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Service is in her genes. Meet Savithri Vaithi, founder, Vishranthi

Can you be programmed for social service? May be. If your grand-uncle (Srinivasa Iyengar) and father (C.T. Krishnaswamy) were freedom fighters and aunt (Ambujammal) was a social worker, it is possible you would carry social service in your genes. To Savithri Vaithi who belongs to this family, rendering help where it is needed most came "naturally." Otherwise why would a 17-year-old girl join Chennai Corporation's health cell and slog it out in the slums for six years? Especially in 1948, when such volunteer work drew no TV cameras? After marriage and a short break, she took a year's course in cooking at the Catering Institute, Taramani and began to give lessons to housewives in the neighbourhood. She was also the first to tour the Southern States teaching women how to try their hand at fancy cooking. When one of the regulars suggested a club, Savithri's typical response was, "Yes, if it is for social service." In 1970, Baby Sachu lit the inaugural lamp for the Monday Charity Club. With 20 members (200 now) pitching in, Savithri began food and school books distribution. What started as "one act of kindness a month" went on to notch up a series of innovative firsts. A book bank in 1974; Vishranthi, the first old age home for destitute women run by women in 1978; a senior citizens club in 1984; Saicharan, a senior citizens centre in 1986; Malarchi, a home for kids with a single parent in 1990; Nizhal, a short-stay home for elderly women in distress in 1996; an infirmary for sick elderly women in 1997; Undrukol, a novel sponsorship for poor old people in 1998 and a nursing and medical care unit in 2001. And now, a hospital for fishermen in Pulicat. "When we distributed tsunami relief material among the fisherfolk, they said the women needed toilets. We collected funds and built nearly 100 toilet-cum-washrooms in the area. We started a nursing home and now have collected funds to build a hospital." However, Vishranthi is Savithri's pride and joy. "It is Tara Cherian who suggested we do something more than distributing food and books. We were walking incredible miles with Helpage, visiting the aged. Why not run a place for those without support, we thought. We were branded as home breakers, but one woman came in when Vishranthi opened. Now, there are 123 inmates with 26 staff members."

Expert in geriatric care

A diploma in medical social work and counselling, and decades of caring for the aged have made Savithri an expert in geriatric care. She talks to school and college kids about old age, presents papers on psycho-social problems of the aged, advises managing committees and boards of "homes" in Tamil Nadu, has written for University courses, works with the Central social justice and empowerment ministry, organises workshops and conducts seminars. Internees specialising in nutrition, social work and ageing spend time at Vishranthi. For many celebrities, visiting Vishranthi is an annual ritual.From being a Seva Dal volunteer under Gandhiji to building a trend-setting facility, Savithri has shown remarkable understanding of the social, emotional, psychological and financial needs of the poor, the aged and the abandoned. She is kind, open and humble, an intelligent observer ("Working women do need help to manage old parents") and an efficient administrator. She educates the young on the problems of the elderly and tells the elders how best to live a post-active life. When she took old women under her care, she exposed the hypocrisy of sons and daughters who would rob and ill-treat the parents but would not let them leave the house. Walk in Vishranthi's leafy compound and smile at the elderly wom0en praying at the small temple. Watch the nurses flitting around dispensing medicines, hear the bhajans and smell fresh dosas sizzling in the clean, stainless-steeled kitchen. Don't miss the tiny house on the side that Savithri calls home. Talk to the 20-odd kids who live here and study or the six former mental patients who live and work here. Want to grow old gracefully? You could read Savithri's books, papers and articles in magazines, listen to her at various forums. Or just follow Savithri's own life. GEETA PADMANABHAN




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