Mango orchards line either side of the driveway to Snehadeepthi Special School, a facility for children with special needs. The air feels fresh and fragrant. Thousands of tiny mango flowers are in bloom. Tall coconut trees sway in the breeze.
Snehadeepthi is located on a sprawling eight-acre campus in Mannuthy, a small town known for its hundreds of garden centers and plant nurseries in the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Trichur in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.
Sister Pushpam Francis Akkara, the school principal, stands at the front door and waves to visitors as they approach. She has a warm smile. Aswin Prince, a 12-year-old student, is beside her. He has been living at Snehadeepthi since he was 6. His parents divorced and his mother supports him at the school. She visits when her job allows.
Aswin sings beautifully, but the lyrics have no connection with the tune because he cannot remember them.
“Most children at Snehadeepthi have intellectual disabilities, some have severe behavioral problems or are autistic,” says Sister Pushpam, a member of the Congregation of the Samaritan Sisters, which operates the school.
The congregation was founded by Father Paul Chittilapilly in 1961. He was teaching chemistry at a college in Thrissur, an economic hub in Kerala, when he saw the misery of those suffering from Hansen’s disease. Touched by their need, he established the Damien Leprosy Institute in Mulayam, outside Thrissur, to care for those with this disease. As the number of patients grew, he founded the Samaritan Sisters to assist with the mission.
The congregation’s motto is “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37) — the directives Jesus gives his disciples at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan — becoming messengers of Christ’s love.
Care for people with leprosy remains the main concern of the Samaritan Sisters. While the Indian government claims Hansen’s disease was eradicated in India in 2005, at least 120,000 new cases of the illness are reported in the country each year, accounting for nearly 60 percent of cases worldwide. The main reason for this ongoing infection rate is lack of awareness about the persistence of this disease, so early symptoms are often ignored. If caught early, however, Hansen’s disease can be treated and cured.
Sister Pushpam was caring for patients with Hansen’s disease in Dhanbad, a rapidly growing city in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, when she was called to return to Kerala in 1999 to help establish Snehadeepthi. The sisters had decided to extend their original mission to include care for other poor and marginalized populations.
Sister Pushpam has been at Snehadeepthi since it opened as a day school in 2000. Only two years later, it started a residential program to help meet the needs of the local community. The school also offers therapy sessions by appointment to children with special needs from the local community, to assist them in their development.
“Some parents had to work night shifts and had other children to take care of,” she says. “Or there were elderly grandparents at home, so it wasn’t possible for parents to give proper attention to a child with special needs.”
The school’s 155 students range in age from 3 to 40 years old. Of these, 90 are day students and 65 are residential. However, at the height of COVID-19, most of the residential students returned to their families. They only recently started trickling back to school.
“We follow COVID protocol strictly,” Sister Pushpam says. “But parents still worry. So, it’s fair that they stay home until mom and dad feel confident enough to send them back.”
“Everyone is struggling during COVID. It’s not just financial, but mental, emotional and spiritual as well,” she continues. “Life as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore.”
The school is served by six sisters and a 26-member staff, including teachers, therapists, drivers, helpers and a handyman.
“We also have dance and music teachers coming in every day because that’s an important part of what we offer here, and some children are talented dancers and singers,” says Sister Pushpam.
The majority of students are Hindu, with some Christians and Muslims. Tuition is free and parents contribute what they can toward the upkeep and maintenance of the school. Most parents are day laborers, though some are teachers or work in banks or offices.
The school day starts at 10 a.m. with an assembly that includes prayer, exercise and the recitation of India’s oath of allegiance. A student rounds up the day’s news, informing peers about what is happening in India and Kerala regarding COVID-19. Then, there is another routine of simple exercises, before the assembly concludes with the national anthem, and students go off to their respective assignments. Some go to class. Others go to therapy or to the vocation center, adjacent to the main school building.
“We felt the students needed not just to study, but to learn skills that would come in handy,” Sister Pushpam says.
The vocation center, which began in 2010, teaches students how to garden, arrange flowers, and make candles, paper bags and other simple objects. The sisters deposit money in a bank for students who do vocational work. Their families do not have access to these accounts to ensure students have exclusive funds for their personal needs, such as hospital visits, explains Sister Pushpam.
In one of the center’s workshops, Femi and other students make bouquets of artificial flowers. Her challenges are not obvious, but she has been at Snehadeepthi for six years. She is 22 years old.
For years, her father could not accept that his only child has autism. So, he would force Femi to do things he felt all “normal” children should do, such as study and take exams. More recently, he wanted her to get married. Femi’s mother, too, is autistic.
Femi’s aunt eventually enrolled her at Snehadeepthi. Her father has now come to understand she has special needs and is more empathetic toward her. Conversations with the Samaritan Sisters and other teachers have helped him come to terms with his daughter’s situation.
