A home for every child

MAKING A DIFFERENCE Nomita Chandy receives the Padma Shree for her contribution to social welfare from the  President of India.

What do Richard Gere, Rockefeller IV, Julia Child, Katherine Hepburn, Sarah Palin and Nomita Chandy have in common? “A shared ancestry,” says Nomita with a chuckle as she shows us her 11-year-old granddaughter’s school project. “My grandmother, from my mother’s side, was a Britisher. Her lineage can be traced to Englishman William Brewster who travelled to America in Mayflower in 1620 as one of the Pilgrims,” she explains.

But the Indian side of the family is illustrious enough. Niece of Tara Ali Baig and sister of Anjolie Ela Menon, Nomita was not one to live in anybody’s shadows. “I have to thank my father (her mother died when she was very young), a military surgeon, who never made me to feel that I could not achieve something. I benefited hugely from the fact that we were a household of three girls though there was some bit of an age gap between each of us. I am the one in the middle but back then I had no idea of how eminent my sister was in her line of work,” she says.

Her interest in social work started when she was studying in Elphinstone College in Mumbai. “Since my aunt was the President of SOS Childrens’ Village, she had always mentored and encouraged me to do social service. It was on her advice that I worked with or set up organisations for children wherever I went as a naval wife, be it in Vishakapatnam, Pune, Delhi or London. When I was working for an organisation in London which dealt with sending ‘care packages’ to the poor in Chennai, I found that they were sending thick woollens also which wasn’t required for the place. I gained tremendous experience in working and dealing with the processes involved. When my husband and I finally moved to Bangalore, I decided to set up an adoption agency along with a group of women, who were all child welfare professionals, including Shanthi Chacko and Rama Bhattacharya. That’s how Ashraya came into being in 1982,” informs Nomita.

She soon realised that Bangalore did not have any mobile crèches for the children of construction workers who “had barely enough food, no education and safety as well. There were children dying of chicken pox.” Thus, in 1982, Ashraya started mobile crèches to take care of these children as their parents toiled. These kids were given proper meals. There are four mobile crèches in the city at any given point. The year 1996 was a landmark year for Ashraya as they started a home for abused, battered and abandoned women. Says Nomita, “We felt the need for this as these were the kind of women who actually left their children to us.” The same year, they started Neelbagh School, a rural-cum-residential school. This school is in Madanapally, 100 km from Bangalore, near the Andhra-Karnataka border.

“I visit the school about once a month and derive enormous joy being with these kids. Their expectations are so little and they are so happy with whatever they have,” she says. A Kannada medium school, Neelbagh’s 330 students are totally sponsored by foreign and local donors. “At the school, we provide them vocational training apart from following SSLC syllabus. They also learn English as a second language,” she says.

She takes pride in the fact that Ashraya has been able to place all its children into good homes.

“The percentage of Indians going for adoption is still very low. Just 3000-4000 kids get adopted a year, this is counting both national and international adoption centres,” she says but adds that “there has been an enormous change in the mindset. Indians are slowly adopting more girls and children with disabilities as well.”

What pains her is that “every family has children but every child does not have a family. As an institution, we can give just that much of attention whereas a family can give lots more attention and love. Take a child from anywhere and give it love, then the child will flourish.”

And then, there is her experience of receiving the Padma Shree. Of the three sisters, two have now received this award.

“The ceremony was wonderful. Everything was rehearsed and carried out with such precision. It was indeed a moving and mind-blowing experience. She clarifies that she has never been elusive but just shy with the press, “I believe in old world courtesies and will not oblige a request for a telephonic interview. It’s best to sit and talk face to face.”

But through the media she wishes to send out a message to everyone, “Empower yourself and believe that you can make a difference because only then you can. Each one of us can do something for the community, neighbourhood and society.”

Nomita now feels that Ashraya must stop its adoption services.  “It is too time-consuming and the paper work is too much. It takes two years for the adoption process to be completed. I would like to now work with the government and streamline the process of adoption and devise better laws. Also, I want to help lost children who are languishing in institutions. There is a lethargic system in place to locate the parents of these children. That has to change,” she says.

And finally, she names Minda Cox, a young girl who was adopted through Ashraya, as her inspiration. “Minda is without limbs but she did not feel sorry for herself; she pushed herself. She is now an accomplished painter,” says Nomita as she shows Minda’s paintings which have the pride of the place in her office.

For a person who feels the need to remain detached and without a sense of ownership when running the adoption agency, Minda’s achievements emphasise Nomita’s determination in seeking love for destitute children who because of lack of opportunity fall through the gaps in society.

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