Gwalior Children’s Charity (GCC) is an NGO that has been providing assistance to disabled and destitute children, homeless women and the neglected aged for the last 16 years. In 2006, the Charity established ‘Snehalaya’, a campus where a community of the children they cared for could grow in each other’s company and live with a sense of dignity. Snehalaya is a self-sufficient campus which boasts of an orphanage, a school for special needs, a mainstream school, a rural health centre, a multi-sensory room, vocational training rooms and facilities for Yoga and meditation. It also has its very own gaushala, accompanied by a number of gardens, farms and playgrounds.
Tania Singla, an Associate at LawLex and Grayscale, spoke to the founder and chairman of the Gwalior Children’s Charity, Dr B. K. Sharma about his work, passion and motivations. Excerpts from the interview:
What is the philosophy behind the idea of Snehalaya?
Well, I have always wanted to work for poor children in our home country. A pediatric surgeon by profession, I chose to return to India from the UK to work in this field. Having seen the conditions of mentally ill children in Mercy home, I was inspired to establish our Snehalaya, a home with love, for mentally-ill children who would ordinarily be shunned elsewhere. I wanted them to enjoy their childhood in family environment where they could play, learn and live with freedom and a sense of dignity. At the same time, I wanted to create awareness among the members of the society regarding the care and support these children and encourage a network of volunteers that will actively participate in generating awareness and caring for these children.
Was Snehalaya the first step you took in realizing your idea to help children?
No. Snehalaya was the natural expansion and extension of health care services that we used to provide in our hospital for children that was started way back in 1998. We also started mobile rural clinics to provide health care in villages, slums and orphanages. Having seen Mercy Home, we realized that what we were doing was not enough in the circumstances. This provided the impetus for Snehalaya as a concept. In 2004, few incidences happened and we laid the foundation stone for the campus and in 2006, with 5 cottages and 40 children, Snehalaya became a reality.
Is there any particular incident that you remember in your journey from 1998 to 2006?
When we were working in our hospital, we used to visit orphanages. In 2002, I visited ‘Mercy Home’, a government-run orphanage in Gwalior. It was established mainly to cater to mentally-ill patients but it had turned into a dumping place for anyone and everyone, including people picked up from the street. The living conditions were really bad. To avoid abuse, we shifted the girls to Mother Teresa Home sponsoring their expenses. But in 2004, a little girl arrived who had been abandoned and was barely alive. During treatment she was found to be HIV+. No one was willing to accept her, or give her health care. In our hospital, we started hospice for such children but other patients and public with myth of the disease spreading to them, they stopped coming and the number of patients reduced greatly in number. That was when I decided that we needed to open our own place to house disabled and chronically sick children like her. Perhaps a blessing in disguise, my wife passed away in Aug. 2004, and with her estate, I finalised the thought and started building Snehalaya brick by brick.
How many children do you have at present? Do they come from the nearby villages?
We have grown to ten cottages and care for 63 children within our campus. Most of these children are mentally-ill and we give them support in the best way possible. The average age of these children is 12-14 years. Some of these children were shifted here from Mercy Home or those abandoned in streets, quite a few were left abandoned on our gates too. We do provide respite care also to the children if required by parents including for those that are rescued by the Local Child Helpline.
Snehalaya has a school for special needs and a mainstream school. What kind of education and training is given to the students there?
The school for special needs is for our mentally-ill and other disabled children from Snehalaya and local community, majority being with moderate to severe learning disabilities. Therefore, instead of formal education, we focus on simple and basic education and activities, customized to their capabilities. Our trained counselors and teachers are sensitized to effectively attend to their special needs. Music, play, speech, physio and hydro – therapy plays a major role for such children.
What about the mainstream school?
The students of the mainstream school are children from the villages in and around Snehalaya and Gwalior region at present. We started it in 2011 with 77 girls and today the strength of the students has grown to 200 out of which almost 50 percent are girls. In order to encourage more drop out girls for getting educated, we take care of all costs including tution fees, books, stationary, transportation and uniforms. In addition we pay such girl students Rs.10 per day for attending the school. Parents of other children contribute a nominal fee of Rs. 300 per month.
These children are given both formal education as well as vocational training. Formal education focuses on literacy and they are trained in candle-making, making greeting cards and envelopes, sewing, computers and beautician courses in our school’s vocation center.
What becomes of these children once their education is complete?
We know that the mentally challenged children of Snehalaya will not be able to find a place any where when they become adults. Hence we continue to support them in our home and encourage them to contribute in any way they can, like tending to the garden or helping in the kitchen or any thing else as per their capabilities and abilities. While there are some who will always need care and we shall continue to do so with love maintaining their dignity. For us, independence and self-sufficiency are the core elements of a dignified existence as much possible. The children of the mainstream school will move on to start their own business or work in regular jobs where Rs.10 per day for attending the school, given to them as lumpsum will be helpful. Eligible girls will be supported for higher education if they chose to go for it.
You mentioned independence and self-sufficiency. How do they find place in Snehalaya?
We have drilled bore holes in our campus to provide fresh drinking water, cultivated 15 acres of land and we rear dairy cows and poultry for dairy products. We are making good progress but we are a long way off from being 100% self-sufficient, with electricity production being our biggest and most costly hurdle.
Why do you place such emphasis on achieving self-sufficiency within Snehalaya?
Well, I am trying to make the most of our limited resources to make sure Snehalaya does not feel crippled in the future. Our monthly expenditure for running the institution and providing the services comes to around Rs. 6 lakh per month, out of which my children and I bear almost fifty percent, and the rest comes from donations. Our funds are not unlimited either and Snehalaya must learn to stand on its own feet. How will it run otherwise?
Also, it is an opportunity for the children to feel that they are also contributing to the institution. It is important for the children to know that they are not living on charity; rather, they are productive members for the community through and in Snehalaya.
Tell us about the team that you work with in Snehalaya.
We have a local team of honorary trustees and advisors helping in management and administration of these services. Our team of dedicated carers for the children, teachers for special needs, trained nurses and therapists helps to implement these services. We extend our services in villages, slums, other childcare homes and orphanages as well. Also we get regular inflow of volunteers, though decreased a lot in recent years with economic conditions all over the World. At present, we have four volunteers working with us; two from the UK and two from India.
The Charity has also started the ‘Light for Education’ Programme. Could you tell us more about it?
We initiated the ‘Light for Education’ programme in 2009. In this programme, we distribute solar lights to school going children in nearby villages. The idea emerged from the difficulty that we saw children face in studying when there is no electricity at home. Gwalior is supposed to have about 16 hours of electricity but we barely receive even 3-4 hours most of the time and sometimes even that is not available. This makes it very hard for these children to study. So we thought that solar lights could mitigate the inconvenience to a certain extent. It also is a way of reducing pollution and so far almost 200 students and in turn their families have benefitted.
Is there anything else you would like to add, Sir?
I think my interview would be incomplete if I do not express my gratitude to my team of colleagues in our management board, employees, volunteers and donors. As an organization that does not receive government monetary support, we are mainly dependent on donor funding for continuing our services. We are interested in exploring collaborations with other volunteers, donors and organizations that would like to support us in our cause. Any kind of support would be greatly appreciated.