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Kerala’s House of Hope

Sisters in Kerala nurture children with special needs

In early June, the beginning of the academic year in India, a school in the state of Kerala buzzed with uncommon excitement. A student, Jijomon Mathai, had been selected to participate in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

The 18-year-old young man from a remote village in the southwestern Indian state would go on to join some 7,000 athletes with special needs from around the world in Los Angeles. There, he would compete before an international audience.

“We are very excited Jijomon was selected for the Indian volleyball team,” said Sacred Heart Sister Elsa Tom Karakatt, principal of the school known as Ashabhavan, the “House of Hope” in Malayalam and Hindi, the local languages.

The school now holds Jijomon as a model of what children with special needs can achieve, given proper care and support.

Through this initiative in Nedumkandam, a village in Kerala’s Idukki province, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart have been serving children with special needs since 1994. A religious community of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, they offer a loving environment to children with autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities.

Jijomon came to the school in 2006, the same year Sister Elsa took over as principal.

“He was a tiny, malnourished child,” she recounted. “Because of his learning disability, he was almost like a vegetable, and could hardly eat his food.”

Over nine years, he has learned to excel in all activities, from basic education to singing, dancing and games.

The lives of many children have improved greatly after coming to Ashabhavan, said K. K. Jayachandran, a Kerala legislator and an associate of the school for the past 15 years. He attributed this success to the care and attention the sisters and their lay colleagues give to each student.

“Generally, our society does not care much for such children,” the Hindu assemblyman said, also commending Ashabhavan for serving people of all creeds.

Another Ashabhavan associate, Thomas Ramapurath, said parents often hide disabled children from the public, to spare themselves and their other children stigmatization. Or, in some cases, parents choose to ignore their child’s special needs.

“Some parents consider it a shame to send these children to institutions such as Ashabhavan. They are sent to public schools that are not equipped to help them,” explained the retired bank manager, the first chairperson of Ashabhavan’s governing body.

Over the years, both Mr. Ramapurath and Mr. Jayachandran have observed improvements in these social attitudes, which they attribute to Ashabhavan’s public outreach efforts.

Ashabhavan is one of about 300 special educational schools in Kerala. According to the 2011 census, about 762,000 of Kerala’s 33.4 million people suffer with disabilities. Throughout the subcontinent, most live in rural areas.

According to Sister Elsa, who served as secretary of the All Kerala Special Schools Association for nine years, church groups manage nearly 75 percent of schools catering to children with special needs. Of the 11 such institutions in Idukki, all but one are church-based, she said.

Ashabhavan, added the 49-year-old sister, strives to teach self-reliance. Its curriculum runs the gamut from daily necessities such as hygiene and grooming to vocational skills, such as candle making, tailoring and other useful arts and crafts.

Through practical, patient lessons and a nurturing environment, Ashabhavan’s Sacred Heart Sisters are helping some of India’s most vulnerable young people achieve a better life.

From its humble roots — little more than two rooms inside an orphanage for girls attached to the convent — the school has grown by leaps and bounds.

It began with the pioneering efforts of sisters in Thodupuzha, 50 miles west of Nedumkandam. As more children arrived from distant villages in Idukki, a larger facility became necessary, Sister Elsa said.

Idukki, Kerala’s second largest district, covers 1,729 square miles of rugged mountains, crisscrossed with serpentine roads through massive tea and cardamom estates that employ hundreds of thousands of people. The district is also home to thousands of small-scale farmers owning fewer than five acres of land.

Sister Elsa said they came to Nedumkandam because of a bank manager — the father of an autistic boy — who was so impressed with their work in Thodupuzha, he hoped to bring a similar institution in his own village. His son was among the first students at Ashabhavan.

By 2000, Ashabhavan enrolled some 25 children, still growing in number and age. Soon, limited space became a problem, and the sisters pressed their superiors to erect a separate building. Their request was granted in 2002.

