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Saturday, 25 October 2014

The promise of dawn

P.Kalaiarasi with students at Poornodhaya Trust, in Kolakudi village near Tiruchi. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam

P.Kalaiarasi with students at Poornodhaya Trust, in Kolakudi village near Tiruchi.

P. Kalaiarasi is determined to help the differently-abled gain self-sufficiency

“Despite our shortcomings, we will ensure a completeness to the lives of those who come to us,” says P. Kalaiarasi, the managing trustee of Poornodhaya Trust, explaining why she named her non-profit as ‘complete sunrise.’
“We need to teach the differently-abled to be self-reliant, to the extent of sustaining a livelihood; that is when their care-givers will stop seeing them as a burden,” she says. “All they need is a chance.”
Being born into a loving family is the chance that life gave Kalaiarasi. The youngest of seven children of Kolakudi village munsiff Periasamy, Kalaiarasi was afflicted by polio at the age of three.
She has undergone eight surgeries on her legs and cannot stand for more than 15 minutes, besides suffering from calcium deficiency and stunted growth. “I realised I was not normal only when I left home with my four brothers to study my sixth standard in a boarding school in Porathakudi village near Samayapuram,” she recalls. “I’d always be asked to sit in class during sports period. I could not run like the other kids. I’d always be put on the first bench – at first I’d be happy, but then as days went by I realised there was a reason why I was being made to sit there.
“Some of the kids used to call me ‘nondi’ (lame) and joke about my appearance, and that used to hurt.”
But Kalaiarasi always had her eyes trained on the bigger picture.
“I was an average student, and wanted to stop studying and stay at home after 10th Standard. But my friends advised me to learn a vocational skill. So I enrolled in a three-year course in tailoring at St. John De Britto Industrial School run by the St. Anne’s Convent in Melapudur, Tiruchi.”
Community service
The exposure to city life broadened her horizons in more ways than one. “On Sundays, I used to visit the homes of the needy along with the nuns,” says Kalaiarasi. “It motivated me to think about serving the community.”
Upon graduation in 1989, she started working as a special educator and hostel warden in the school run by Vidivelli Trust.
She was to stay there for the next 11 years, seven of them in independent accommodation to prove to her family that she could be self-sufficient despite her health challenges.
After school, she’d offer tuitions to the children from low-income families in the vicinity, and also organise knitting and basket-weaving workshops for women.
“I realised that while there were many institutions coming up for special needs children in Tiruchi, there were none for people with loco-motor disabilities like me,” she says.
Special care
Established in 2002, the Poornodhaya Trust at first functioned in rented premises in Tiruchi. “We couldn’t manage in rented buildings because landlords wouldn’t allow hostels, which are essential for those with motor disabilities,” says Kalaiarasi.
Eventually she decided to shift back permanently to Kolakudi, and build a campus on two and a half acres of land gifted to her by her family.
Today Poornodhaya has 27 differently-abled students on its rolls, 17 of who are boarders. Almost all the children, mostly from Kolakudi and nearby villages, have attended mainstream schools up to 8th Standard but still require constant monitoring, says Kalaiarasi, who also resides here.
Four staff take care of the children, putting them through a routine of speech- and physiotherapy, in addition to dance and yoga classes. The premises also has 10 sewing machines for those with loco-motor disabilities. “Though it takes a differently-abled person longer to pick up a vocational skill, our students are quite interested in tailoring,” says Kalaiarasi, who hopes to eventually procure long-term contractual work for her trainees.
Everything, including meals and medical check-ups, is provided free of cost. Kalaiarasi raised the Rs. 27 lakhs budget for the building with the help of her family, and is now in the process of putting up a compound wall on the property.
“I’m lucky to be financially independent, at the same time, many kind-hearted people have pitched in to help us,” she says.
“My mother, who died last year, was inconsolable that I had decided to forego marriage for community service, but my mind was made up long ago,” says Kalaiarasi.
Kolakudi’s remoteness is definitely a minus point for now, but she hopes to sort that out by buying a vehicle (“after the wall,” she says confidently). “We want to start a home for senior citizens with special needs, so that they can have a haven to spend their twilight years,” says Kalaiarasi.
The tendency to treat differently-abled people callously is hard to change, says Kalaiarasi. “I wish normal people would stop staring at us when we are in a public place. Parents try to hide their special needs kids and even tie them up like animals,” she rues.
On days when she feels low, she thinks of her friends who have bigger problems than her. “When my father and second elder sister passed away within hours of each other in 2012, I almost lost the will to live,” Kalaiarasi recounts, her eyes misting slightly. “But then I remembered these children, and pulled myself together.”

Source : The Hindu , 24th Oct 2014 

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