“We are not only an NGO but also a digital platform for the students.”

“We are not only an NGO but also a digital platform for the students.”

The founder of Touch a Life Foundation Honk Kong ltd Naresh Surana firmly believes in the proverb 'where there is a will there's a way.' Based in Honk Kong and originating from India, the businessman strives to reach out to the underprivileged children through his NGO.

"Touch a Life's vision is to build a world where every child grows up to reach their full potential: healthy, educated and protected," said Surana in the interview with us. Further explaining the functioning of the NGO, he told us that its main motive remains to give the schools independence from having to ask for money. Touch a Life covers the schools which primarily consist of underprivileged children. Since 2015, the organisation has been able to reach out to more than 5,000 students in around 50 schools across 49 villages in Maharashtra.

"You know, people have the resources and they want to use it for a good cause but they don't do it because they are scared that if they simply hand out a cheque, they will never know how their money is being used. Then, when I tell them that I operate an NGO without accepting any funds from anyone, they get shocked. They ask me how I do it without involving donations in the form of cash," he said and then explained how the NGO really functions. Firstly, Touch a Life teaches a school how to build its own website, or as Surana calls it- its own portal. The NGO provides the school with whatever resources are necessary to give them a digitalized platform. Surana stressed on how important it is for every school, every teacher and every student to be digitally present. Through the same platform, the teachers can monitor various school activities and the attendance of the students whereas the students get access to the free online study-material that the NGO keeps them updated with. The benefits don't end here. Touch a Life connects with the students individually so that the students can avail of their facilities even after completion of school. As each school has its own profile, besides managing all these activities, it can also put forth its demands if it requires anything. These demands can be managed in the 'order management' tab.

The NGO has several corporate partners and two local NGOs on the ground level. These partners also have access to the demands put forth by the schools. If they are willing, they can take the project in their hands and instead of giving the schools the money to fulfil the demands; they will make all the arrangements for what is required and pay directly to the vendors. They will also be responsible for looking after the delivery of the required material to the respective school. This way, there is no money given in the hands of the NGO. There is also full transparency whenever a project is initiated. Just like on other commercial websites, the schools can also track the material they have demanded. "I only partner with corporate firms," said Surana when asked about the organisation's partners. This way, those who have the means can directly participate in doing activities for the betterment of the society. Moreover, this cuts down the unnecessary mediators and helps the school become independent of several other NGOs. "I am doing this so that they don't need other NGOs to help them: so that they don't even need us."
Touch a Life Foundation works towards what in reality is the need of the hour: digitalization. By giving the schools the means to healthily coexist in the digital cult; they have given the schools and the students a voice of their own. The idea also acts in favour of the corporate world that wishes to do well but cannot blindly trust the mediators. Touch a Life foundation directly involves them in the projects and offers full transparency. Truly a laudable idea!

More from the interview:

What motivated you to start an NGO of your own?
Education is one of the fundamental rights and ironically, the world lags far behind when it comes to that. I seek to see a world where the opportunities of education and healthcare are boundless. Hence, Touch A Life's vision is to build a world where every child grows up to reach their full potential: healthy, educated and protected. Moreover, I realized the lack of transparency between donors and receivers in large organisations. The challenge of bridging the gap between donors and receivers is solved by the means of our portal, allowing us to map donors, NGOs, vendors, volunteers, schools and students.

What is the most memorable project of the NGO that you've been a part of?
My most memorable project was definitely "Books for a Change" - Touch A Life's first project! Our NGO made an effort in helping underprivileged children in the tribal areas of Maharashtra, where there are no means for students to afford the books. Our research showed that the Government of Maharashtra provides mandatory free education to every citizen only until Grade 8. Thus, inevitably, the number of children who dropped out of school after Grade 8 are dramatically high due to their family's economic instability, or in most cases, complete impoverishment. Recognizing the drop-out rates as a huge problem, Touch A Life decided to provide a full set of syllabus based books to Grade 9 and 10 students in Maharashtra's most destitute villages.

The schools we have targeted are all community-run schools; small-sized with 20-100 students in total, and where teacher wages are paid by the government, but all students resources are paid by the students themselves. Each student received a complete set of official books required to study all their subjects for the year and give their exams successfully. The 'Books for Change' programme successfully provided 25,298 books, changing the lives of 2,966 students across 24 schools over 23 villages in Maharashtra.

