Shipla Joy helps with homework at the children’s home administered by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. (photo: Don Duncan)
Ms. Joy provides physical therapy to youth at the Home of Peace. (photo: Don Duncan)
Dr. Deepa Sasidharan parks his motorcycle outside the offices of Calicut Medical College. (photo: Don Duncan)
Ms. Narayanan visits the current residents of St. Mary’s Children’s Home. (photo: Don Duncan)
Ms. Joy acts as a role model to the children in her former home. (photo: Don Duncan)
Shipla Joy, Devika Narayanan and Deepu Sasidharan are three very different people.
They hail from different parts of Kerala, a state in southwestern India, and from different family backgrounds. They have different interests and pursue different callings. Yet these young adults share something in common: their needs as children and students were attended to in child care initiatives of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
“I had to leave home because my father was an alcoholic,” says 22-year-old Shipla Joy from the town of Mundakayam, in southern Kerala. To shield her from abuse and violence, at the age of 12 she was brought to a nearby children’s home run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
When Divika Narayanan’s father died of a heart attack, her mother wanted to be closer to her own family for support. She moved the whole family from their home in Wayanad in northern Kerala to Cochin, the economic capital of the state, where Divika, now 25, entered St. Mary’s Children’s Home and Girls’ School at age 11.
Deepu Sasidharan’s father abandoned his family when the 29-year-old Deepu was only 4. Unable to support them on her own, his mother was forced to place her children in the care of institutions. Young Deepu entered a home called St. Peter’s Sneha Bhavan in his native city of Attappadi in central Kerala.
Each of the three remembers the transition from family to institution as painful, but each also describes a fast period of adaptation, in which a secondary family structure — one cultivated by religious sisters — took form around them, comforting them.
“I was the youngest person at the children’s home when I arrived there,” says the young man. “But I soon realized that on top of my real mother, outside, there was a woman who was my mother at the home. I called her ‘mom’ too. She was a layperson who took care of me all this time. She gave me love and care when I needed it most.”
For Ms. Narayanan, her surrogate mother figure came in the form of Annie Augustine, who was raised by sisters after being abandoned. She grew up at the same home, and remained there afterward.
“She took care of me. She spoiled me,” Ms. Narayanan remembers with a laugh. “She has a very loving nature.”
The weight of social ills often falls heaviest upon the youngest. India, a nation of about 1.27 billion people, contains more than 400 million children. India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 estimated some 69 percent of children faced physical abuse either inside or outside of their family environment. Millions work as laborers and tens of thousands are victims of trafficking yearly. Poverty and malnutrition remain common at all ages; according to one study, in 2009, three out of four people in India could not consume enough food to obtain an average of 2,200 calories daily.
In Kerala, church groups and nongovernmental organizations have come to provide the lion’s share of initiatives to support at-risk children. The state itself runs just 25 homes for children either abandoned or removed from their homes by social services. Yet church and NGO sectors run more than 1,100 child care programs, many of them in the form of homes and boarding schools.
Through these efforts, many of Kerala’s most vulnerable have found their lifelines — often, one wearing a habit and a smile.
School years are a period of intense change and transformation. In this formative time, the ravages of addiction, premature death and abandonment can irrevocably alter the course of a young life for the worse. Yet today, the three young adults once entrusted to the care of sisters lead healthy, prosperous lives. Each has achieved a high level of education, earning a university degree. Shilpa Joy works as a rehabilitation therapist, specializing in speech and physiotherapy. Divika Narayanan has completed law school and is awaiting full licensure as a lawyer. Deepu Sasidharan is a doctor, currently completing his residency.
Most importantly, they are happy and well-adjusted adults.
The Rev. Aji Aikkara, director of the Cherupushpalayam Children’s Home in the city of Palakkad in central Kerala, which cares for 12 boys and 16 girls, says the formative years are critical.
“The children cultivate a positive outlook on life while at the home,” he explains. “They become very efficient at getting things done and develop a high level of adaptability which serves them well later in life.”
“At the children’s home, we all had housework and tasks to do,” says Dr. Sasidharan. “It was a great training in hard work and discipline. I could see later, when I had to put in very long hours on the wards during medical training, that I had no problem stepping up to the challenge.”
The young man now lives in Calicut, a large coastal city toward the north of the state. After completing his high school diploma at St. Peter’s Sneha Bhavan, he was accepted into the Calicut Medical College. He graduated with his Bachelor of Medicine degree in 2012, and now works toward the status of M.D. He will complete his program this year.
Dr. Sasidharan commutes on a slick motorcycle, a useful vehicle for skirting the gridlock that plagues Calicut, especially at rush hour.
He carefully weaves through the traffic, finally turning off the road and driving through tall, wide gates with “Calicut Medical College” written in a large arch above them. The campus — the largest medical school in the state — is a verdant haven in an otherwise hectic city.
After parking, he skips up the stairs into one of the campus’s imposing buildings, breezes past a bust of Hippocrates in the lobby and makes his way to the wards, where he practices medicine under supervision.
Meanwhile, in Cochin, about four hours south along the coast from Calicut, Divika Narayanan is taking a lunch break from her job at Axis Bank, one of Kerala’s larger consumer banks.
“I’ve been working here for about three months while I await my final results from law school,” she says, enjoying a brief respite in the early-afternoon sun. Ms. Narayanan has no doubt that she made the cut; it is only a matter of time — a waiting game. In the meantime, she has taken a job at the bank so she can save money and support her mother.
