If you are looking for a heart warming story which will make you take either your first step or your next step on your journey towards helping others, then this interview is for you.
If you are browsing around casually and have never spared time or resources for those less fortunate than you, then please hit the “back button” and leave.
Sylvester Peter is just like you and I, yet he is not. The Indira Camp Number 4 in Vikas Puri, West Delhi is like any other place for migrant families in a large Indian city, yet it isn’t. Materially speaking, “Vikas” (progress) is not to be found anywhere in Camp Number 4 in Vikas Puri, but in the hearts of some young children here, there has been real vikas. It is the kind of vikas that we can only hope all young kids living in poverty across the third world can have, some day. Until then, a handful of children in Camp Number 4 have their Sylvester Bhaiya and the My Angels Academy. Over to Sylvester and his beautiful life of soccer, kids and smiles for their wonderful story.
Please tell us about yourself, your family, your formative years. What happened early in your life that made you care about other human beings from a young age?
I was born in Chennai of Tamil parents but I grew up in Delhi as most of my mother’s family had shifted to Delhi way back in 1950. I am the third child of my parents, with two loving elder sisters and a younger brother. My Father passed away long back and I stay with my mother in Delhi. By profession I’m a holistic trainer, a counsellor and a motivational speaker.
My mother had wanted at least one child to know Tamil and against my will and liking they put me in a government school called DTEA (Delhi Tamil Education Association) School, Moti Bagh branch, South Delhi. In this branch, most of the children were from very poor families, unlike me. It was tough for me to go to such a school, specially since my siblings and nephews and nieces studied in Christian Convent schools, but I soon made friends instantly with my teachers and with my classmates, regardless of their background.
One incident when I was in the fourth grade changed my attitude forever. One of my classmates told me that it was his birthday that day and I asked him what gift he was going to get from his parents and I also inquired where the party was. I was surprised when he told me that his parents would take him to the temple and that there was no other celebration. When I heard this, I was so angry with his parents that I later complained to my mother about how my friend’s parents were unconcerned and did not celebrate his birthday. On hearing this, my mother scolded me and said I should not speak ill about elder people. I told her the whole story. Then my mother realized that my friend’s family was very poor, and they couldn’t even afford to buy a cake or a gift. That was the reason for not having a party.
It was a revelation to me. That moment when I didn’t just see poverty but felt poverty because my friend was the one affected.
My first sharing of love was in the fourth grade when one of my classmates was very upset. On being asked the reason, he told me that the teacher had asked him to come to the school in a proper uniform otherwise she would not allow him to attend the class. His mother was a house maid living in a slum and was going to get her salary the next week. I decided to share my shirt with him. From there on, taking initiatives for others became my habit. Many times in my primary class I didn’t have my lunch, just so that I could share it with my friends. At the age of thirteen, I started my academy and did everything which I felt was missing in schools. Within our DTEA school branches, our branch was looked down upon because my school didn’t fare well academically, in sports, in cultural activities, and discipline and even in cleanliness. I wasn’t happy about it. I told my mother that before I passed that school, I would make it better than all branches, and I did. I was lucky to get some wonderful teachers who saw my enthusiasm and gave me a lot of freedom to do things. Whatever initiatives I took were critical, but I knew my schoolmates were behind me. When I became head-boy of the school, I started transforming what I had dreamt about. I forgot I was just a student. I was on fire to do many things. I took many measures like students coming on time and leaving the school after the last bell, annual day, sports day, other curricular activities were far better, toilets were cleaned, the play ground was better etc. I became so popular that all branches came to know about me and I used to get more wishes from the students than any teacher or Principal. Junior students took my autographs. But I realized more could be done but it wasn’t possible in my school, because the school politics had become like our country’s politics. After 12th class I gave my whole time to my academy only. And rest as they say is history.
Q. How and when did soccer become a big part of your life?
From 1st standard till 5th standard, I worshipped cricket because of the media and people around me who convinced me through their acts that “sports meant cricket”. Apart from cricket, I liked running and used to participate in all track and field events in the school.
Everything changed after T.K Soman, our very close family friend, asked me what football was. My reply was that I didn’t know much about football except for the fact that the players run here and there for the ball. He smiled and explained very clearly and interestingly about the game with a diagram and some of the basic rules. I got fascinated and started playing, in fact I told my mother that I had wasted all my life playing cricket for so many years. She laughed and started calling my dear ones to tell them about this change. In my school, I was the captain and coach because we never had a soccer coach. My habit of running helped me to learn this game quickly. The happiest moment during my school days was when I was scoring goals.
