They feel at home here

CHENNAI DEC. 7. It is so peaceful at the sunshine-drenched `SOS Children's Village of India, Chatnath Homes,' on Sunday morning that the loudest sound one can hear is leaves rustling in the breeze. However, this placid exterior is merely a front.

For over the past 25 years, the village, which celebrates its anniversary on January 25, has provided about 350 children with homes, education, career and families.

The international SOS chain of villages was started by Hermann Gmeiner, an Austrian doctor, in the wake of the World War-II to bring together orphaned children and bereaved mothers. However, Chennai's SOS village runs for different reasons. It takes care of babies left at police stations and hospitals, girls rejected because of their gender, orphans who lost their parents in accidents, the destitute and the abandoned.

"Orphans generally grow up listening to bells ringing. They follow schedules, their birthdays are not remembered... They get food and clothing but no affection," says Uma Narayanan, Managing Trustee of the organisation, explaining why Chatnath decided to follow the SOS example. (The Chatnath Trust, conceived by K. Gopalakrishnan to help children in need, gave Chennai's SOS Village at Tambaram its first three acres of land and initial impetus.)

Inside the village's sensibly designed and pleasantly tidy compound, 15 cheerfully coloured houses make up the base of the organisation. About 150 children live in these houses, under the care of `mothers' who double up as professional caregivers and homemakers. Each `mother' takes care of about ten children - doing everything from feeding and nurturing them to attending school meetings and helping with career decisions--thus ensuring that each house becomes a home.

The village director, M. Srinivas, says the units function "just like any normal home." Each mother teaches her lifestyle, ethics, language and religion to the children. They celebrate birthday and festivals together, thus evolving a separate family identity. Often the bonds between the `mothers' and children are as strong as biological ones. The children return to their homes, `mothers' and `siblings', long after they have grown up, married and acquired jobs.

R. Amudhavalli, a `mother', has raised SOS families for 23 years. "I've brought up 27 children," she says, adding "two of my sons are in Delhi with their families. Six of them are married and I have seven grandchildren! For Deepavali, everyone came home and we had a family get together."

V.G. Ranjini, another `mother', says she joined SOS because she "always wanted to be a mother." She was chosen from among 600 applicants from Kerala, a couple of years ago, and left behind her home and family to move into Chennai's SOS set up.

Mr. Srinivasan, however, says that the number of applicants has been dwindling over the years, especially in Tamil Nadu. Valli Alagappan, assistant managing trustee, says that one reason could be because their requirements are rather stringent. `Mothers' need to be single, divorced or widowed with no children.

The SOS children, on the other hand, are growing from strength to strength. With the organisation's backing and funding, 25 per cent of the children have gone on to get degrees in a variety of colleges including MCC and Loyola. About one third of their children have been married, and thus integrated into everyday society. (Many of these marriages were conducted in the SOS village.) Almost all children who have left the village are working in different capacities and thus supporting themselves.

Today, there are 34 SOS children's villages in India - from Kashmir to Kerala, Assam to Gujarat--and 122 allied projects. The organisation provides care to more than 2,00,000 children in this country alone, with help from both Indian and foreign donors. In Chennai alone, almost 300 sponsors support Tambaram's SOS Children's Village of India, "Chatnath Homes".

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