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Iyyappan

Giggles and laughter welcomed us at Sri Arunodayam. A group of about 10 children aged between 3 and 8 were seated in a circle reciting rhymes under Bharati’s guidance. A silent group in the next room was undergoing physiotherapy.
Arunodayam is a home for homeless mentally challenged children in Chennai. It was started by Mr. Iyyapan, a student of CSIM. Affected by the loss of his own brother who was mentally challenged, Mr Iyappan started a home exclusively for these children. He started with one child in 2003 and now has over 80 children.

Children are referred by the Government – Child help line. While most of the children have been abandoned by their parents, some have lost their way from home. Sri Arunodayam attempts to reunite such children with their families.

On seeing us, the excited children wanted to play with us. We took about four children for a stroll in the campus. Anu wanted me to carry her and Sunithi, who was at first shy, insisted that I carry her too. Both were clinging to each other. Probably it was the commonness that has brought them together. Both Anu and Sunithi were surrendered by their mothers to the government as they could not afford to take care of their challenged child. While Sunithi was the fourth child for her parents, Anu was born to an unmarried mother. Anu was very cheerful and wanted to sit on my lap when I spoke to her. It was a wonderful feeling to be cuddled by these innocent children who were unaware of the emotions they churned in me.

“Johny Johny…Johny..” said Saravanan. I did not realize that he was trying the recite the popular rhyme until Chitra, the Administrator of Sri Arunodayam, mentioned this to me. “He was a bed-ridden child when he came here. Now, he is independent. He selects his clothes he wishes to wear each day and likes to watch television and dance too”, beamed Chitra, with a glow in her eyes. “Mukthi was found along with her mother who is mentally ill. Her mother is undergoing psychiatry treatment at Banyan and once she recovers, she will take custody of the child,” says Thilak, psychologist at Sri Arunodayam.

Ankith enjoyed being photographed and kept combing his hair frequently. He was talkative and curious to learn what was written about him when I was going through his file. ‘Child line’ had found him stranded at the Central Railway Station and referred him to Sri Arunodayam in the year 2004. “I used to beg along with my brother in Punjab. One day, we returned home late and I got severely beaten up by our father. As we could not bear the pain, we left our home. My brother left me in a train and got off at a railway station. I was found alone by an old lady, who took me and sent me here. I want to grow up and work in office like Anna ”, he said pointing towards Iyyappan – the founder of Sri Arunodayam.

“After undergoing counseling and treatment, Ankith is like any other normal child. We plan to admit him in a residential school for normal children,” said Iyyappan. Ramjani, who does not remember how he came to Chennai, kept repeating my name. I wondered if there was someone in his family who shared the same name and asked him. He did not have an answer. All he could say was, “I come from Meerut which is far away from here.”

Most of the children are active and are able to take care of themselves. The children are provided physiotherapy, counseling, speech therapy and medical care. “Each child is unique. We struggled to meet the needs of the children and provide them with individual attention. Now, with the support of the community we are able to manage all these needs effectively”, says Iyyappan.

There is one common reason why all these children are here with Iyyappan – some of these children cannot perform the simplest of tasks that we all seem to take for granted. Simple things like walking straight, eating or going to the toilet. A great amount of patience and tolerance is required to supervise and handle such children. I wondered how Iyappan and his team of caregivers made it all sound so easy!

I came away with the sound of giggles in my ears, and a sense of awe.

Questions and Answers:

Most challenging task?

Each child has specificneeds to be addressed. It was a challenge to provide individual care. Out of 8 special educators, that were required for 30 children,we could provide only 5. We depended mostly on individual donations and so could not afford to meet the expenses.

Do you have enough support from the government/society?

We have support from the government, but this is not sufficient. The community support is overwhelming. It is because of this, we are able to take care of these children and provide them with therapy, education and make them independant.

What is your feel about mothers who abandon their children?

In reality, it is the mother who abandons a child. This is either due to poverty or due to the father or family not supporting her to raise the child. This is escaping from responsibilities, which is wrong.

Don’t you feel stressed doing the work here? If yes, how do you manage?

Yes, I do feel stressed. At such times, I visit a temple and meditate. Also I go to my farm, plant trees and spend time with the children here.

What will you do when the girls grow up?