“The trouble of the heart is the same whether you’re rich or poor,” Sister Pushpam says. “My heart goes out to the parents, because the children … can’t comprehend their situation. But the parents come to me and cry, worrying about what will happen to their children, especially after they’ve passed.”
The sisters want to address this concern. When a student ages out of the institution, it is up to their family to find another place where they can spend the rest of their years. However, this can be a significant challenge.
Nixon Jose is 40. His parents died when he was younger. For years, he lived with his brother and attended Snehadeepthi as a day student. However, he enrolled in the residential program in 2016, after his brother was diagnosed with leukemia. His brother visits whenever his health allows. Nixon spends a lot of time at the vocation center, where he gardens and makes candles and paper plates.
“We do have plans to extend Snehadeepthi’s services,” says Sister Pushpam. “So, students who are already with us can stay until the end of their time, if that’s what their families want.”
In the main school building, as part of an occupational therapy session, Aswin Rajesh, 14, builds a model airplane with therapist Anjalo James. Aswin’s father is a day laborer and his mother just had a baby. They enrolled Aswin at the school as they feared he might harm the baby. Aswin is known to have pushed children in front of oncoming vehicles while out on a walk. However, due his intellectual disability, he does not realize the full consequences of his actions.
“The children here need more attention, care and patience,” says Mr. James, who completed his master’s degree in social work last year and started working at the school three months ago.
Mr. James says he has always wanted to work with children with special needs.
“They also deserve love and looking after,” he adds. “They’re affectionate children.”
Nearby, Ishita Chandrakant is working on her speech with therapist Nanda S. Chully. Ishita’s parents are migrant workers from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. She comes to the school by appointment two times per week for speech therapy. Her sister with autism, Rituja, lives at Snehadeepthi.
“I find my work fulfilling and satisfying. Being able to help children is what I’ve always wanted to do,” says Ms. Chully, who has been working at the school for a year.
The sense of fulfillment is precisely what has motivated Fermin Sunny to stay on at the school for more than three years. He is a handyman and ensures the school is secured at night, computers are switched off and teachers have what they need in their classrooms.
“I like working with children and playing with them,” he says. “They need respect and love just like the rest of us.”
Sister Pushpam shares her purpose for her life’s work. She recalls how her parents were opposed to her vocation, but her heart was set on becoming a religious sister.
“I had a dream once that I was flying in the sky looking down at this place, which had thousands of huts,” she says.
Her dream became reality years later, when she flew over Mumbai and saw vast slums on the ground below as the plane prepared to land.
“That’s when I knew Christ was showing me the way and becoming a nun to be of service to others was the right thing for me,” she says.
As with many of her sisters in religious life, she is multilingual and has worked in different parts of India with many people who have been abandoned by their families and who are in need of help. Through all this, it is her faith that keeps her grounded.
“I know Jesus is up there and it is he who has a plan for me to serve humanity. He gives me strength,” she says. “There has never ever been a time when I have doubted my faith in him.”
Sister Pushpam believes we need faith, not just in times of crisis or need, but at all times.
“Knowing that Christ is looking after us, that he cares, is so comforting,” she says. “You can lean on him, give your worries to him and believe what’s best for you will happen. It takes away all the stress.”
Then, she shares more about her students. So many come from poor or difficult family situations or from families overwhelmed by the children’s needs. For many students, the school serves as a safe haven.
Joyal came to Snehadeepthi at age 5. His parents are separated. His mother works as a nurse in New Zealand to support herself, Joyal and her aged parents, who had looked after Joyal when he was a toddler. Due to his special needs, Joyal is unable to chew his food. He also cannot be left unattended, as he runs and climbs without understanding the risks. Looking after Joyal became too difficult for his grandparents as they aged, so they turned to Snehadeepthi. Joyal is now 10 years old.
Sachu, 6, has been at Snehadeepthi for about three months. He has intellectual challenges. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a doctor, are going through a divorce. His twin sister lives with his mother. Sachu’s father suffers from mental illness, which his mother’s family was not told about before they married. Sister Pushpam says Sachu’s family situation is common.
“A lot of the time, families keep mental health problems a secret or keep the other family in the dark about things that aren’t all right. They believe marriage will solve all the problems or make things better, but it never does,” she says. “What we often see is that things only get worse with time.”
Sachu, however, is completely unaware of what is going on with his family. He has a care group to go to and he will enjoy coloring in class. He is excited about playing with crayons. That, to him, is the most important thing; it makes him happy.
Anubha George is a former BBC editor. She is a columnist and writer for various publications. She is based in Kerala, India.
The CNEWA Connection
CNEWA has long supported the Samaritan Sisters and their work among the most vulnerable. In addition to supporting the formation of novices through CNEWA’s novice sponsorship program, CNEWA provided the Snehadeepthi Special School last year with funding for therapeutic equipment, furniture and electrical work.
To learn more, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States).