What is the reason behind the success of your NGO? What is its strength?
Through all our work, Touch A Life makes a conscious effort to retain our core values. We maintain our low organizational overhead costs, due to our efficient digitalization. Further, our foundation is non-sectarian, secular, non-political, and religiously neutral. We aim to simply help low-income communities and homes that are under-resourced.
Moreover, we have integrated technology, linking everyone in the process to make it efficient and long-term. Our online portal is to provide remotely located schools and students the infrastructure to remain connected with us. Our android app, which is purely made for teacher usage, works both online and offline, as some remote areas are unable to receive internet connectivity. While the donors and receivers, and all the middle-men are connected to the portal, we can ensure that our children are provided with health care, education, and in the future, support with employment recruiting. We keep track of every process (from the donation to the delivery to the students with their unique ID), thus creating a transparent and effective process. As we add projects to our work, we can utilize the portal to ensure that every stage of the project is being completed to the best of our ability.
Most importantly, our strength lies in recognizing the ART of touching lives: with Accountability, Responsibility, and Transparency we ensure sustainable effectiveness through all our projects and guarantee that 100% of the resources we consume are converted into impact.

We all know that being a social worker comes without any personal incentive. What keeps you going?
I hold a firm belief, that all children have the potential to achieve all that they want and our help as a foundation can aid those who lack the facilities and resources to accomplish their dreams.

Do you think studying in foreign countries is better than studying in India? Why?
Yes, I do believe that the infrastructure, resources and opportunities in countries like Hong Kong, are more effective than the current Indian education system. However, with India's introduction of a four-year multidisciplinary undergraduate programme, and the newfound importance on experiential learning and critical thinking, India's education system is paving the path towards an equitable and knowledgeable society.

Can you share with me some of the most successful projects of your NGO?
Touch a Life has had many successful projects, among many being "Student Health Care Camps" and "Road to Digitalization".
The "Student Health Care Camps" project focused on creating awareness and support in terms of healthcare and hygiene. The health care camps consist of health check-ups, vaccinations. Following, data was stored on the student's individual portals – to ensure access for future use. Moreover, we recognize the importance of understanding preventative measures in terms of health care, safety, and hygiene: as a result, we also initiated conversations between students, teachers, and our staff. Discussions on mental health care, physical hygiene and safety were prompted, to ensure that all members of the community are aware of these issues. Under the camp, our foundation conducted medical check-ups of students across 5 schools within Junnar.
We are literally going through a new revolution - the digital revolution. Slowly and steadily, we are revamping our education system, which till now seemed to have been stuck a few hundred years in the past. If we are going to be the teachers of new generations then we have to become proactive in learning these technologies. The best professional development can be provided through ongoing, experimental, collaborative, and connective ways of working; thus, through our "Road to Digitalisation," we hope that our training camp encourages teachers, students, and learning support staff to incorporate technology and our platform! Most of our schools and teachers are located in very remote areas, resulting in limited access to technology and the internet. As a result, they are unable to explore the ways that they can integrate technology into their school's system. In an attempt to overcome this barrier, a Training Session was organized. The training session was to ensure that teachers were more familiar with our platform and the Microsites offered to their schools. The training camp was aimed to be an interactive experience, that would not only ensure that the teachers left with greater confidence to use our portal to further support their students, but also to attain suggestions from the teachers that would guide us in constantly improving our portal (so that we can help the students out in the way that they need it).

A full-day training camp took place on the 10th February, 2018, where 24 Schools, 2 NGOs, 1 Volunteers and 1 Corporate Partner were present. The teachers helped in building and refining their school's microsites, and worked on understanding how to better integrate the resources into their teaching. It was an extremely successful day!

Why do you think education is necessary for all children? Any advice for them?
Education is a must for the betterment of society; education enables us to grow as human beings, and to understand the core of our existence. We recognize that we are merely one drop in this ocean of hope and possibility. This has inspired us to create Touch a Life, a platform that brings together similar drops, like ourselves, to come together and wash away the obstacles that prohibit children from fulfilling their potential – now, and for the years to come