It was down a lonely leafy quiet lane, off the busy hectic main road that a boys home was discovered that most locals didn’t believe could exist. Hidden from society these boys were locked away and forgotten until only 5 years ago.
Whilst living in India I became involved in volunteering with a small group of people who were taking a few hours out of their busy week to spend time in this most deprived and forgotten orphanage I have ever seen. Such was the state of the accommodation of these boys home that many of us had to debrief after seeing them. Covered in scabies, with open wounds, half clothed, some undernourished, lice ridden and abandoned these lonely boys were treated with no dignity of life. It was awful. However, since I left, these volunteers have never seen this home as a hopeless cause but as an opportunity to make these boys dreams a living reality.
Ajit Sivaram, the co-founder and director of what is now the charity U&I, has been making some serious waves in India since I left. The Betties caught up with Ajit and decided to get to the heart of how it all began and what those waves of change are doing in this home for the forgotten people.
1. You have started a charity that has 5.5k followers on FB and now 500 of volunteers. Your growth has been phenomenal. You first went to the orphanage 5 years ago, what was it like when you first got there?
When we first visited the Home for Boys with Special Needs, it was shocking to see the way they were living. Eighty five boys who had been abandoned by their families because of their mental health conditions. The boys were housed in a state run institution which was over populated and understaffed. Built to house 40 boys the institution had 85 in there. For children with special needs in a residential facility, the child to cared ratio is meant to be 4:1. When we first got here, we noticed there were 2-3 carers for 85 boys. That’s a 40:1 ratio! The place was a right mess. These are kids who haven’t been shown love all their life. I personally felt that I couldn’t turn back. I had to do something about it. They deserved so much better.
2. What has been you greatest success at the orphanage?
I think our greatest success is having built an amazing team and seeing that we are meeting our targets every month. We’ve come a long way from where we started. We now have an amazing team of 9 staff who work in the state home. We have 4 nurses, 3 assistant carers, a physiotherapist and a manager who work six days a week providing care and rehabilitation to the boys!
The nurses provide wound care, grooming and assist in vocational therapy. The assistant carers take care of the hygiene and grooming of the boys. They also ensure that the campus (orphanage) is clean. The physiotherapist works with 15 boys in need of physiotherapy and has seen some great results in the past few months.
3. What is a typical voluntary day at the orphanage look like?
Sunday is volunteer day, and the team always has specific activities planned out for the kids. The kids are divided into 3 groups consisting of the mild moderate and severally challenged. Different volunteers spend time with each group and have tailor-made activities that are both fun and help them with their specific sensory and motor needs as well. A typical day usually ends with dancing, it’s the one thing the boys enjoy the most.
4. What have been your biggest challenges? Describe some of the issues.
The biggest challenge has been working alongside the state system. Things don’t always happen as fast and effectively as we would like. Also the attitude of the state staff towards change and wanting better systems and processes has been challenging. We love these kids so much so it’s something we are willing to bear with.
5. The needs of the home make it a tough place to be. How do you keep positive, what motivates and inspires you?
The boys inspire and motivate us everyday. It’s amazing to see how the simplest things make them smile and that makes us want to keep doing what we are doing.
6. Some people see a situation like the orphanage and think ‘this problem is too big, there is too much corruption, what difference will I make’? What would you say to them?
I wouldn’t say anything. I would have them spend an hour with the kids. When you see how happy you can make them by just hanging out with them, dancing with them or playing a game, you will realize how much of a difference you can make.
7. Some people say ‘well I can’t see the problem, it’s not my responsibility’. What would you say to these comments?
Again, I would have them spend an hour with the kids. They can say more in their silence than I can in all my talking.
8. What’s your favourite moment at the boys orphanage?
We have a boy at the home named Basava. His father is in prison and his mom is no more. My favorite moment of all time was when we were able to take Basava to visit his dad at prison. It was incredible to see the father and son again. His dad was overjoyed and proudly introduced all his friends to Basava. It was amazing to see them reunite.
9. Who is your greatest hero and why?
Ironman maybe :) my heroes would be the team I work with – both staff and volunteers because they give so much of themselves for the kids on a daily basis.
10. Are you looking for more volunteers? What skills do you need specifically to work in the orphanage?
We have 50 volunteers at the moment. We will recruit more if we have drop outs. We are looking for some skilled volunteers at the moment – like doctors, special needs teachers etc.
We’ve had doctors, dentists, dermatologists do medical camps with the boys. They’ve been very useful and the nurses have carried forward the necessary treatment.
11. What is your big audacious dream for the orphanage?
Our dream is to see this become the model home for all other homes. We want this home to set the standard for other institutions to provide each child with specialised individual care.
12. Describe the transformation of the orphans from the day to arrived to now?
It almost doesn’t seem like the same place. The kids were a mess, they hadn’t showered in the longest time, they were lying in their own crap. Today they have a shower every day, they are clean and the place is so much more lively and colorful. You can feel that positive energy when you walk in. It’s no longer a sad place to visit. Its full of joy and happiness.