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A Place of Promise — and Providence

A special village for girls is changing lives in northern India

Sister Merly Kattuvally had a hard time giving her charge a haircut. The 13-year-old, who suffers from severe visual and hearing impairments, squealed, shook her head and flailed her limbs violently every time the scissors touched her hair. Two girls held the hands of the child, named Kiran, while sister went to work, slowly and gently. An hour later, she was finished.

“It was worth the trouble,” says Sister Merly, 57, under the shade of guava trees in her convent’s backyard. “She is our treasure and blessing.”

Despite Kiran’s tantrums, Sister Merly’s voice rings with good cheer.

“She has shown great improvement from the time she came to us eight years ago.”

The haircut marks one more small triumph for a place that witnesses them daily. Administered by the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Mary’s Children’s Home specializes in care for the blind. It is one of the many initiatives that comprise a complex: San Joe Puram Children’s Village, sponsored by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Faridabad. San Joe Puram enables children with special needs to learn and grow together with other children.

“She was like a lump of flesh,” Sister Merly recalls of Kiran’s arrival. “She had no reaction to anything. She would just sit in one place or crawl all over, whatever the time.” Since then, many sleepless nights have been spent attending to the girl. But after years of constant care, Kiran now responds when her name is called or when music is played.

“She also makes the sign of cross,” adds sister, who acts as both the superior of St. Mary’s and vice principal of Infant Jesus Senior Secondary School, which is also a part of San Joe Puram.

Such progress, slow but steady, has prompted Sister Merly to compare Kiran to Helen Keller — an American woman who, despite being born blind and deaf, became a world-renowned author and lecturer. In a larger sense, however, Kiran represents more than one girl’s triumph over adversity; she also symbolizes a quiet revolution San Joe Puram has triggered among women in underserved villages of the state of Haryana, in northern India.

Whether she realizes it or not, Kiran is a sign of promise and possibility.

Msgr. Sebastian Vadakkumpadan, San Joe Puram’s founder and director, believes Providence brought him to Chandpur, a sleepy village in the Faridabad district of Haryana.

“Chandpur is 52 kilometers [about 30 miles] south of central Delhi, but it is more than half a century behind in every aspect,” remarks the 73-year-old priest, who now serves as vicar general of the eparchy.

A native of the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, the priest came to Delhi in the early 1990’s to serve Syro-Malabar Catholics leaving Kerala in search of work in the capital. Charged with the belief that service to those in need is as much a part of pastoral care as celebrating the sacraments, he opened a school for children with special needs.

“I had seen many families hiding their disabled children from the public. I wanted to bring those children into the mainstream.”

Msgr. Vadakkumpadan founded an organization and named it after his favorite saint, St. Joseph. He planned the school within Delhi, originally buying 18 acres of land.

“Before signing the papers I had prayed to St. Joseph to allow the deal to go through only if it was God’s will,” he says. “The deal went through and we seriously set about opening the school.”

The plan stalled two years later when the government informed the priest that he could not undertake any construction.

“Many said the money had gone down the drain. But I was sure St. Joseph would not let me down.”

After selling the property for twice the amount he had paid, the priest scouted for a larger plot in an area without the zoning restrictions that had halted the project’s progress. The search ended at Chandpur.

Meanwhile, Msgr. Vadakkumpadan contacted 28 superiors of various congregations of women religious in the Syro-Malabar Church asking for help. Ten responded, offering personnel and funds.

In 1996, San Joe Puram Children’s Village opened on a 27-acre plot. Its many homes shelter 106 girls with any number of special needs, including visual and hearing impairments; cerebral palsy or other developmental disorders; orphans; children of prisoners; and those who face other emotional or physical challenges. Now directed by the Rev. Sebastian Theckanath, the village is run by 36 sisters from 6 different congregations providing for the children’s needs.

At the heart of the village is a grotto dedicated to the patronal saint. “Coming to Chandpur was indeed a blessing from St. Joseph,” Msgr. Vadakkumpadan says.

Huddled around the grotto, stand Infant Jesus School, where some 1,300 children, including 100 girls from San Joe Puram, study, and the various houses for the children with special needs. Shaded by fruit trees and flowers, each house is entrusted to the respective congregations of sisters who support the village.

Sacred Heart Home shelters orphaned girls from the ages 3 to 18 under the loving guidance of four members of the Sacred Heart Sisters. The Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament care for hearing and speech impaired children at a home named Jeevandhara, or “flow of life.” Franciscan Clarist sisters work with developmentally and physically challenged girls at Vinayalaya, the “house of humility,” and another home named Rani Sadan, or “house of Rani.” India’s first community of women religious, the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, run Chavara Sadan Girls’ Hostel, which provides a loving environment for children whose parents work farther afield.

The main complex also includes Bathsaida Hospital, which attends to the health needs of the children as well as people from surrounding villages.

