The young players wait for their coach
© Florian Lang

Tackling childhood poverty

  • TEXT NICOLE GRAAF
  • PHOTOS FLORIAN LANG

A New Delhi tailor cares for children from poor families with the aid of the Lufthansa help alliance. Playing for the Sunshine project’s soccer team, the kids learn that teamwork is key.

A sharp blast of the coach’s whistle sounds and Anuradha and Gudiya sprint off as if their lives depended on it. A 20-meter dash to the blue cone and round it once, then backwards to the starting line, tag the next runner – and take a deep breath. While the next child picks up speed, the others wait impatiently in the line. Everyone wants to go next and outrun everyone else.

We’re at the Saket sports complex at the heart of India’s capital, New Delhi. The large center includes tennis and basketball courts, a cricket pitch, a riding arena and a gym. The neighborhood is full of surgically trimmed shrubs, elegant apartments and expensive private schools. This is also the training ground of a soccer team that doesn’t really seem to belong here. Gudiya, Anuradha, Akash, Vijay, Kundan, Keshav, Rithik and Amit, joyously kicking balls around as part of FC Sunshine, come from a district where life is far tougher; they are all from the Sunshine day-care center in nearby Said-ul-Ajaib.

It all started in 2000, says Kuku Arora, tailor, fashion designer and founder of Project Sunshine, which includes the football team. One day, he saw a young girl with only one hand sitting outside his store, tugging at the sleeves of passers-by and begging. After a few days, Arora – who has children of his own – simply couldn’t bear it any longer. He found the parents and convinced them to let him take care of the two-year-old and her brother, who was selling vegetables on the street. More and more children joined the group, so many that he officially launched Project Sunshine in 2002. The name could also serve as a description of Arora, a man with an optimistic twinkle in his eyes that shines even brighter when he’s surrounded by his charges. Supported by donors from all over the world, he and his wife, Priti, now look after nearly 270 children from the district. Arora smiles almost apologetically: “How could I have taken in one child, and not another?”

Poverty is rife in Said-ul-Ajaib; the Sunshine day-care center provides a ray of hope

Poverty is rife in Said-ul-Ajaib; the Sunshine day-care center provides a ray of hope

© Florian Lang
The center looks after children like Gudiya;

The center looks after children like Gudiya; ...

© Florian Lang
she and her friends play for FC Sunshine

... she and her friends play for FC Sunshine

© Florian Lang

  Life is tough in Said-ul-Ajaib: narrow lanes, families crammed into tiny rooms with barely enough space for a bed, a cupboard and a small gas cooker. Often, as many as eight families share a floor of the small houses – and one bathroom and one toilet. “Lack of water is our biggest problem,” says Vijay, 14, looking serious. Canisters are stacked up outside his family’s room. The water in the large tank on the roof is strictly rationed, and families only have access on certain days. “People often argue over it,” he adds. There’s a lot of conflict, injustice and poverty in this district. Most nhabitants are unemployed, destitution drives many to drink, and domestic violence is rife. And while the parents who do have jobs spend long days laboring as rickshaw drivers, maids or messengers to earn enough money for the family’s next meal, the children are left to fend for themselves – creating a breeding ground for child labor and street gangs.

Kuku Arora’s vision is to change this, and he reached an agreement with the parents: “They agree not to make their children work or beg, but instead to send them to school and afterwards to us. In return, they are not expected to pay a single rupee.” Arora takes care of funding himself; he registers the children at school, organizes uniforms, books and pens, and – if necessary – glasses. In the afternoon, the kids do their home­work in a large room next to his studio and then attend dance classes or computer courses, or receive extra tuition. Clean water, medical care, a shower or a hot meal – Arora wants the children to have anything they need. In the evening, they return to their parents for the night.

