Vanitha Rangaraj of Sharanalayam speaks about the joy of being mom to 200-odd children. Subha J Rao listens in

The minute Vanitha Rangaraj walks into the Sharanalayam centre in Kinathukadavu, a group of children rushes in to meet their mother. They tell her what happened in school, what they ate for lunch and if they liked it. A crying infant leans forward to be held by her. This is Vanitha's current world.

More than a decade ago, she led a very different life. As a faculty at NGM College, Pollachi, she flaunted a new sari every day. She changed her car every year. She invested in property. She had a great social life going.

But a deep dissatisfaction gnawed at her. She tried to find solace in spirituality and numerous gurus. That didn't help too.

Relief came in the form of ‘Poochi', a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy found lying in a slum in Gandhi Nagar, Pollachi, his body bearing bite marks of stray cats and dogs. “I had gone there earlier during my Rotary Inner Wheel days. The image of the child haunted me. In 2001, I rented an 800 sq-ft building and took in seven people, including Poochi (called so because he could not move about), and a blind boy,” recalls Vanitha. Soon, her father instituted a trust, Sharanalayam, to help further her cause.

Valli, a caretaker, was appointed and Vanitha spent most of her after-college hours there. Poochi got a name — Sakthi — and managed to live for 10 months defying doctors' predictions.

She taught history in the morning. In the afternoon, she helped wash the kids' clothes, feed them and clean their hair of lice. “The experience humbled me. It ensured I slept without angst.”

Education, the key

Slowly, more children started coming in. They were abandoned at birth, left to fend for themselves in dustbins and the roadside. Sharanalayam took them in, gave them an initial — ‘V' — beautiful names (Ponni, Kanmani, Gautam…) and a shot at a better life. “Today, 150-odd children go to the nearby Government schools. Some attend polytechnic college. I tell my children that education is the only way out,” says Vanitha. Her kids reciprocate too. They promise to buy her slippers, kammal and saris once they start earning, laughs Vanitha, fondly called Thayamma by the children.

Lasting passion

Once the kids came in, dressing up took a backseat. “Many thought it was a passing fancy. They are surprised it lasted this long. Even I am surprised. The kids transformed me,” confesses Vanitha.

Sharanalayam, which has more than 300 inmates, also takes in special children, children with HIV, adults found wandering on the roads and abandoned old people. “Our children grow up with all of them. They believe they are part of one big family.”

However, as her family grew, Vanitha turned weaker. She was diagnosed with a thyroid condition and diabetes and is on a pacemaker. “My daughters, Sharanya Babuprasad and Sumi Sudharshan, tell me I must serve but not take things to heart. But, I can't help it. When Sakthi died, I was like a zombie. When people pass away in our HIV home, I am miserable. I have panic attacks when I see abandoned people on the roadside. In the middle of the night, I make a dash for our special children block to check if someone is in distress. I know I can't carry on for long like this, but this is me,” says Vanitha, who moved her residence to the Kinathukadavu campus some years ago.

The children also go on picnics — they have visited water theme parks and a beach — and watch Rajinikanth's movies. She also ensures her kids are in a happy space, mentally. “At school, someone called them ‘anadha pasangala' and asked them the names of their ‘real' parents. The kids came back in tears. I spoke to the teachers about how to handle children with such backgrounds,” she says.

As she speaks about the growth of the institution, which now has five branches, she mentions those who made it possible. “I was a rebel of sorts. But, my family, especially my husband Rangaraj, has been very understanding. Brother-in-law Chandran Natarjan is a huge help. There's Gurunathan of Lions International 324B1. He helped set up the Kinathukadavu building. Former collector N. Muruganandam and Pollachi sub-collector K. Sundaramoorthy gave us a Pongal gift — half an acre in Pollachi for our 55-bed HIV hospital.” Joe and Laura Hanshe from New York sponsored Janam, the yoga and meditation hall. “TANSACS is a huge support system. So is our trustee, industrialist G. D. Gopalakrishnan. Rotarian A. Kuppuraj has made provisions for free cremation. V.M. Dorai has been giving us 500 kg of rice a month for the past five years. Many give us raw material on credit.”

Though her heart beats for all children, Vanitha has a special corner for those with special needs. “They need our constant attention. Most of them can't sleep; they can't tell you if they are hungry; they don't know when to stop eating; they need help with their most basic functions. We must be pro-active in our care for them.”

Vanitha gives due credit to her team that backs all her initiatives. Leading them is Maheshwari, 35, her adoptive daughter of sorts.

Despite niggling issues, most of her kids go on to lead productive lives. She cites the case of a boy who stole money and was uncontrollable in school. “I took him on a long drive and showed him where he came from — his parents were beggars. Today, he's learning plumbing.”

What's the legacy she wants to leave behind? “Being Thayamma is God's gift. My daughters have promised to look after the children. I just hope they continue to thrive on love,” smiles Vanitha.

Do your bit

* Sharanalayam runs five centres — Dhaya for abandoned and orphaned children; Jyothi, for the abandoned mentally challenged; Jeevan, for the HIV positive; Sweehar, an adoption agency and Akshaya Pathiram to feed the elderly underprivileged near Sharanalayam. There are plans to start a mental health research centre.

* The organisation's daily budget is Rs. 15,000. It welcomes donation of food materials and help with infrastructure. It also looks forward to volunteers who help spread cheer among the children — a group from Singapore painted the rooms and played with the kids. For details, call 98422-54204, 94430-54204, e-mail sharanalayam@rediffmail.com or visit www.sharanalayam.org