Q. Tell us about My Angels Academy. When and what made you set it up and what kind of children are members of this academy. How many kids are we talking about?
My Angels academy is an academy for economically poor children. A small room bustling with activity in a slum of Vikaspuri, New Delhi. Using my earnings and my knowledge as a motivational speaker, holistic trainer and a counsellor, I aim to transform the lives of the slum children by imparting theoretical, moral and practical lessons. This academy was started when I was studying in school but at that time I didn’t have a permanent place, but by the time I passed my college it had a permanent place and name. My academy is just a small rented room in a slum but it has achieved what elite international schools just talk about. Every activity is done in a very professional manner.
The salient features of My Angels Academy :–
In our academy there is no gender bias. The boys and girls equally share the housekeeping tasks.
The running of the academy is done by the students themselves. They play the various roles in different capacities. Mentors, Assistant Teachers, Supervisors are examples of a few.
A system of self-evaluation is followed by all the students. They maintain a daily journal in which they record their personal routine.
For example: How many glasses of water they drink, breakfast time, whether they brushed their teeth before sleep, exercise and study.
We believe in one religion and that is Love. Our strength lies in the fact that we live together as one big loving family. All festivals are celebrated equally by all the children who belong to different religious sects.
Every Sunday, students have a meeting to discuss their achievements and failures. Their personal problems are discussed and sorted out. Work schedule and Targets are set.
Moral education is taught in a practical manner which stems from their heart and not just points in an essay.
Angels attend not because of fear but because of their enthusiasm at receiving a good moral education.
My teaching is based on a saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Looking from the childrens’ point of view, whenever I give anything to my students like a pencil or a pair of shoes, I make them work hard for it by holding competitions in painting, study, sports, cleanliness, behaviour etc. So whenever they receive something, they learn that they have earned it and it has not just been given to them like alms to a beggar.
We are talking about those children whose childhood is snatched by our own society and has made them into drug addicts, thieves, thugs, someone with no moral ethics and fundamentalists, mentally and physically exploited etc. This has been possible because of the negative thought among masses of poor and rich parents, masses of rich and poor teachers, masses of rich and poor spiritual leaders, masses of private and government institutions and of course on the top, our negative politicians who made the system so bad that it makes monsters out of these children. In spite of this strong negative system, I proudly say that over the years, from my childhood, this attitude has helped me so much that “my disappointments are never higher than my spirits”. Today, I can proudly say that none of my students are in the negative category. In my academy, no students uses abusive language. Can any other elite international school vouch for this?
Here is a video shot by Sanjeev Parmar, owner of Parmar Sports Training, Ottawa, Canada who spent some time at the My Angels Academy in Delhi -
Q. What kinds of things do you teach these children? What kind of a role does soccer play in this?
I’m making them in to leaders, not followers. And the aim is to create a very strong base so that even if I pass away, this system should continue. Everything I teach, I make sure they are happy with it and they are recognized not only for academics or sports but for every small positive step. I try to teach them in such a manner that it becomes their habit. Apart from academics and sports, they are familiarized with different aspects of life like personal hygiene, environmental protection, sex education, gender equality, education, life skills, dancing, painting, yoga (asanas and mediation), life skills, dance, teaching boys and girls how to do household work, even cooking etc.. I combine my lessons with sports to inculcate life lessons – the hardship of losing, the joy of winning, team spirit, patience and anger management. Here, soccer came very handy to me; I needed something that would appeal to most of my Angels so football was my instant choice. Who doesn’t enjoy kicking a ball around?
Q. You have a full time job. How do you manage to find the time for the kids?
It’s difficult but I don’t have an option, my only option is to quit what I’m doing. It wasn’t easy for me in the past and it isn’t even now. But the joy of giving back their birthright, their childhood, and making them the best citizens of India, is priceless. My tolerance power was tested to the maximum many times but somehow I overcame it. When I see that My Angels are happy, elegant, proactive, and honest and doing the work stylishly, it gives me lot of inner strength. Love has made me a stronger person. For the last five to six years, things have improved little by little because I’m doing freelance work, but that too takes time if one is dependent on it. Being a free-lancer gives me an option to choose the time and have the freedom to say yes or no to any assignments. A group of students has reached the age of group fifteen plus and Sandeep, who’s my first graduate, helps me a lot along with other juniors to do the activities of the academy. Very intelligently, I have to manage my work and my life with my angels. Sometimes if I have a motivational speech and it ends by 12 pm and the second session is counselling a person at 4 pm and if the distance is covered soon by metro, then I go to my academy and give them a surprise and do my activity. I make sure I meet my students every day, unless and until something goes beyond my capacity.