We are presently constructing a premise to house the Pre-Primary children. We have purchased land with the support of donors and plan to construct a building within the next three years. This will be an ‘Aftercare’ home and will take care of the girls when they grow up.

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Gowdhaman

Saturday is busier than any weekday for Gowdhaman, who works as Systems Analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland. This is because he travels to Arunavoyal village—about 42 kilometers from Chennai —to teach children spoken English and extra-curricular activities every Saturday.

Gowdhaman is engaged in social work along with his former colleagues Madeena and Leelavathy, for over three years. While he was working for William’s League, it was an email that triggered the volunteering spirit in him.

“We received an appeal to support the educational expenses of Arjun, the son of a housekeeping staff Mr. Srinivasan. We learnt that Arjun stood first in class and his family could not afford his educational expenses. I volunteered to fundraise for him and mobilised Rs. 3000 from my fellow staff and remitted the fees on time. A copy of the bill was shared with the donors via email and this encouraged me to help more children and offer my services to the society.”

“On another occasion, a visually impaired person wanted to pursue her teacher training but could not afford Rs. 15,000 as fees. I mailed an appeal to my contacts in India as well as abroad and mobilised the funds. This incident made me realise that everyone wants to extend their support for a good cause, but do not know how. There were two sets of people – one who can only make a monetary contribution and the other who can volunteer his/her time and service,” said Gowdhaman.

Madeena, Leelavathy and Gowdhaman helped the visually impaired students to write scribes during their free time. At once such instance, Leelavathy helped a visually impaired student to write his examination at CSIM. She learnt about the courses that was offered and discussed with Ms. Latha Suresh, about their volunteering efforts. Ms. Latha advised her to enrol in the short term course and learn to effectively coordinate the social work activities.

“I shared this information with Gowdhaman and Madeena, and all three of us decided to enrol for the Social Entrepreneurship Outlook Programme in July 2009. What was common amongst us is our helping nature,” said Leelavathy.

Gowdhaman says: “We wanted to register a trust for a very long time, but were not confident to start one until I enrolled at CSIM. I have registered a Trust named ‘Compassion’ during September 2009, for which I am the Founder and Managing Trustee. Madeena and Leelavathy continue to volunteer their time to teach the children at Arunavoyal. Compassion Trust has a policy to extend 70 to 80% of the financial support that is sought for. The intention is to make the beneficiary participate and take ownership in the activity they engage in. At instances when they cannot afford to fulfil the entire need, they are referred to other donors for support.” “Our objective is to extend educational support to the under privileged children in rural areas who lack support from any other NGO. We mobilise funds from our friends and pay honorarium of Rs. 600 a month to Ms. Madhumitha, the teacher who manages the tuition centre at Arunavoyal.”

“Around 30 volunteers are associated with the education programme and in this five of them take turns to visit the village every week. Children are provided training on spoken English, sports and other extra-curricular activities. Play way method is used for teaching and children enjoy the word building games and sports. Those who were finding it difficult to read English can now write more than 200 words. Real-time inspiring stories are also narrated to the children .Weekend assignments are given and the children are encouraged to use the community library.”

“English classes are conducted in the morning and games are organised in the evening. During examinations, children are advised on how to manage stress and plan their study. The children are good in sports and have the potential to excel at the district and state level. What they lack is proper guidance. Around 30 children attend the weekend classes regularly and more than 65 children participate in sports activities. All the program activities are recorded so that it will help the volunteers replicate the weekend program in other villages.”

“When I attended an interview at Google, I was not selected as I was over qualified for the position. My aim is to see that the children in the rural areas are as competent as the urban children in education as well as communication skills,” he said.

“Children’s are very friendly with the volunteers and like to spend more time with them. The confidence level of the children has increased and I am very happy to see the change in them. Initially, I wondered if the city volunteers would be able to adapt with the village children. But now, I am amazed to see their performance,” says Madhumita.

“We want to improve the level of education of these children. They learn very quickly and are obedient. This motivates us and we want to help them more. We will continue our good work forever,” says Madeena.

“I like the Word Building game and I can identify many words now. I used to hesitate to speak English, but now I am confident to speak the language. A lot of competition and games are organised which is really encouraging,” says Jayakumar, a student.

