Goa seems to perennially attract different types of people, but perhaps the best are those that come in unselfishly to give back to the society, with an inherent desire to make a definitive change in the lives of the less privileged and the have-nots in the society. DEEPA GEORGE meets Robert Lyon, the Founder of Goa Outreach, an NGO based in Mapusa that works with children in local slum communities around Mapusa and helps in their education, while supporting them with medical issues and teaching and encouraging good hygiene.
Robert Lyon, a UK citizen has lived in Goa for the past 15 years and like many men, behind this successful social worker too stood a woman.
At least that is what he impishly revealed as I settle down and quiz him about reasons that lured him this land of golden sunshine and silvery beaches and kept him steadfast for such a long time.
Well, it’s a rather long story, he quips, but readily admits that it was “all because of a girl.” He continues with a smile, revealing how his ex-girlfriend was keen to do volunteer work in India and how both subsequently landed on the shores of Goa in 2004.”
They initially came to volunteer for a well-established charity organisation and after eight months of service, decided to set up their own charity orgqanisation, ‘Children Walking Tall,’ also popularly known as ‘The Mango House.’
By 2011, he moved on but The Mango House continued to be run by his Indian partners that have now taken the shape of a pre-primary school.
“It’s so much easier procuring licenses if run by Indians,” he laments in a matter-of-fact tone.
While his girlfriend left, Robert continued to be actively involved in working with children. In 2016, Goa Outreach Trust was registered with three other Indian counterparts, Ishita Godinho, Rahul and Rhys D’Souza. Currently they help 125 children from Std 1 upwards, in and around the Mapusa area. Most of these children are from the slums and belong to migrant workers from neighbouring states and from all caste, creed and religion.
When I meet him at his home, which doubles up as the Centre, Robert or Rob as he is popularly known, it is evident that he lives a frugal life. A bed, his large computer and his bike seem to be the only major belongings. The rest of the space is occupied by all the donated items for his charity. He is surrounded by a group of children as he peers into his large desktop computer, teaching them computer and maths.
Quickly dismissing my belief that teaching was one of his core areas, Robert says, “I only teach maths but our greater agenda is to ensure that this Centre runs as a safe haven for these kids, post school to do their homework or study. Besides, we undertake all the outreach work - providing books, stationery, food, uniforms, bags, fees etc to help keep these children in school.”
Supported by a full-time aide and two interns from Don Bosco School, who are addressed as ‘didis,’ Rob’s centre is a hub of activity. “These kids stay in cramped houses. This is a space that allows them to be themselves, they do their school work and also learn to use the computer,” he points out.
Robert gets by with a smattering of Hindi and Konkani. It doesn’t impede his work. If at all, it’s the kids who learn to speak English fluently as they try to converse with him.
Robert is often up against challenges, especially in convincing parents to continue the education of girl children. He has interesting stories to share of real-time rescue missions. They’ve had to intervene in cases when young girls were married off and were in abusive relationships. In a lot of these cases, parents come back to Robert seeking his assistance.
“We’ve had to face the police and stand our ground in trying to rescue some of these girls. In some cases we have had the support of their parents which gave us a bigger impetus. We were once even threatened with a kidnapping charge by the police, despite the girl’s mother being on our side. They finally backed off when they realised we were not going to be intimidated. We are happy that these girls were rescued and more importantly they were able to join school again and continue with their studies,” Robert emphasised.
It is heartening to see the easy camaraderie and comfort Robert shares with these children. Eagerly showing the pictures of children who are currently pursuing further studies, Robert says he had known some of these children for a majority of their lives and it’s good to see them being able to pursue further education, beyond schooling.
Focusing on hygiene and health issues, the team recently held a talk by a social worker, on menstruation, to educate young girls who either had no knowledge at all or were misinformed about their bodies.
Robert has had to play the role of a father and get the right medical help for these children for skin infections, dental issues and even more serious issues of burn victims and leprosy. Ask him how he’d best describe himself and pat comes the response, “Tired!”
“My biggest strength is that many of the families have known me for a decade or more, people in the locality know me, so my credibility is established. We usually have children joining us, primarily through word of mouth. I share a bond with these families and language isn’t a barrier in communicating. Our intent is understood,” Robert said.
Largely funded through individual donations and fundraisers, Robert is happy to accept sponsorship for fees, food items, clothes, school stationery etc. Admitting to be a big ‘kanjoos’ (miser), as he calls himself, Robert is happy to stretch the inflated rupee and depends on the support of friends, family and well-wishers.
Establishments like the W Hotel have joined hands in the past and conducted a “Run to Give” drive in 2016. Breaking from the norm, Robert states that fundraising is done by volunteers who call up wanting to associate and added that he does not usually go about asking for funds. There is a reason then why he chooses to be small. “Small is good” quips Robert. “It helps us to focus on the children we have. There’s no point opening more centres without having the right people to operate it.”
Fifteen years have gone by in a flash and Robert seems more comfortable calling India and Goa, home. For these children, he is their ray of hope.
Log on to www.goaoutreach.org for more information