Q. How were the kids when you found them first? Was it easy to establish trust between you and them and between each other? Were the kids already a cohesive band or were there divisions among themselves?
Some were beggars, drug addicts, fundamentalists, rag pickers, thugs, vagabonds, non believers, filthy, frightened, aggressive, pessimistic, pretentious, etc. It wasn’t easy initially to form the trust but with continuous efforts through love, sports, self counselling and setting an example myself by working hard on reforming, I have been able to do so. With more than two decades of experience I can say “correct amalgamation of love and logical discipline in continuous effort brings phenomenal changes in the child”.
Q. What is your central philosophy when dealing with kids?
I never stop the flow of love, and discipline is also very important, which I never compromised. However, I do take a lot of precaution before implementing it. This should be well communicated to the children. I believe that love is pure. One doesn’t fall in love, but rises in love, and in My Angels, they are rising through love.
I treat every child differently, because every child has a different personality, thoughts, and understanding levels. I share not only the joy, but the pain too. I involve them in all the activities and in the decision making. Nothing is permanent, and there are always ups and downs, but the main challenge for me is to keep fighting with the odd, difficult situations, showing the kids that one should not lose hope and keep doing the things which are in the right spirit. However difficult the situation is with the kids, I try to remain calm and thoughtful about what should be said and how it should be said. Over the years, the confidence levels of the kids have increased to a greater level due to the increased trust and bonding with me, due to the solving of their small or big issues at the academy or at home. It has always been a challenge for me, as they see me as their role model. My discipline, habits, and consistency of dealing with situations has always been observed by them. Fooling the kids for a short time is possible, but not permanently, as children are more observant than elders and can see through you. Once their faith is shaken, it leaves a very deep scar on them.
Q. Has the neighbouring community of Vikaspuri been supportive of what you have been trying to do?
People bullied me, called me mad, discouraged me, and put a lot of hurdles to stop what I’m doing. Things are better now because of the media coverage. There is at least respect and a little support now.
Q. So, is this why the kids have to get up in the middle of the night to practice, so that the middle class folks don’t shoo them away from the park?
When I used to take these children to play or do any outdoor activity, the people assembled and had meetings to stop me from bringing the slum children to the same place where their children would also come to play. It was a common park where anybody could come. My problem got aggravated when they would call the cops and bribe them to stop me. I was in a fix, because if I told the parents, they would tell me to stop, and as I was a small boy, it was very difficult to convince the rich people that these kids also had equal rights as their own children. So, my only option was to get up in the middle of the night to reach the ground at 4.30 am and start our practice. Now, people have finally recognized my efforts, but I still have to get up at the same time because we don’t have our own ground, except the small ground where all my Angels can’t practice. There is only one poorly maintained government soccer field, or a play ground, if you want to call it that, in the whole of Vikaspuri and in neighbouring places where one can play, and it’s always overcrowded with cricketers and vagabonds. I have to train fifty to sixty Angels at one go, so I needed a bigger place to train without any disturbance, and it’s only possible very early in the morning.
Q. How were you able to take these kids and transform them into the West Zone school champions of Delhi?
I used soccer to reform them, inculcate sportsmanship in them, and with that I have very serious ambitions that my Angels will be playing at the top level, not only in India but at the international level too, at par with Europeans and South Americans. I have my ownstyle of training, and my main objective is to increase the interest of a child towards football and make playing the sport their habit. In the slum there are so many distractions that it was very difficult for a child to keep their focus at one place. Nothing came easy, as the challenges came from every corner, from the Angels’ parents, from outsiders, the lack of goods like soccer balls and the lack of studs. What also created difficulties was the different age groups of so many children. The challenge was to motivate them to wake them early in the morning for training, and to sustain it was very difficult. There were times when I was all alone in the ground, and waiting for my Angels to come and none of the students came. When dawn broke, people in the ground would approach me and make a mockery of me, saying: “What happened? Nobody came. These kids will never change. Don’t waste your life.” I have become immune to these words. Even today, we don’t get enough practice matches, and even today we don’t have enough resources. So whatever little opportunity we get, we grab it. To convince others that my Angels don’t just play mediocre soccer but play good football, I have to defeat the number one school in Delhi, because a draw also wouldn’t be sufficient to prove my point. To prove this point was very important, because my Angels would be recognized and would get more opportunities in soccer. I’m proud to say that we have defeated the team that is number one in Delhi for soccer, where the Sports Authority of India is working to promote soccer. We have achieved our objective.
