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It would be impossible to tell at a glance that many of these girls knew nothing but violence and poverty for much of their early lives. Rescued from the streets of New Delhi or from violent homes, these children have been through horrors that we can hardly imagine. One was raped over a period of three years, a knife held to her throat. Another was a terrified witness as a man killed her mother with an axe. Another was abandoned by her father, a rickshaw puller, after the mother died.
The transformation in their lives came about through an extraordinary woman called Kiran Modi, and the trust she set up in 1994. Udayan Care runs three orphanages in New Delhi, on a model that is counter to the dreary institution-based ethos of the run-of-the-mill orphanage. From day one the children are immersed in the closest thing to family they can have: they live in groups of 12 or so in apartments in middle-class neighborhoods where they have a chance to be part of the community; dedicated paid staff live with them and take care of their needs; they go to middle-class schools nearby; they are given love, guidance and practically adopted by a small group of devoted volunteers called Mentor Mothers.
“How long do you take responsibility for a child?” I ask Kiran Modi. She is in her late 40s but looks younger. She smiles.
“All our lives,” she says. “Even after the child becomes independent we remain their family.”
She is serious about it. Udayan Care’s approach to rearing its children is encapsulated in the acronym LIFE: Living in a Family Environment. Sometimes it is not easy. Children who come from violent homes often exhibit angry or distrustful behavior initially. Those who have been raped do not know what it is like to trust an adult, or even what it means to be touched in a loving and respectful way. Often they come in speaking the language of the streets. Mental health counseling, grief counseling, group therapy, and dance and art therapy are some of the ways through which children learn alternative modes of behavior and such values as non-violence, love, caring and sharing. In fact the elders and children in what Modi refers to as the “Udayan Care Family,” have formally pledged to adopt and model these values.
Kiran Modi’s organization is named in honor of her eldest son, Udayan, who died tragically in an accident while studying for an MBA in the U.S. The family was devastated. “Going through his papers,” Modi says, “I discovered that he had not been using the allowance which we had been sending him. Instead he had been donating it to charity to feed children in Africa. My family, close friends and I thought that there was no better way to cherish his memory than to carry on the work which he had so quietly started.”
Udayan Care has been “carrying on the work” for over eight years now. Central to the organization are the Mentor Mothers, a group of eight volunteers who open their hearts to these children as though they were their own. These volunteers are from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like Dolly Anand, a graceful, well-educated older woman, have grandchildren of their own. She consoles, counsels, and tutors the children in her charge, helping them resolve conflicts in non-violent ways, encouraging them and wishing them well before each school exam, making sure they are eating well and feeling well. When I meet her it is the eve of an exam and she has spent all last week tutoring the children. She is as full of pride, hope, and nervousness as any mother would be.
Mentor Mothers also take children out for picnics, to theater and art shows, and to scenic hill stations in the Himalayas. Some Mentor Mothers are young women like Meera Sawhney, who don’t have children of their own as yet. She began by sponsoring two children at Udayan Care. A week later she visited one of the homes and was impressed that the organization actually practiced what it preached. “I never stopped going,” she says. “I have been a Mentor Mother here since last year, and I am totally committed to this group.” She works with a boys’ home in another part of New Delhi.
A typical day at an Udayan Ghar is not unlike that in any other Indian family with young children. Modi recounts it succinctly. “Run, mom, run! Wake up kids at 6 in the morning. Breakfast and off to school by 7.15. Return at about 2 p.m. Lunch. Then homework and tuitions (since our children come to us untutored and illiterate). Milk and snacks. Loaf and romp in the park, play, watch some television, dinner at 8.30. Bed.”
To transform a totally illiterate child into someone who can actually aspire to be a teacher or doctor takes extraordinary effort. In the first six months after a child’s arrival, he or she is tutored “at home.” Then the child is put in a government school and ultimately moved to a private, English medium school such as Tagore International School. Such schools typically allow reduced tuition rates for Udayan Care’s children. Meanwhile those children who would not thrive in a typical school due to special needs (such as a learning disability) are provided with the best possible vocational training. Udayan Care’s children also have the opportunity to take special classes according to their interests and aptitude, such as classical music and dance.
