In India recently to inaugurate yet another Village, Helmut Kutin, President, SOS Children's Villages International, looks back at a marathon journey that began nearly 50 years ago.

We are seated on the balcony of a beautifully constructed house in the just inaugurated SOS Children's Village, 32 km. from Tirupati. Funded by Swedish donor Roger Akelius, the village laid out in the shape of a horseshoe by architect Shahrukh Mistry has 12 houses, each of which will provide a sheltering environment for a SOS mother and her children.  It is the 521st village of the non-governmental, development organisation that provides homes for children — orphaned, abandoned or without support — in 133 countries throughout the world.

Helmut Kutin, President, SOS Children's Villages International has flown in for the inauguration. Just before the interview, I see Kutin making his way to the bust of founder Hermann Gmeiner set up on the grounds, and spending a few minutes of silence there. 

Worldwide roof

The late Gmeiner was devastated by the horrors wrought by World War II on children. He founded what became a worldwide roof for needy children. “The organisation was started in 1949 near Innsbruck and we are still there,” says Kutin. “The founder, a medical doctor, wanted to establish something better than institutionalised orphanages.

And so the idea was born — of a mother, brothers and sisters, a house and a village — four principles from which the concept has never swayed despite sociological developments and various changes in the last half century and more.”

The organisation supports more than 80,300 children throughout the world.  SOS Children's Villages International received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2002 for extraordinary contribution towards alleviating human suffering “It has become more difficult to find mothers in emerging industrialised nations,” says Kutin. “But motherhood in India has always been rather special. It's not an accident that the country has the largest number of SOS Children's Villages.  The mother is the peg pole on which the villages rest. We are a world wide family for children who have lost their families. Now we have extended our support to poor families for basic nutrition, health care and most important, schooling.”

The mothers are widowed, deserted or unmarried women. They receive training for two years before taking on their role. Each family consists of 8-10 children who live with the SOS mother in their home. The children are provided access to quality education and health care. Many of the mothers are later invited to make their homes with the grown up children who care for them in their old age. And so the circle of love and security is complete.

“It is time that Indian friends share the burden of financing these homes,” says the president who has numerous awards for his work. “Europe continues to bear the burden: Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland are the major sources of funds and sponsors. But things are changing. In India, corporate houses are coming forward to help though it takes hard work to convince them.”

Kutin's major inspiration was Gmeiner. “It is an inspiration that has brought me over the last 45 years; the first 22 years in Asia. Today there is a SOS village in almost every country in Asia. We believe in keeping cultures intact.” There are 33 villages in India which provide homes for 6,600 children. It is evident that the qualities he admired in the founder — persistence and a clear vision — drive Kutin too. In other ways too he is like the founder.

Shared qualities

“He had no family of his own and I followed his path. My family is in every good, working SOS Children's Village.” The president travels tirelessly to SOS villages around the world. “But when I see the children, the tiredness evaporates.” Many of the children have become achievers. They have taken up jobs, got married and started families of their own. “Such an open environment is needed to heal physical and emotional wounds,” says the president pointing to the acres filled with the laughter of children.

It was in one such village that Kutin spent a couple of years after his home was shattered by tragedy. “My sister, who was 15 years older and shared my own birth date, was working as a school teacher in South Tyrol. She was murdered by a serial killer. My mother died of a broken heart.” Soon he lost his father too and was brought to the SOS village in Imst in Austria. “I went on to Innsbruck to study further. I was working in the tourism sector when the founder called me. He wanted me to go to Vietnam as a village father. After that I never looked back.”

The world is changing but Kutin's optimism remains high. “Fifty per cent of families in Europe are single head families. In India too families are breaking up. But I feel it will all change again. Each and every child is worth helping. Don't go by numbers. Don't give up on a child,” he says in his precise tones. Interview over, with his firm tread he walks away, a marathon that began nearly 50 years ago when a boy battered by tragedy entered just one such village and found love, hope and new beginnings.