SSSK was set up in 1998 by two students, Johnny Glennie and Ben Phillips based on their direct experience of working with street children.
Ben and Johnny went to Kolkata, India, during a university summer vac back in 1997, to work as volunteers for an organisation there called OFFER, working with street children. They were impressed by the activities and by the staff they met – committed teachers, health professionals and co-ordinators, who provided non-formal education, play time, medical help and protection from harassment. The organisation worked on a very limited budget from a small office, and with a few centres that appeared no more glamorous than the slums around them. The staff were mostly from the areas they worked in – so there was no ‘us and them’ between workers and the street children.
Ben and Johnny were also impressed by the children, amongst whom were an eight year old girl acting as parent to her younger siblings, and a twelve year old boy who was outside the undergound station every morning selling ‘natural toothbrushes’ (sticks) to earn enough to pay for his books and uniform for school.
Alongside this resourcefulness and resilience, the two students were a sorry sight. Failing to comprehend that the garlands they had been presented with were to be placed on a picture of Nehru, India’s founding father, they tried to put them on as if at a Hawaiian disco. Advised to master the basics of Bengali, they left with just two phrases between them which were ‘Stomach trouble’ and ‘I don’t speak Bengali’. When they went to stay in a village they told some children who had been playing in the lake that they must now go and wash. The kids went straight back in the lake – the place everyone washed. When the students left India, a hundred new people could sing “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” but the hardships faced by the street children were still extreme, and the work being done to help them realise their potential was still essential.
As a result of their experiences, Ben and Johnny realised that the truth was, and is, that the most important contribution that people in the UK can make is: • to support local organisations who can best meet local needs; and • to raise awareness about (and try to change) the systems which perpetuate poverty and exclusion that result in children having to live or work ‘on the streets’.