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27 Apr, 2009 08:04

Helping Delhi's 'untouchable' child beggars

Hardly anyone is willing to help Indian child beggars, or wants to touch them, but a group of volunteers goes into the streets of Delhi to make these children feel wanted.

A large city can be cruel to children who are dirty, half naked, begging, and grow up on the streets as 'untouchables.'

People may part with money to feed, clothe, or educate them, but nobody seems to want to touch them.

And if they do happen to touch some of the well-heeled, the consequences can be severe.

Former street child Pintu Kumar says “I used to have many friends who used to also beg. If we ever even touched anyone, they would get very angry, and tell us that they would complain to the police. Sometimes complaints were made with the Police, and the Police used to beat us.”

To make the children feel wanted, and ease the pain of being shunned, a group of volunteers, called 'Catalyst,' come together every Saturday afternoon, and play with these street kids.

They believe they're fulfilling an important emotional gap that other charities have overlooked.

“It is highly important, highly significant, that children receive touch,” says volunteer Heather Pechtel, who is a professional baker. “It builds their self-esteem; it lets them know that they are loved, and that gives them the courage to follow an example of an older adult into a better life.”

Pintu Kumar is one success story. After a few years, he gained the courage to get training, and is now working in a bakery. He now takes time out as a volunteer himself.

But one of the organization's challenges is to find more willing to help out.

Playing with the children is a barrier that most find difficult to overcome.

“They get the feeling as if some dirt has come, and got stuck on their clothes,” Kumar says.

Strict laws aim to protect children from pedophiles, and physical contact with a child in the absence of a parent could lead to criminal charges.

'Catalyst' ensures meetings take place in public, and safeguards are in place for the volunteers and the children.

“We still need to be careful about these children because some people might take advantage of them being vulnerable,” says the director of 'Catalyst,' Abhishek Gier.

“So we have a child protection policy, which we share with all the volunteers who come with us, so that they know what are their limits and boundaries.”

Heather Pechtel says not just the children benefit. “You don’t need to speak Hindi perfectly, or you don’t need to be able to relate to them on their level as children perfectly, you just need to interact with them, and show them love and specialness; and it’s always beautiful to walk in, and know that they want to be with you, too.”

Catalysts say that children, irrespective of background, want affection and time, not money.