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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