Although the bank job is a useful interlude, her path to law extends back to her earliest years, before the death of her father.
“My father was a legal advisor,” she says, “so he inspired me to enter this field. My mother has been very encouraging, too.”
Shilpa Joy’s job as a therapist requires her to deal with many people every day, something she would never have imagined when she arrived at the sisters’ doorstep, a child escaping a violent home plagued by alcoholism.
“At the children’s home, I learned to adapt, live and work with many different kinds of personalities. I came to understand other people and see how the many other children are. Living with these different types of people helped me to get out of my childhood introversion,” she says.
Recently, Ms. Joy started a new job at the Home of Peace — a center dedicated to children with disabilities, run by the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy — a stone’s throw away from her home with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Indeed, the sisters have welcomed her to live with them once more, temporarily, as she searches for an apartment.
At work in the Home of Peace, Ms. Joy makes use of all her professional skills, providing physical and speech therapy. She also has to adapt constantly to the very specific and sometimes acute needs of the children at the home.
In the home’s physical therapy room, a sort of gym adapted to special needs, one boy works on his balance by sitting on a large ball. Another boy, who wears a prosthetic lower leg, practices walking on the treadmill. At a nearby table, Ms. Joy performs stretches and exercises with another boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.
“Now, I can cope with all kinds of personalities or with difficult people or situations. I have learned, at the children’s home, how to cope with such things.”
After work, she goes back to her accommodations with the sisters. There, she serves as a sort of role model and counselor to the children in the home. She helps the girls with their homework and she urges them to strive for great things.
“I try to share my own experience with them,” the young woman says. “It is a way of trying to motivate them to go further, to study further and to have a happy, fulfilled life.”
All three graduates of these child care initiatives of the church have a striking sense of civic duty. Being from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and seeing the transformative, empowering effects of a stable upbringing and a good education, they have each become staunch advocates of social justice and charitable works. Each has a keen wish to “give back” and to help those in need.
“They are brought up and educated in a Christian atmosphere, to be socially-committed citizens,” says Father Aikkara, the children’s home director in Palakkad. “They develop a spirit of sharing and concern for others and a sense of responsibility, because at the children’s home, they imbibe values such as truth, justice, loyalty, trustworthiness and forgiveness.”
“I will practice under a senior lawyer once I get my final law school result, but my ultimate plan is to help the poor with my skills as a lawyer,” says Ms. Narayanan.
“My mother had a legal problem in the past. It was a family issue and it was brought to family court. She couldn’t afford legal counsel at the time and it was very hard for us. So, now I am very aware of the legal needs of the poor and I will work pro bono for them.”
Poverty and the hardships of the poor are likewise never far from Ms. Joy’s thoughts.
“I pursued my specialty because I wanted to help the vulnerable in society,” she says of her choice to become a therapist. “I came from a home that had many domestic problems and so, when it came to deciding a career path, it was important for me to do something that could help people who are in situations like the one I was in as a child.”
For his part, Dr. Sasidharan formalized his wish to give something back by creating a charity to promote education among Kerala’s Adivasi, a term that describes India’s indigenous populations. Most are poorly educated and remain illiterate.
“What I have achieved so far in my life is completely thanks to education. I was so lucky it was made available to me,” Dr. Sasidharan says during a break, “so I want to do what I can to extend that to those who need it among the tribal people.”
And so, in 2015, he established a foundation called Helping Attapadi for Proper Yield (HAPY). The initiative seeks to help disadvantaged youth in Dr. Sasidharan’s native region of Attapadi, with special focus on its Adivasi residents. He does not belong to an indigenous community, but by growing up in Attapadi he was exposed daily to — and touched by — the plight of the area’s Adivasi.
The idea for HAPY came from the experience the future doctor had at age 11, when he won a scholarship that covered the cost of his final two years of high school. Awarded on the basis of both academic merit and financial need, it enabled him to leave St. Peter’s Sneha Bhavan and live at home with his mother during his final years of secondary education.
In its first phase, HAPY offers university scholarships to disadvantaged youth who show academic merit and financial need.
“For now, we choose two people a year,” he says. “One of the awards will be funded entirely by me because now I am earning well as a doctor and this is within my means. The other award will be funded by a combination of donors drawn from my professional network.”
He plans to expand HAPY from two annual scholarships to more, but also to begin awareness-raising work in tribal communities to convince parents of the value and power of education for their children.
In tandem with HAPY, Dr. Sasidharan’s clinical focus is also geared toward helping Adivasi. He plans to concentrate his research on sickle cell disease, a genetic blood cell abnormality that affects tribal people disproportionately.
“We have to counsel people before marriage,” he says. Genetic screening, he adds, “is the only way medicine has of controlling the disease right now.”
Deepu Sasidharan, Devika Narayanan and Shipla Joy not only stand as living, breathing testaments to the good works of more than 1,000 church-run children’s programs across Kerala — they also speak to the power of love and education. The fact that they have all developed into adults who want to help others attests to the truism that love begets love.
“When I finished school, I had nothing in my hand,” says Dr. Sasidharan. “But what I did have was this very special upbringing and the confidence I gained from the love and care I got at the children’s home. Since my youth, that was the energy behind my drive and it is this kind of strength and belief that I want to pass on to those children who now desperately need it.”
A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.