Siddhartha Kaul, president of SOS Children’s Villages, International, who was in the city recently, says the number of children needing help has gone up

“Mom came into my room that cold night in Delhi and asked me to find out who was at the gate. I went out grumbling, and told the elderly guy to come in the morning. Mom said, ‘Look again, there’s another person behind the bush.’ Indeed, there was an aged woman cradling a newborn in her arms. I brought them in, helped them feed the baby. Word got around and a dozen mothers came forward to adopt the infant!” Siddhartha Kaul, president, SOS Children’s Villages, International, narrates this incident by way of underlining his statement “I was pulled into this work”.

Sitting in the verandah of SOS Village, Tambaram, he talks of his 35-plus years of giving orphaned / abandoned kids a home. He speaks calmly, with no trace of pontification or no attempt at finger-pointing.

He grew up in children’s Villages, he said, his dad having started a movement when he established India’s first SOS Children’s Village at Greenfields in Faridabad in 1968. In 1978, when Uma Narayan’s family was looking for someone to start a children’s Village on their family property in Madras, he was chosen for the job. He was travelling, trying to discover himself. “Somehow my name was part of the SOS, and this was my first paid job. I was comfortable with the idea of training mothers. I said, ‘Ok, let’s do it’.”

On a mission

He came to Madras, knew no Tamil, no one knew Hindi, “we all spoke English!” In the next two-and-a-half-years, he set up the Village, had it running. “My seniors saw my work, reckoned I was young and adventurous enough to be sent to Sri Lanka.” He set up shop in Nuwara Elia, and in the middle of the 1983 conflict, drove into Jaffna with a Tamil-speaking friend to see if he could start a programme. He managed to unite 300 kids with their parents, and Chettikulam, Jaffna, now has six Villages to house 72 kids.

He’s in Chennai for the first time as international president. “Mothers have retired, kids have grown and left, but the deep attachment from creating it stays.”

Families are breaking apart, parents abandon kids. As a result, the number of children needing help has gone up, he says in an even tone, letting the words make their impact. For instance, SOS Varanasi has 119 orphaned/abandoned kids. “I expect this situation to be much worse in the next decade.” In India, both government funding and public donations are hard to come by. So, fund crunch means 10 or 11 kids in each family, which becomes “difficult to manage”.

But, amidst all these, he has learnt to stay equable. “Along with the big picture I try for a small immediate picture, where you can feel, see tangible results of your work.” Like how that newborn (‘first daughter’) who came home one night in Delhi got a name, did her Masters, and settled as a highly-paid executive.

“We cannot solve all problems,” he says philosophically. “We accept our limitations, but we can show a model that can be replicated with adaptations for cultural differences.” Governments are doing it, he says, we go into partnerships, completing the cycle. In Nepal, SOS creates families, builds homes, partnering with Habitat for Humanity. “Our Village numbers may be small, but we reach out to millions in our school through family-strengthening and community programmes.”

Children learn about environmental consciousness, to respect others’ faiths and help others. “We also make a conscious effort to make the Villages green.” SOS is about relationships, he says, it is a practitioner organisation. “Our families are rooted in local culture. Kids grow up prepared to adapt to the outside world.”

He manages SOS Villages in 133 countries from his headquarters in Innsbruck, Austria, and has lost all fascination for travel. “I hate airports, the paraphernalia of customs, frisking, immigration.” However, he is “happy to meet youngsters, happy with results I can touch and feel.”

SOS Villages work on four principles — mother, siblings, home, community

The mother is the head of the family, and makes financial decisions

The Village empowers women, helps kids grow up in a family environment

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