Udavum Karangal completes 30 years of caring for society’s less privileged. Priyadarshini Paitandy meets Pappa Vidyaakar, the man behind the NGO's varied welfare activities

Visit Udavum Karangal, the NGO in Thiruverkadu, and you'll realise just how much the many less-fortunate men, women and children who are cared for here, value Pappa Vidyaakar. Besides reverence in their eyes, there’s love, hope and joy when he walks into the room, hugging them, shaking hands and patting them affectionately.

Pappa Vidyaakar, as he is fondly known, has been caring for the less privileged for more than 30 years now. A post-graduate degree in psychological social work from Madras School of Social Work and his passion for service led him to start Udavaum Karangal in 1983. "I came from a dysfunctional family and was brought up in the same way as some of the children here. I moved to Chennai from Mysore when I was 15 and studied here, living with an uncle. But, he developed cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy. In hospital, he saw me interact with the other people in the ward. Impressed, he advised me to pursue what gave me satisfaction,” recalls Vidyaakar.

One day an auto driver found an abandoned baby at a cinema hall and brought him to Vidyaakar, who started taking care of him. Realising the need for a separate space, he moved into a hut in Aminjikarai. Without a job or money to raise the baby, Vidyaakar narrated his story to the residents of Shanti Colony, Anna Nagar, who donated money. "I used to collect Rs.80-Rs.100 a day and that would be just about enough for us," he says. Soon, he found himself taking care of a few more kids. One day, a fire spread across the slum and all the huts were gutted. Vidyaakar ran out with the kids. They stationed themselves near a bus stand, where they caught the attention of an early morning jogger. On learning their story, he offered them his garage, later finding them a building in NSK Nagar, which today houses the Udavum Karangal head office. Most of the children are now adults employed in companies such as Infosys, HCL, Thomson Reuters, and the Defence sector. Some are even gold medallists in Social Work… and all of them help run the NGO.

As of now, Udavum Karangal has three full-time facilities — Malarvanam, Shantivanam and Karunai Illam — which house around 1,200 people including those who are mentally and physically challenged, orphans, homeless aged people, and those with HIV. There are schools; day care centres which take care of children of workers from around the area; disaster management units; Punnagai, an initiative to treat children with cleft palate; and rehabilitation centres. In addition, there is Wings, a school on wheels, which educates the children of migrant workers.

Role of youth

The organisation is funded by public contributions. Nowadays, several youngsters contribute to the cause too. “Thirty years ago, the youth devoted all their energy towards educating themselves and earning an income. There’s been a change over the last two decades. Youngsters today are aware of social causes. They have creative ideas about welfare and even come to our NGO to impart lessons in English, math, chess and dance,” says Vidyaakar, adding, “here, we not only take care of those who seek refuge, but also empower them. We have helped rebuild the lives of 2,000 people and have reunited them with their families.” Some families don’t want to take them back. He narrates the story of a 66-year-old mentally-challenged person who has been with the NGO for 27 years. “His mother had set aside Rs. 3 lakh for him. But, after she passed away, his sister made him sign the documents and took away the money. Never did she visit him after that. Twenty years have passed, but she’s still untraceable.” Vidyaakar has numerous such heart-wrenching anecdotes to tell.

As we speak, he takes us around the Shree Ramakrishna Vidya Niketan Higher Secondary School. A class of students is enjoying a game of football. Vidyaakar indulges them by joining in and they soon surround him giggling endearingly. Next, we move on to Shantivanam, where its lunch-time for the women. “Pappa pappa,” they call out excitedly; each one has something to say to him. No matter how old they are, they look up to him as a father figure. That’s how the title “Pappa” came about. "I have given all the children here my name. Whatever be their name, their surname is always Vidyaakar,” he says, looking pleased. “One of my children, who is now grown-up and employed, came to meet me. He proudly showed me his LKG book where under the space for ‘father’s name’ he had written Pappa Vidyaakar and under ‘mother’s name’ was also written Pappa Vidyaakar. Here, I am both mother and father,” he smiles.