If you wish to know more about the trust, please contact Mr. Gowdhaman at 9884056355 or email gowdhaman@gmail.com

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Egamparam – The Organic Way

FarmVille, an innovative online game, is the latest craze among city dwellers. The youth are amused by the concept of rearing virtual cattle and growing a variety of crops on their ‘farms’. But there are youngsters who find real farming more interesting than virtual farming. “I stopped playing FarmVille. I have a real farm in my home now and am out of the virtual world,” says Kashyap, an engineering student.

This farm or kitchen garden being referred to by Kashyap has been made possible by Egamparam, the son of a farmer from Senji village in Tamil Nadu.

egambaramLike many other farmers, Egamparam’s father too was unable to cope with mounting farm loans coupled with a poor yield. After his father’s death, Egamparam took it upon himself to find a way to stop the incidence of farmer suicides.

“I realized that farmer suicides were rampant because most of the farmers harvested only one crop. Often, this one crop failed to yield enough to keep the farmer financially afloat. In addition, constant use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides made fertile lands barren. And reclaiming these lands to increase fertility was too long a process,” observes Egamparam.

Egamparam’s mentor, Dr. G. Nammalwar, suggested that sustainable agriculture through integrated and organic farming method was the answer to the problem of farmer suicides. Egamparam then worked with organizations engaged in agricultural research to learn about the technical aspects of agriculture.

With the knowledge of farming and a mission to popularize integrated and organic farming, Egamparam started the Earth Watch Foundation in 2005. Promoting crop diversity, developing farm ponds, native seed planting, breeding milch cattle and planting trees are some of the activities of the foundation.

Considerable effort went into convincing farmers to move away from their conventional farming ways and adopt organic farming. “The farmers have now understood that organic farming not only increases the crop yield but also helps in retaining the nutrients and water in the soil. Although the yield for the first two years is less, organic farming aims at sustainability of the farmland.”

Seeing the positive response from farmers, Egamparam has expanded his operations from Pudukottai to include other villages like Panampatti, Melur, Manikampatti, Oorapatti and Muthudayarpatti, all situated in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu.

These being predominantly dry areas, there was tremendous resistance to farming. But with practices like rainwater harvesting, these farmlands soon became fertile.

The Center for Social Initiative and Management (CSIM) honed the entrepreneurial skills in Egamparam. Through the CSIM network, he is now working on bringing the producers and the consumers together. Egamparam urges urban folks to shift from investing in the share market to investing in agriculture. “My plan is simple. The investor gives a two-year loan to an organic farmer at 25% interest. This money is then used as ‘seed capital’ to buy seeds and other inputs. The interesting feature of this plan is that the farmer will repay the loan along with a weekly supply of farm fresh organic vegetables. These vegetables will be supplied from the fourth month onwards.” He adds with a smile, “Apart from interest money, the investor is assured of good health and less frequent visits to the doctor.”

At the end of the second year, this capital-endowed farmer will train five other farmers about organic farming and provide seed capital to one such farmer. By doing so, the plan aims at promoting the concept of organic farming.

By setting up kitchen and terrace gardens, Egamparam has now taken the concept of farming to the homes of Chennai. With little exposure to farms, city-bred children are amazed at the carrots and tomatoes growing on their rooftops. Till the garden is ready to yield, Egamparam visits them once a week to manure and prune the vegetables. In each of these homes, a compost pit has been set up to convert the kitchen waste to manure.

To spread the idea of organic farming, Egamparam plans on taking the help of the Government to make organic farming compulsory for all farmers.

“A certain rule says that in the committee that prepares schemes for the agriculture industry, 10% of the participation should be from farmers. Sadly, this rule is not being implemented. In the long run, I want farmers to involve themselves from the planning stage itself. This seems difficult, but it is achievable.”

“Agriculture sustains this country. It is unfortunate however, that for their own sustenance, farmers have to turn to others with begging bowls. To change this is my dream.”

CSIM-Certification—Arokiyadas

One-Man Army – Arokiyadas

Arokiyadas’s story is that of courage and will. He overcame serious physical and financial difficulties to rise like a phoenix and work with missionary zeal for his fellow beings.

ArokiyadasBorn with congenital deformity of limbs, life was not easy for Arokiyadas. He came from a poor family with only his mother to take care of him. He had to drop out of Nungambakkam School before he could complete Class X. Abject poverty, and then a government eviction notice for his house in the slum clearance board for not paying taxes, caused him depression. He ran from pillar to post when a friend took him to a NGO. Usha directed him to C.J. Paul who gave Arokiyadas two letters – one for Narayanan at Ecomwel and the second one for Padmini Subramaniam who coordinated an NGO for women.

