14 January 2016
Sisters watch over some of the students playing basketball at the Ashabhaven School. Jijoman Mathai, center, was chosen to compete in the Special Olympics. (photo: Jose Jacob)
In the new edition of ONE, writer Jose Kavi visits a school for children with special needs in India — and comes away with some memorable impressions of the children and the exceptional women who care for them:
I would never forget my visit to Ashabhavan school in Nedumkandam, a remote village in Kerala, in southwestern India.
The car stopped in front of an L-shaped building and Jose Jacob, the photographer, and I got down to ask someone directions to the principal’s room. We had hardly spoken when we saw a nun in habit and veil rushing out of a room. She jumped over some rose plants on the side of a corridor and rushed to our car, opened its rear door and pulled out a little boy from inside.
Nobody had seen the boy getting into the car — not even the driver who was still at the wheel fiddling with his cellphone. The whole incident — the boy slipping inside the car and “the sister act” — happened in split seconds.
As we stood bewildered, the nun, barely five feet tall, came to us still holding the boy’s hand. “Hello! Good morning. I am Sister Elsa, the principal,” she said with a smile. Seeing our puzzled look, she pointed to the boy and said, “Oh, he is Shiyas Shamanas. He suffers from autism.”
We had telephoned her before coming, so she knew the purpose of our visit. “Come let us go to my room,” she said as she led to the corridor. This time she took the stairs.
The 49-year-old sister was still holding Shiyas’ hand as she took her seat behind a glass-topped table with a few neatly arranged books in a sparsely furnished room. The boy then saw Jose Jacob’s camera and freed his hand and rushed to him. Sister got up and dragged him back. This act continued several times during our hour-long interview.
Sister Elsa, the principal, said the school strives to teach the children self-reliance.
(photo: Jose Jacob)
The principal explained the boy was brought to boarding school only a day earlier and it would take some time to subdue his hyperactivity. “Until then, he needs special attention. He may even slip out of our compound,” she said.
As we were completing the interview, Sister Sneha Moorkkenthothathil, one of the four Sacred Heart sisters working in the school, came and took charge of Shiyas. Like other staff, she came to the school with a degree in teaching differently abled children.
During our visits to the school over a period of three days, we met half a dozen children who had to be attended by staff members individually.
“They need constant attention,” said Sister Sneha, whose first name means love.
Love for the weak and differently abled was evident everywhere in Ashahavan (Home of Hope) as the staff, including sisters, served meals for the children, arranged them for the school assembly and oversaw classes and games.
Mood swings are common among the children. “Oh, I have received many hits and punches,” Sister Sneha said. “But they are so loving. They notice even a slight change on our face and get worried. They are so innocent, unlike the normal people,” she added.
Over three days, we had also become close to those children. As we left the place, we promised to visit them again.
As we drove back to Kochi, some five hours west, Jose Jacob and I agreed: Ashabhavan would not be remembered as just another reporting assignment.
Read more about “Kerala’s House of Hope” in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. And if you’d like to continue making schools like this thrive in India, visit this giving page.