measures over the past year. I can imagine the social sector was also severely impacted. What was your experience like? How did MANN overcome the hurdles presented by the pandemic? 

Initially, when the pandemic struck, it was really difficult because the parents of our beneficiaries lost their jobs, as did the beneficiaries. We had to find a way to get them gainfully employed again, but because of the lockdown, they couldn’t move out of the house and we soon realised that they did not have the financial backing to fulfil their basic needs of food and medicines . So our initial focus was on providing relief in the form of financial aid, essentials and medical aid. 

The focus then moved to rehabilitation, as the new reality was that they could not continue the training as they did before. We soon digitized our content and training to an online platform. This would not be possible without support from donors, who have come forward to donate computers, laptops, internet connection for all the  beneficiaries who needed it. Moving the training online has helped us extend our reach. Now beneficiaries who had challenges accessing the training due to physical distance can now sign up for the online training now, from the safety of their own homes.  Another huge positive of moving online is the parent involvement in the process. They can actually see the training in progress and are better equipped to practice and apply the training to other aspects of daily life. 

That was a mammoth task, because it included digital literacy training for our trainers, trainees and their family members. It was brilliant to see that everyone adapted to the situation so well. beneficiaries were soon learning just as well through online sessions as they did with the at site training! Where employed graduates were concerned the communication with the employers regarding the jobs was maintained throughout. Few places have retained them but have not asked them to resume, while 17-18 graduates have gone back to work already. All the graduates working in retail stores have worked through the pandemic maintaining all the safety protocol. However many have lost their jobs, especially in the F&B and hospitality sectors because of the restrictions and limited operations. 

For our readers who want to help, how can they contribute to this cause and help MANN?

Firstly, I would tell everyone to advocate for differently abled people to help us to make this society more inclusive. This is something that you can do even without contributing anything tangible, because it is your attitude that determines whether they can have a fulfilling, productive life in the real world. We should all strive to create an environment wherein individuals with special needs can live their life with dignity, as we all deserve that. 

Besides that, if you want to help MANN, we have a Sponsor-a-beneficiary program by adopting the training of one or more beneficiaries, you can also donate towards the program and capacity building. You can also donate in kind towards the raw material needs. The current needs include devices, groceries  for beneficiaries’ families. As I mentioned, a lot of the beneficiaries work in home programs, wherein they make home-made articles which we sell in the open market. So we also need raw material like glue, fabric, and other craft material, which you can help out with. 

Another way you can help is by buying the products our beneficiaries make. You can take a look at the range of products and shop for them at our website. These are items made with a lot of love, and will go a long way in securing their income. 

You can also help by volunteering. If you’re good at a particular skill like music or art, you’re most welcome to volunteer online to teach the beneficiaries. Even if you don’t know a specific skill, you can join the team and assist trainers in teaching basic skills and maths and so on.  

Most importantly, just spread the word!

To know more about MANN, visit https://mann.org.in  

To shop for MANN products, visit https://www.mann.org.in/shop1/ 

If you wish to donate to MANN directly, you can do through below options.

Direct Donation Link:https://pages.razorpay.com/mann

Or to the bank account below.

Bank details: Please find below the Bank Account details of Mann
Name: MANN
Number: 50100055435001
Type: Savings Account
IFSC Code: HDFC0000501
Branch : Churchgate

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