Recognizing Women: Care for Others

CNEWA recognizes the contributions of women to our mission in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable throughout the world. Today, and for the rest of March, we are highlighting the stories of women in CNEWA’s world, as told in ONE magazine and on our blog through the years.

Today, we would like to introduce you to Sister Pushpam Francis Akkara, the school principal at Snehadeepthi Special School. The center cares for students with special needs, from ages 3 to 40. Learn more about the dedicated work of Sister Pushpam.

Below is an excerpt from ONE’s March 2022 story “‘Go and Do Likewise’ ”. The full article may be accessed here.

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…

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…

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.

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