Q. Do you have girls that take part in soccer too? Have there been any issues with the parents of girls perhaps holding them back? If so, how did you manage to overcome them?
Yes, girls do take part in soccer, but in the slum, girls are more exploited. Parents put their children in Angels just to wash off their hands off the responsibilities to take care of them. They would allow the girl child to play till six or seven, and then slowly restrictions would start, and once they reached their teens there is a total ban on playing. They are forced to work at home, and even help their mothers in the bungalows. It’s real hypocrisy from the rich, qualified people who talk about child labour and yet make very small girls, even in the age group of eleven to thirteen years, work at home.
I made a lot of enemies in the slums. Because of me, nobody can exploit my Angels, even their own parents, which has resulted in no child marriage, no child labour, no to unqualified doctors, no to superstition, no to fundamentalism, no to drugs, etc. I try many methods to convince the parents, and one such method is reminding them about their children, what they were in the past and the present, rewarding their girl child, etc. But even today this problem continues because of the presence of anti-social elements in the slum, and parents are easily convinced about any negative things. Love helps me remain calm and carry out my work. Here, if you have a lot of money, and a bigger setup to show, then it’s easier to convince the parents. Without money and power there is no gratitude. I’m happy that even though parents try their best to pollute the Angel students’ thoughts, they have failed , and in fact the Angel students are counselling them.
Q. How did Xevi Marce, director of FC Barcelona‘s youth club, hear about My Angels Academy. Tell us about this experience and how some of your children fared at the Escola trials in Delhi?
I would like to thank Neel (Neel Shah, Libero Sports) for introducing Xevi Marce to My Angels, as he was fascinated to see our setup. We were honoured to be with him. He spend a lot of time with us, patiently listening to us and answering my Angels’ questions. In fact, he was constantly reminded of his flight to catch. Three of my students were selected for Barcelona camp, and the head coach of the camp from Spain said: “Your students are the best in all the departments, including fitness, discipline and even kindness.” What a proud moment it was, because in that camp, all the elite schools and top soccer-playing school students were participating.
Q. Your time, devotion and passion for My Angels Academy has come at a high personal cost, has it not? Do you see it as a high personal cost?
Nothing big is achieved in a very comfortable zone. It demands a certain cost. Yes, my marriage broke because of my Angels, but I don’t see it as a very high personal cost because when I see my Angels appreciated in public, getting rewarded, I see that as priceless.
Q. Apart from soccer, what kind of life-skills have you made the kids realize and imbibe?
Apart from soccer, we have academics, play, dance, computers, yoga exercises with meditation, drawing and painting, and yoga-based stunt practice. Above all, moral education is given to make them better people. I have taught them that whatever the situation may be, you would have a choice, so choose sensibly. Kindness, honesty, humbleness, being independent, respect for women and elders, love, and humanity has vanished from our society, and it’s only in the books now. I’m trying to have these qualities imbibed in my Angels. They should not become indifferent to others.
Q. So where does My Angels Academy go from here?
I want to build a day boarding school. And this magic should reach all the children. Once I have a good setup, then I or my seniors would travel to different parts of India to select students for our soccer team, and would try my best to reach as many children who are in need of help. When we open other branches in rural areas, it would be simple but still would be one of its kind. We have been covered by the Times of India, The Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle, Indian Express, The Hindu and even regional newspapers such as Nav Bharat Times and Mathrubhumi, a Malayalam newspaper. Even a coffee table book was published and launched by Rural Minister Jairam Ramesh. I’m a recipient of the Bravery award given by FM 104; the Confederation of India has honoured me, the Indian Coach Factory’s Friends Football Club Chennai honoured me, and electronic media such as DD News and CNEB news covered our story. CNN-IBN is going to cover us in the middle of February.
In spite of so much of recognition, I am still struggling to run the academy. It is just a one small room in the slum, because I have declined offers which have had strings attached to them. This is also one of the reasons that the quality of the academy never came down. I was offered a huge amount of money and property by certain sections of people, but I declined it because it had strings attached. We had to struggle a lot because I want to keep my academy non-political and non-religious, away from negative people. A pertinent problem is that any day can be my last day in the slum, because of the imminent threat of the demolition of the slum, which would leave the Angels with no place to further nurture their dreams. I need a permanent space to be allocated to My Angels Academy in the same vicinity where my academy is at present, as I intend to start a boarding house for my children. We need to be in the same vicinity, just because we need the soccer ground. I’m on a war path to save My Angels.
For those that wish to keep in touch with Sylvester and his Angels, please read Sylvester’s blog at http://myangelsacademy.blogspot.ca/.