In the family, happiness is in the ratio in which each is serving the others, seeking one another’s good, and bearing one another’s burdens – Henry Ward Beecher.
Sandilya and I used to work together in Kolkata 35 years back. We had been in touch off and on, I renewed email contact with him and met him after a gap of many years at Delhi in March 2012. We exchanged notes about what had happened in between, and talked about our families and some common friends. He told me about his initiatives in the SOS Village organization that he heads in India as President, especially the creation of a regular organization structure and robust systems. I promised to him that I will visit the Village at Hyderabad soon.
On return to Hyderabad I casually mentioned the planned visit to our neighbor Preeya. It was a coincidence that she had conducted a training program on film making at the SOS Village a few months back. Her husband Murali knew the Director of the Village Mr. Natarajan, and Sandilya’s office also informed the Director on my request. Preeya was familiar with the place and she offered to join me during the visit if it was at a mutually convenient time.
I visited the SOS Village at Hyderabad on April 17, following directions given by Preeya and Mr. Natarajan. It is located close to the Sridevi College of Engg. for women. From the Village gate a small driveway leads to a parking area and steps that take you on a paved narrow walking track that runs across the village. I see a young boy of about 10 years coming down the steps – happy and smiling. He greets me and I respond.
Mr. Natarajan, the Director of the Village greeted me as I walked up the stairs. Just behind him on the left I saw a pen for ducks and about a dozen ducks. There was a pond built for them.
The first single storied brick building is the office and we go in. We sit for some time in the office and Natarajan gives me a brief. He joined as Director a year back. He finished his MCA about eight years earlier, chose this vocation out of interest and has been working for NGOs doing social work. Water and a cup of tea is served, and Preeya walked in as we talked. I see a couple of turkeys near the glass window. Natarajan mentions he has two staff members to assist him. The Assistant Director is a lady with about 12 years experience and degree in Social Welfare. He introduced us to her. He tells us that the staff and their families stay in the campus. The Village at Hyderabad was established in 2002. It takes in children who have lost both parents. It has 120 children presently in the age group 6 to 14 years. They stay in houses in the Village with their “Mothers”, about 10 children per house. At present there are more girls. Natarajan also gives an overview of how individual donations help meet the expenses of the SOS Villages.
We then go for a tour of the Village. Natarajan takes us to a house. Like all other buildings in the campus, this house is a single storey brick colored structure with a slanting roof. In the front verandah shoes and chappals are neatly kept in shelves built on one side for this purpose. We take off our footwear and go in to the living room. The mother of the house and five girls who are there welcome us. They are smiling and look happy. This mother has been with the Village for about two years. She joined the SOS organization after she lost her husband, and was trained at the central training facility near Delhi before being deputed to this Village. The mother offers us cold drinks, a small fridge is there in the house. I speak to the eldest girl who says she is interested in studying physics and maths. She has come from her boarding school. She helps the mother in cooking etc. The kitchen is a neat small one, and has a gas stove for cooking. There is a toilet for common use of all members of the house. In the mother’s room, I notice a sewing machine. Natarjan explains that this mother is able to stitch well, and makes the clothes for all the girls in her house. Three bedrooms for children have beds, most of them are two level bunk beds, and a cupboard for each child. There is a puja room too with photos of various gods. A boy comes in, he is smart looking and is able to converse in English. Preeya recognizes him – he was part of the group that was trained in film making. A story was created by the participants and then the film was made. The children added some stories of their life at the Village too in the film. As we start to leave the house, Preeya takes out a packet of toffees to give to the children. The mother hesitatingly takes it, Natarajan later explains that they avoid taking gifts only for one house, so that other children do not feel bad. Preeya had a large packet, and we are told that it can be distributed at the evening prayer meeting which all children attend.
We continue with our tour. The Village is built on a five and a half acre plot which is wider at the back side. Similar looking houses have been built around a nice lawn full of trees. It was a mango grove, and still there are a number of fruit bearing mango tress all around. Natarajan tells us the mangoes are of a very good variety and we ask if he gets them every year. He smiles and shakes his head for us to understand how he can with so many young children around. The walking track runs around the lawn, in front of the houses. It is a very well maintained campus, absolutely clean. Natarajan points out to the house in which he stays with his family. Next to it is a small park in which the bust statue of the founder of the international SOS Villages Dr. Hermann Gmeiner, who was an Austrian, has been installed.
On a couple of houses I see the name plate of JP Morgan. Natarajan tells us that five houses have been adopted by institutions. As we walk back to the entrance the ducks come running towards us playfully- they have moved to the lawn. On our left we see a library and a large room where children study.
I thank Natarajan as I leave. His 8 year old daughter Komal has joined him as we end our tour. In the car I begin to think how the happiness and smiles on the face of the children we met were no different than what I saw on Komal’s face. During the last few decades, family as an institution has weakened. Yet, its importance as a pillar for the well-being of society has not diminished. The SOS Children’s Villages has given a home and family life to about 6,500 children deprived of it all over India, and helps them grow up as responsible well rounded adults. It supports about four times more through its other projects. I have developed a great respect for the organization, its leaders, staff and the “mothers” after this visit.