An annex a few miles away is the site of San Joe Bhawan, a new facility staffed by the Preshitharam Sisters for women of 18 years and older in need of rehabilitative therapy. The Infant Jesus Kindergarten and a vocational training center are also nearby.

Father Vadakkumpadan believes San Joe Puram is one of the few institutions in India that offers an inclusive education — offering women with special needs opportunities to integrate eventually into the mainstream — and become agents of change and development. His goal is ambitious: San Joe Puram strives to free society from the bondage of caste and race and create an India where empowered rural women can become policy makers.

Such goals may sound utopian in a state such as Haryana, which has some 25 million people. According to the latest census data, from 2011, the state has just 879 women for every 1,000 men — the lowest such ratio in India, where the national average is 943.

Some activists point to the murder of infant girls for such low numbers. Father Vadakkumpadan described how one nun working as a nurse in a village dispensary saved an infant girl.

“The child’s grandmother took the baby in her hands and pretended to show affection. But as she was about to put the child down she tried to hit its head on a table. The alert sister held her hand underneath,” he says, adding that the sister told the woman she would adopt the child.

Sister Mancy Marotty, a member of the Kerala-based Preshitharam Sisters who serves San Joe Puram as a social worker, says many villagers consider daughters a burden as society requires the provision of a dowry at marriage. Women are also largely illiterate and confined, treated by their fathers and husbands as inferiors.

“They appear with faces covered even before the male members in the family. They need men’s approval to do anything,” says Sister Mancy.

While the literacy rate for men in Haryana is 86 percent, only 57 percent of women can read and write. The state also has the lowest enrollment of girls in school and the highest female dropout rate in India.

Father Theckanath says that he and the sisters have set out to counter this mindset by forming self-help groups for women.

“We realized real change would come only through women. If women are educated they will improve the family and encourage a daughter’s education.”

Over the past 18 years, San Joe Puram has managed to reach out to 20 surrounding villages and start more than 150 self-help groups. Linto Joseph, a social worker with San Joe Puram, claims such intervention has helped bridge the gaps in literacy and gender in those villages.

“Our works have created a desire among girls to learn more.” Yet, he says, it will take more time to embolden women to assert their full equality.

When Infant Jesus School first opened, only a few girls from the villages enrolled. Now, girls make up more than one third of the external students.

“People’s reluctance to spend money on a daughter’s education is slowly waning,” Mr. Joseph says.

The villages have also witnessed a revolution in sanitation. A lack of bathrooms leaves women vulnerable to sexual assault. Volunteers from San Joe Puram encouraged the women of one village to take charge, traveling with them to apply for funds for more modern facilities. “The result: permission for 78 new toilets,” says Mr. Joseph.

Volunteers have also helped to install hand pumps in 17 villages to combat water shortages, started outreach programs for girls who have dropped out of school, and provided bicycles to girls who live far from school.

Such initiaves are lauded by men as well as women: Kanwar Virender Singh Bhati, head of Faizpur Khader village, praised San Joe Puram for helping to open his region to a different way of thinking.

“Nobody has done as much as San Joe Puram has done for us,” says the 44-year-old lawyer, who has been associated with San Joe Puram since 1997. “They have worked for education, development, agriculture, cleanliness. We want our people and the country to progress in this pattern.”

As with the adults, important changes are visible among the San Joe Puram children, residents as well as village children attending the school. Diksha Sharma, a ninth grader, says the San Joe Puram children have made her more responsible and sensitive to others.

“I am happy to study in a school that gives equal opportunities to all.” Her father was so impressed with Infant Jesus School that he has encouraged other villagers to send their daughters there.

Bhanu Prakash, a tenth grader, says it goes beyond textbooks.

“The sisters give us more than book knowledge. They make us look at our society with different eyes.”

One such insight was to think less about caste division.

“I do not find any caste superior or inferior. I don’t bother about the caste of the one who sits near me in the class,” Bhanu says.

This is an important step, according to Linto Joseph. “People live in joint families and fiercely cling to their caste identity,” he says, noting that Haryana often has reports of “honor killings” — a euphemism for parents or relatives killing young family members who dare to marry outside their caste.

As with Diksha, Bhanu says life among the San Joe Puram children has given him a desire to help others. Both he and Diksha dote on Uma, a visually impaired girl in the tenth grade.

“Uma sings and studies well. We never consider her ‘blind,’ ” Bhanu says. He recalls Uma going on rides with them at a class picnic. “Most children were terrified and screaming, but Uma was cool. She is more courageous than us.”

Diksha was thrilled when she was asked to take notes for Uma. “We have become close friends,” she says.

Carmelite Sister Nancy George, the principal, is happy to see such developments among her students. She says village students vie with each other to help the children who reside at St. Joe Puram — they push wheelchairs, carry school bags and guide the visually impaired to various places in the school. The result, she believes, could help transform her country.

“We are creating a new generation that is sensitive and caring.”

Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.

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