Initially, the 46-year-old paid for everything out of his own pocket, and friends and customers would donate money, ­clothes and books. There were times when the project threa­tened to overwhelm the couple. Ten years ago, their savings were exhausted. When on top of that, the rent went up by 200% because a new metro station nearby had rendered the area more attractive, Project Sunshine found itself on the brink of closure. Fortunately, it was then that they encountered Julia Hillebrecht, a Lufthansa flight attendant. In 2009, Hillebrecht organized emergency financial aid through help alliance and has since helped to arrange sponsorships. “Without her, we simply would not have been able to continue,” says Arora.

Garment producer Kuku Arora founded Project Sunshine; to date, he and his wife have looked after nearly 270 children in their center

Garment producer Kuku Arora founded Project Sunshine; to date, he and his wife have looked after nearly 270 children in their center

© Florian Lang
Empowering kids: Supervised homework at the center helps the children to learn for the future; Anuradha wants to become a pilot

Empowering kids: Supervised homework at the center helps the children to learn for the future; Anuradha wants to become a pilot

© Florian Lang
Akash, 15, demonstrates his skills. As well as running and ball control, training includes life lessons in the importance of teamwork

Akash, 15, demonstrates his skills. As well as running and ball control, training includes life lessons in the importance of teamwork

© Florian Lang

Playing soccer has really boosted the children’s self-confidence

  That aid enabled the couple to set up FC Sunshine. Arora used donations to buy soccer shirts, cleats, shin guards and proper leather balls, things that the parents would never have been able to afford. The new stirrup socks that Gudiya unpacks and puts on before training cost the equivalent of two euros, money her parents would have to sell several portions of chickpea fritters to earn. Membership in the Saket sports complex costs 30 euros, which is roughly half what the family pays in rent each month. These days, thanks to Arora and his supporters, sports in New Delhi are no longer the sole pre­serve of the rich. The children have training four times a week, and it’s obvious they adore soccer. On the way to the pitch, they effortlessly pass balls back and forth, bounce them over the curb, agilely dribbling around rickshaws and food carts. Asked if they have a favorite team, they unanimously shout “FC Barcelona!” On the pitch, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what counts is determination and team spirit – a lesson that the children take with them into their everyday lives. “I want to work hard so that my family has a better life”, says Vijay, who writes poetry after school and who would like to be a writer – if he doesn’t become a professional soccer player. Anuradha dreams of a career as a pilot. And because nobody gets left behind at FC Sunshine, she writes down the math homework for her friend Pooja, who is visiting family in the countryside today before training.

“Playing soccer has really boosted the children’s self-confidence”, says Arora. He is proud of the results of his project. Roshni, the little girl with one arm, now teaches in the day-care center. Her brother, Salim, is studying and has also trained to become a yoga teacher. He pops by nearly every day, helps with the accounts and accompanies the little ones to the soccer pitch. These two embody Arora’s dearest wish: “As soon as they’re standing on their own two feet, I would like them to help look after two other children.” Just like he did back then.

Finally, it’s kickoff time. The referee calls the Sunshine kids to the match – against a team of middle-class kids. The whistle blows and Vijay immediately takes control of the ball. He dribbles in a zigzag past two opponents, casts a quick glance at the goalkeeper, aims for the right-hand corner and belts the ball in. Goal! A little later, Anuradha tackles a bigger boy, who is heading to FC Sunshine’s goal, and manages to prevent a pass. The children give their all for the team, one for all and all for one. The match ends in a tie, but that doesn’t really matter. Kuku Arora beams: “Soccer is helping the children to become a team.” And that’s something that will help them, both on the pitch and in life.

The team depends on donations to pay for balls, cleats, shirts and club fees

The team depends on donations to pay for balls, cleats, shirts and club fees

© Florian Lang
An invaluable lesson: The children learn to give their best, on the pitch and in life

An invaluable lesson: The children learn to give their best, on the pitch and in life

© Florian Lang

Karte_Neu-Delhi

Helping Children

help alliance is the aid organization of the Lufthansa Group and its employees, and the mainstay of the airline’s social commitment. A limited liability non-profit company formed in 1999 by 13 Lufthansa employees, help alliance runs some 30 projects across the world, most of them designed to provide young people with job training and a chance for a better life. Every cent donated goes straight to the projects.