Ashabhavan now comprises two buildings connected by a corridor. An L-shaped three-story building houses the principal’s office, faculty room, dormitories and classrooms for both academic and vocational training. The other, a two-story building, contains a kitchen and dining hall, with additional classrooms and therapy centers on the second floor.

In its 21 years, Ashabhavan has cared for 255 children. Currently, the facility hosts 68 boys and 55 girls from various villages in Idukki. Among them, 67 are Christian, 51 are Hindu and 5 are Muslim. With few exceptions, Sister Elsa said, the students in Ashabhavan come from poor families.

The home’s staff boasts 31 teachers, including six sisters. Some of Ashabhavan’s senior students work as helpers — such as Simi Saji, who sells candles and other student crafts at a shop near the village’s main road.

“All of them are trained and committed,” said Mr. Ramapurath. “The sisters not only feed the children with their own hands, but eat from the same plate. No one [else] can show such love and affection to these children.”

The Syro-Malabar Catholic added that he chose to begin working with the sisters after being impressed by their sincerity and transparency. He has also encouraged his bank to join the local Lions Club to celebrate Onam, Kerala’s harvest festival, with the Ashabhavan children for several years running.

One of the sisters at the school, Sister Jincy Paul, said she deliberately chose to work with children with special needs.

“It is easier to teach able children. But few people are willing to care for these children, to love them,” she said. Sister Jincy had pursued a two-year diploma in special education to prepare for her role at Ashabhavan. A teacher must be patient, she added, and adjust expectations to suit individual ability levels.

Georgekutty Nidiyedathukunnel, who joined the Ashabhavan staff as physical trainer and sports teacher a year ago, said the school’s comprehensive program has changed the children.

“Introverted children have come out of their shell and bloomed,” he said. And, he added, Jijomon’s selection to the Olympic team has injected a new spirit in the school.

Sister Elsa also gave credit to another contributor to the school’s success: the State Council of Educational Research and Training of Kerala, an autonomous government body that researches methods and policies to improve education quality. By keeping its program current, Ashabhavan can offer the most to its students.

In March, the school opened a secondary center in Rajakkad, about 15 miles north of Nedumkandam, to answer increasing requests for help from nearby villages.

Ambily Kavumattom, the lead instructor in Rajakkad, said around 40 children came to them in the first three months.

Mrs. Kavumattom, who surveyed the villages as part of her earlier work with the government, estimated about a quarter of children born in those villages suffer from various kinds of disabilities. She suspected pesticides, such as endosulfan, lay at the root of this trend. Though the chemical was banned in Kerala in 2002 — and worldwide in 2011 — for its high toxicity and link to birth defects, some recent studies have still found residue in soil samples, likely due to decades of aerial spraying and, as some have suggested, lax enforcement.

At the beginning of the school year, Navin Binoy stepped through the gate of the main campus, holding his mother’s hand. At the entrance, he left her side and walked up the steps to greet a teacher. When his mother left, tears trickled down his cheeks, but he remained composed. By the next morning, his spirit was restored, and he happily participated in school activities.

Beena Binoy said Navin, eldest of her four children, has shown great improvement since coming to Ashabhavan.

“Earlier, he would not talk and looked lost.” In two years, she said, he has grown more responsive and alert.

Gifto Bobby, 12, has been coming to the school for the past five years. His mother, Solly, said he has become talkative and active after going to the school. Gifto was first diagnosed with a learning disability at only 18 months old.

“I was sad in the beginning,” she said, “but I consider him my biggest blessing.”

Sister Jincy’s family members had been upset when they learned of her decision to work with special-needs children. However, their attitude changed after meeting Jijomon and his younger sister, Nisha, who also attends the school.

“Now my family members come here to request the children to pray for them,” she said.

Though Sister Jincy admitted she had been nervous at first, she has also grown, leaving behind fears and reservations, noting: “I cannot think of life without them.”

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

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