A New Home With a New Family

Village community in southwestern India shelters poor and sick

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Ajith, 7, and his brother, Ranjith, 10, used to eat dirt to stave off hunger pangs while living on the streets in a remote corner of India’s southwestern state, Kerala. The diet of the two boys, who had been abandoned by their parents, greatly improved, however, after they found a home in a village established two and a half years ago by a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest, Vincentian Father Anthony Plackal.

“We had no food, shelter or clothes, but now we are happy and well-fed,” Ranjith said. “We even attend school.”

The village, located in Vettikkuzi near the Christian heartland of Irinjalakuda, provides much-needed shelter and a new sense of “family” to local homeless people, young and old, healthy and infirm. Ajith and Ranjith live with 80 other residents, or patients as they are called, in six brick homes scattered across the gardens of the community’s 13 acres.

Local demand for the services of the project, dubbed Sacred Scripture Social Message Into Living Experience, or SSSMILE, is growing. The constant devotion of local religious and the construction of a new dormitory, built with financial assistance from CNEWA, will enable the village to help even more of those in need.

Family living. Poverty, disease and disability had isolated most of the residents from their communities, but housing in the village is not segregated by age or disability, thanks to a decision by Father Plackal to encourage community interaction.

Healthy and wide-eyed children like Ajith and Ranjith run freely on the grounds among the elderly and those with mental and physical disabilities. Young and old of the same gender also share living quarters in the village’s homes.

“We used to keep the children separate in one house, but now we mix them with the others and give residents a chance to mingle,” said Father Samuel Kanathuka, a recently ordained priest and newcomer to the village. “The children help the older people. They dance and the old people enjoy it.”

The village was built on a model developed by a Canadian university professor living in France, Jean Vanier, who in 1964 invited two men with mental disabilities to set up a home with him in Trosly-Breuil, northeast of Paris.

The home was dubbed L’Arche, or the Ark, a biblical symbol of the covenant between God and man. The home’s model of assisted living has been copied throughout the world, drawing those in need together under one roof where they can receive the help they require.

Hope for a better life. Like Vanier’s model home, the SSSMILE village is a place where the most disadvantaged can start a new life with a new family.

Unni, 11, was born to a single woman and was rejected by the man his mother would later marry. He lived on the streets with an elderly man who used him as a begging prop until a few Catholic sisters found him and brought him to the village one year ago.

Unni now dreams of becoming a soldier. “I want to protect my country,” he said.

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Tags: India Poor/Poverty Village life Homes/housing