Why does Udayan Care go to such extraordinary lengths to educate its children in the best schools? Why not give the children a more basic education, perhaps just enough to get by, and thus enable funds to serve a greater number of children? “It is a fair question,” Kiran Modi admits. “But we are not into the numbers game. The main reason is simply that we treat the Udayan Care children as our own. We thus send them to schools where we would send our own children.”
At present Udayan Care serves 36 children—25 girls and 11 boys. The children, most of whom come from poor families, are from different parts of India and different religious backgrounds. Udayan Care strives to respect every child’s religion. “We are totally secular,” Modi says. The children are encouraged to respect each other’s beliefs and to participate in celebrations of various faiths.
Opportunity and caring have opened up possibilities in many of the children, even as they struggle with the legacies of their traumatic past. Rizwana has left behind a life of poverty, beggary, and, abuse and dreams of being a doctor. Urmila ran away from home at the age of 5 to escape from a violent father—now she has discovered a talent for singing and takes lessons in Indian classical music. Arti, abandoned (along with a younger sister) by her rickshaw-puller father, found that she enjoys studying and wants to be a dancer. Kiran, whose mother died in a home for destitute women, wants to be a pilot. Rekha’s father burned to death in his own hut—unwanted by her relatives, she was brought to Udayan Care in 1999. She now has ambitions of being a doctor.
Kiran Modi, unlike her young charges, had a wonderful childhood, the kind that she is trying to give to the children while they are still children. She was born into an affluent Marwari family in Calcutta. “My parents pampered me and my siblings with love and affection, not money,” she says. “They were steeped in a value system that respected humanity.” She attributes to them also her love of learning. She was married at 18 into a family that encouraged her to study. A university gold-medalist, she went on to do a Ph.D in American Literature.
After her son’s death, her ambitions changed track dramatically. Now she dreams of a better life for all the children under her care, and of reaching out to more and more of those who are orphaned, abandoned and abused. Recently Udayan Care has purchased land in Greater Noida, a suburb of New Delhi, where a home is planned that will house 50 girls, half above the age of 18 and half below. The home will also house CREATE, a Centre for Rehabilitation, Education and Thought Enrichment as well as a Child Guidance Center, which will reach out to 200 needy children and their families in the wider community. Meanwhile a generous donor has made possible a home for 20 boys in a village in the neighboring state of Haryana. Both projects are scheduled to begin early next year, and will be run on the same principle (Living in Family Environment) as the existing Udayan Ghars.
With the present contingent of eight mentor mothers, 14 full-time staff, several professionals (who take reduced fees for medical or counseling services) and about 25 other volunteers who help with tutoring, Udayan Care’s greatest need is money. It takes about Rs. 30,000 (about $700) every year to take care of one child. Individuals and families help by sponsoring all or part of a child’s expenses. Local schools, including the American Embassy School, assist with fundraisers or by getting involved in outdoor activities or crafts. A grant from the Japanese government has helped get the future projects started, although more money is needed. Modi and her staff have come up with creative ways in which people can contribute. Their project, CREATE, for instance, will cost about Rs. 142 lakhs (approximately $300,000), an enormous amount for a non-governmental organization in India. “We have raised two thirds of it and have a current shortfall of Rs. 49 lakhs (about $100,000),” Modi says. “We have a project called Brick-by-Brick in which people can contribute the cost per square meter, which is Rs. 5,000 (about $100).”
Kiran Modi’s love, intelligence and creativity inform all aspects of the work that goes on at Udayan Care. As the organization’s Web Site (www.udayancare.org) states, there are only two lasting bequests you can give to children: roots and wings. The Udayan Care family strives to do both.