She went from door to door to find the children who had been locked up because their families thought they were cursed
For Manorama Joshi, being 70 is not a downside. Neither is being a single woman in a remote hilly region, fighting for a cause that few understand in these parts. Meena, as she is known to most people, started her journey over 15 years ago when she started Mangaldeep, an institute for special children in Almora in Uttarakhand.
As a teacher in 1969 at a local school, she encountered six children who were ‘different’ from the rest, and who she felt deserved to be taught differently. This, coupled with the fact that her nephew was also a special child, drove her to pursue an issue that commonly goes unnoticed in rural areas. She researched, she made questionnaires to unearth the special children, and she asked her students to help conduct surveys across neighbourhoods. She thus zeroed down on the concerned families. Then Meena Joshi set off on foot on a journey that changed the course of her life. From door to door, from village to village, she battled superstition that made villagers think that ‘special’ children were cursed, that they needed to be locked up. She faced rejection from certain communities, and incurred the wrath of others.
She finally won over six children who could be helped, and with initial support from her brother, Mangaldeep was founded in 1998. Today, Mangaldeep is a learning and vocational centre with nearly 50 children suffering from multiple disabilities, Down’s Syndrome, even some with very low vision that doesn’t let them qualify for blind schools. They all found a place in the institute and in the hearts of Joshi and her staff of 14. Her students are trained in various vocations such as craft-making, spice-grinding, candle-making, music and more. Along with their small incomes, they earned back what they had lost most — their self-esteem.
An evergreen optimist, Joshi says the challenges have been many, but the blessings even more. She faced everything from societal taboo to red tapism in bureaucracy, but she also had the fortune of encountering some extraordinary people who kept the Mangaldeep banner flying high. From motivated teachers like Ruchi Purohit, to organisations and trusts that inject funds periodically, to volunteers and individual donors like Regula Rouse who gave the school a bus, to local banks and businesses that place large greeting card and candle orders — they all contribute to keep it going.
Mangaldeep has been awarded the Godfrey Social Bravery Award, and Meena Joshi has been honoured by local media. The children of Mangaldeep have shone on international platforms with golds, silvers and bronzes at the Special Olympics held at China in 2007 and Greece in 2011. Despite the everyday uncertainties, such as where the next round of salaries will come from, a smile from one child or a hug from another is enough to keep Joshi going. “And that is my biggest medal,” she smiles warmly.