From organising computer training camps for the visually impaired to convincing the head priest of Badrinath to pledge his eyes, Poonam Tyagi has always felt at home with social work.
Poonam Tyagi, a resident of Paradise Apartments in Sector 9, Dwarka, doesn't want a comfortable life or a cushy job. She wants her work to stir something in her, to make her want to change the status quo.
Which is why she quit her snug job as a computer teacher in Delhi Loreto Convent to do something for underprivileged kids and the visually impaired. Social work came naturally to her, as she was used to teaching maids at home or doing something that involved no self-interest.
She remembers, “I would always do these things as a kid, and as a teenager. I would spend a good part of my vacations teaching the poor. I was also a keen blood donor and never missed a chance to donate blood. In fact, I was quite thin and people would tease me about my propensity to land up at blood donation camps.”
Building the bridge
At present, Tyagi heads two NGOs — Setu and National Association for the Blind (NAB), Meerut. She also runs computer training centres for the blind for free and organises workshops to teach them how to use smart canes and Android phones. Her four centres have almost 100 kids now.
Poonam Tyagi imparts basic computer skills to the visually impaired
Setu, which means "bridge", happened in 2007. Tyagi’s chance reading of an article on eye donation in a Sri Lankan newspaper set the ball rolling. She says, “There are so many visually impaired people in India — it's impossible for every blind person to receive donor eyes, so the only solution is rehabilitation. Learning to work on the computer can open new opportunities for them.”
Fortunately, Tyagi had her husband's support, a retired colonel, and his pre-retirement training at IIM, Ahmedabad, helped the couple to financially manage Setu and NAB. Both the organisations are self-financed, though relatives and close friends contribute occasionally.
Life lessons learnt young
Tyagi grew up in an environment of social service — her mother would teach anybody willing to learn, be it the maid’s son or the vegetable vendor. Imparting education to others was a way of life around the house. Listening to stories of her grandfather's participation in India’s freedom struggle also left a lasting impression on her, forming the bedrock of her philanthropic nature.
The start of the journey
After coming to Delhi in 1994, Tyagi got involved with Safe Blood Organisation, an NGO that pioneered the creation of an electronic repository of blood donors. She received recognition for her work, and soon after plunged headlong into eye-donation campaigns.
She recalls, “I worked extensively in the field of eye donation, and even persuaded the head priest of Badrinath to pledge his eyes. I was selected as Volunteer of the Year in 2004-05 by Venu Eye Institute, a non-profit charitable organisation in Delhi.”
Where it began in Dwarka
Tyagi began looking for a place to teach blind children in Dwarka, and soon found space at Dada Dev Mandir, in Pallam Village. However, instead of teaching the blind, it became a primary teaching centre for slum children.
“The temple management gave us a big room to start our work," she says. "We were shifting in our stuff, when a few street children came to us looking for money and food. Somehow, the encounter left an impact on me and I decided to do something for them. So instead of computer classes for the blind, we started a primary teaching centre for kids. In fact, some of the senior children at Setu have been employed here to teach the basics.”