The book God’s Donkey captures the story of how Australia-born Sister Mary Theodore founded NGO Mithra for the physically and the mentally challenged

It might seem like an unusual title — God’s Donkey — for a book. Yet that is exactly how the late Sister Mary Theodore, an Australia-born nun, the protagonist in the book (authored by Peter Gale) used to refer to herself. She was the founder of Mithra, an NGO offering a gamut of services under one roof to the mentally and physically challenged, including those with polio, cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome etc. She saw herself as someone taking on the load in order to bring happiness into the lives of people and by her own admission was very stubborn for a cause.

Founded way back in 1977, Mithra’s motto has been challenge to conquer. Sister Mary Theodore’s aim was to help differently abled children be as normal and independent as possible and realise their potential so that people would say “you have done something”.

For instance, take Prabhavathi who is all smiles as she is wheeled in in a chair by her mother. The bright and lively young woman completed Class XII creditably and is all set to enrol for a graduate degree in Sociology. Then there’s a young boy who was barely able to take a step forward when he was brought to Mithra. Today, with callipers, a walker and a little bit of gentle coaxing, he covers three-fourths of the quadrangle in the building.

As Sister Mary Theodore once said in a video interview, “We have seen children who were told that they can’t walk actually walk, and others who were written off with a ‘can’t do anything with that one’, conquering handicaps.” There are others who came here as young children with mild mental illnesses and after rehabilitation have gone on to take up jobs with Mithra’s admin department or elsewhere. There are also the special school children in different classes (Pre-primary, Primary, Educable and Vocational) either doing Math and English (with the help of a special reader, one young boy had actually finished four lessons!) or learning concepts. Therapists work with young ones in the well-equipped Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy sections while other differently abled find an outlet for their creativity by either weaving attractive cotton bath towels or block-printing or making pretty jute bags, costume jewellery, candles, envelopes, greeting cards or pursuing art. Every one of the 120 children and young adults who comes to Mithra is meaningfully occupied, prepared for life and helped to become self-sufficient (concepts of money, time and the ability to write their name are taught; toilet training is imparted to those with severe impairment).

How Mithra came into being is an interesting story. After joining the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Sister Mary Theodore was assigned to India and came to serve as the secretary to Archbishop Arulappa. It was during this time that it struck her that she must do something significant to commemorate the birth centenary celebrations of the apostle St. Thomas in India. She was concerned about the lack of comprehensive rehabilitation facilities for physically and mentally challenged children from among the less privileged sections of society. Often abandoned by their fathers and with a single working mother who struggled to make ends meet, rehabilitation was accorded the lowest priority. She broached the subject with the Archbishop, and went about translating her vision into reality. She faced numerous hurdles both professional and work-related — beginning with a choice between continuing in her congregation in India or Mithra. She chose the latter and had to come out of the congregation. However, she lived a religious life and renewed her vows till the very end. Functioning out of huts in the beginning, she eventually lived to see the impressive present facility at Mithra come up in 2006 with donations from Australia and locally.

A fervent advocate for the differently abled, Sister Mary Theodore served as the first area director for Special Olympics in India and was also the first president of the State Level Federation of Organisations for persons with disabilities and secured a monthly financial assistance for them. Today, Mithra continues to be a friend to the differently abled, administered and taken forward with love by a team of dedicated care givers and administrators. For more, visit www.mithra.org.in.