“It was from Ecomwel that I got financial help. A loan with zero interest helped me clear the government debt. I had to repay the loan. But how could I? Nobody was willing to give me a job as I was disabled,” says Arokiyadas. “Finally, with the help of my friend Umapathy who was also physically challenged, I got a job in an electrical shop. Both of us needed the job. So we decided that one week I would work while the next week he would. Everyone was given ten rupees a day but I was paid only eight rupees. I had to check all the electrical goods taken out by other electricians and also deal with customers. Being a fast learner, I learnt all the electrical work in a short time and became an expert electrician. But when increment was given, I got only Rs 2.50 whereas others got Rs 5. I was disappointed but did not give up. I had to prove that I was better or at least equal to others and so I worked hard. The next year when everyone got Rs 5 as increment I got Rs 7.

“Everyone at Ecomwel encouraged me but I will be always grateful to Mr Narayanan, Mr C.J. Paul and Mr Mani for not only inspiring me but also giving me moral support and helping me in every way possible”.

Due to a misunderstanding with his co-workers, Arokiyadas left his job at the electrical shop and worked with CAN (Community Action Network) for their AIDS awareness programme.

“I used to commute on my tricycle to most parts of the city, distributing pamphlets and condoms to auto rickshaw drivers and others. For this, I was paid a monthly salary of Rs 1000. I repaid the loan that was offered by Ecomwel from this income. When the CAN project ended, I worked for Ecomwel’s project located at Cauvery pakkam Village, Thiruvallur District. This was a rural development project and I used to stitch plastic bags. Later, I was given the responsibility of opening the Ecomwel office in the morning and closing it in the evening. Besides this, I offered to run errands for the staff like paying the electricity bill, attending to bank work.

When Reena Perolin, the funding donor from Switzerland, visited the office, she was impressed with my enthusiasm and hard work and appointed me a full-time office assistant for Ecomwel on a monthly salary of Rs. 800. The next year, the salary was increased to almost double – I was paid Rs.1500.

Arokyadas receiving the CSIM certificate from Dr.Poongothai Aladi Aruna. Social Welfare Minister.

Many people used to come to office enquiring for me as I used to guide them on how to access government services. When Mr. Mani, founder of Ecomwel, realized that I had helped nearly 500 persons with disabilities, he published a booklet highlighting my story and named me ‘One- man army’. This inspired me the most and I continued my work with great zeal. Ecomwel further encouraged me to undergo a training program at CSIM (Centre for Social Initiative and Management).

After the one year training programme, I was asked to start my own NGO. But, I was diffident and did not want to leave Ecomwel. Later, with the full support of Ecomwel, I launched my NGO ‘Snegithan’ in 2003 and Mr. P.N. Devarajan, founder of CSIM inaugurated my small office.

Till date, I have provided referral services to over 3000 people. I not only guide and support physically challenged persons but also offer support to under-privileged children. There was a time when I did not have money to have one meal a day, but today I have 75 kg of rice in my office for donation. Most of these trust funds are sourced from individuals”.

There’s a sense of pride and happiness as Arokiyadas sits in his small office. On one side of the room, there are cupboards where he stores his files. Part of the room is filled with the computer and accessories. The room has a sliding glass door and it is from this small space that big deeds are carried out. The major focus of Snegithan is offering counselling services to the differently abled and providing them with aids and appliances, educational and medical support, employment referrals and coordinating self-employment projects.

Arokiyadas plans to develop Snegithan as a leading counseling centre. He coordinates an annual tour to Velankanni and other places of worship for the children who are supported by his organisation. The funds for this are mobilised from individual donations and through sponsorship.

Arokiyadas lives with his wife and twin daughters. “My children are very affectionate towards me and so is my wife. I am a very happy person now. I have a bank account and obtain a stipend from Ecomwel.There is no one willing to offer support to my organisation to meet the administrative expenses. I would be happy if people after reading this article, come forward to support Snegithan”, says Arokiyadas.

If people are motivated, they can help others. After meeting Arokiyadas, I feel sure that the word ‘impossible’ does not exist; man can overcome any difficulty if he has a will.