He works silently for uplift of physically challenged

He works silently for uplift of physically challenged

Christian missionaries have always had a deep impact on the socio-cultural scenario of Bengal. Ever since the 18th century, when they first reached the eastern shores with evangelical aspirations, they brought with them a wave of a sense of Christian enlightenment, moral education and contributed greatly to the spread of Western-style education, be it through the first printed work in Bengali and other Indian languages or through the spread of English. 

Father Francois Laborde, a little-known priest in Kolkata, is no different. Often called “Mother-Teresa-and-more” by his followers and admirers, it is remarkable that he prefers to maintain a low profile, letting his work and his mission do the talking. Unlike Mother Teresa, whose name got intricately involved with the rest of the city as the “Saint of the gutter”, the 87-year-old Frenchman is shy of publicity. 

Fr Laborde silently works like any other good Samaritan. His mission is such that even Teresa would have been honoured to be associated with him. In 1976, the French priest started work from a small corner of Howrah, across the river Hooghly from Kolkata, setting up the first home for physically challenged children. Over the years, his one-room venture turned into the Howrah South Point (HSP). 

The organisation currently operates from its birthplace in Howrah, at Asansol in Burdwan district, around 275 km from Kolkata and at Jalpaiguri, nearly 550 km from the city. HSP recently won the President’s National Award 2013 for “outstanding work in creating a barrier-free environment” for the disabled. While this is recognition of the HSP and Fr Laborde’s efforts over the last four decades, the octogenarian prefers to work in silence. The mission was started to help physically challenged children from the slums and provide medical support to the most deprived in Howrah, the industrial suburb of Kolkata. Now, it not only takes care of children but also provides them with education, nutritious food and healthcare, giving them a purpose in life and helping them with a modicum of a normal childhood. The HSP started taking in a few physically challenged children, who had no security or hope in life, at the church premises on Danesh Sheikh Lane. 

Over the years, the growing community expanded the scope of its beneficiaries from physically challenged children to all kinds of under-privileged, building its first formal school in 1986 along with dispensaries, which now has 600 students. Since 1976, the association has responded to various needs of the poor from Howrah, Kolkata and the northern parts of Bengal. Although the original aim was to empower the physically challenged and the destitute by helping them to develop their inner potential, the HSP’s structure has undergone a few changes to adapt to the changing needs of people in its communities.  

Today, the HSP is run by Indian administrators and social workers aiming at the total development of communities irrespective of caste and creed with special focus on the handicapped, the destitute and the most deprived sections of society in rural and urban areas, said HSP governing council member Swati Gautam. “The core areas of the HSP’s engagement are rehabilitation of handicapped children, education to marginalised sections of society and providing healthcare,” she said.  

 Recalling her association with the “Mother-Teresa-and-more” of Howrah and the HSP, which started two years ago, Swati said: “Even though he is born French, now he is as much an Indian as any one of us. The HSP survived over the last four decades because he created a huge selfless organisation, painstakingly and patiently, with hope and perseverance.” 

The HSP works for mentally, physically and socially challenged children, keeping them safe in nine homes across Howrah, Asansol and Jalpaiguri, she added. 

Talking about the organisation’s activities, Swati pointed out that the HSP educates and rehabilitates these children through continued orthopaedic and psychiatric support and care. In terms of cold numbers, HSP treats 1 lakh people every year in outdoor medical care and in indoor care and focuses on patients of tuberculosis and malnutrition, geriatric health and pregnant women, besides the mentally and the physically challenged.

“At the HSP, the beneficiaries are the migrants, the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the lowly. The HSP has been funded, among others, by the German Doctors Committee, Terre Des Hommes, Leger Foundation Canada, Pro Interplast, Hungry Foundation and many more such organisations and individuals,” Swati said. 

While it is the selfless service that makes the Ambassadors of Switzerland, Canada, the Consuls of France, Germany and Italy — nations that have supported the HSP through the years — be present at the organisation’s annual ceremony on December 3, World Disabled Day, like in other spheres, funds from abroad are drying up due to recession and the HSP is having to focus on resources closer home, the HSP member admitted. Funds, however, have never been an obstacle for Fr Laborde, who has set HSP’s core value statements around the vision to promote human development, with stress on the poor. 

And the mission has always been to work for integrated growth of  the aged, infirm, physically challenged and destitute through means of rehabilitation programmes, specialised education, preventive and curative health activities.

It is probably natural that Fr Laborde was the inspiration for Fr Steven Kovalski, the priest who worked among the slum dwellers in Dominique Lapierre’s acclaimed novel on Kolkata, the City of Joy. A Google search, however, leaves the information hunter disappointed as there are just five results, which are mostly on the  HSP than its founder. This alone stands testimony to a four-decade-long silent service for the less privileged.

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