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Child care providers in India define the word “orphan” liberally: A child may be considered an orphan even if he or she has one or both parents living. Typically, however, parents must be too sick or too poor to care for their child and they must live at least eight miles from the nearest school and have no available public transportation.

In most cases, said assistant director Sister Jean Mary Koottuemkal, the girls are from the most dysfunctional of families, families with a history of domestic abuse, murders and suicides. She recalled one situation where two sisters saved their mother from being murdered by the father. Both parents are unstable and unable to rear their children. Some girls, she continued, cannot return to their village. In one such case, a girl was born out of wedlock. Another girl’s mother committed suicide. In India – especially its traditional south – many ostracize families with circumstances such as these.

Sister Jean Mary emphasized that Kerala, while largely rural, is densely populated, as much as three times the rest of India. And up to a third of the state’s population live below the poverty level.

Most of the parents of the girls at Mother Mary Home work as day laborers at local quarries, brick factories or large rubber estates. Wages are abysmally low, the work, seasonal and hunger, common. Parents often find it necessary, Sister Jean Mary said, to send their children out to work to supplement their meager incomes. The parents of these girls are so socially and economically marginalized that they never bothered to obtain birth certificates for their children.

As its stated mission, the orphanage offers the children the chance to lead a “fulfilling and self-reliant life in close relation with other people.” To this end, the sisters do their best to create a homey atmosphere, prepare healthy meals, nurture the girls’ spiritual growth and faith in God and encourage them in their academic work so they may find gainful employment as adults.

The girls attend local Catholic elementary schools, which are within walking distance from the orphanage. Classes for kindergartners and students through fourth grade are held at a school half a mile away. Junior high school classes are conducted at a Catholic school two miles away.

“Those who secure high marks will pursue higher studies and may be sent for job-oriented courses,” said Sister Jane. “Three girls are already attending a high school in Thamarasserry.” At the orphanage, academic standards are high and all the girls receive additional instruction evenings and weekends.

The girls also excel in many extracurricular activities such as singing, dancing and elocution, winning prizes at district-level competitions. Every Friday, they put on a cultural event to rehearse their song and dance routines and perform skits based on the Bible or the lives of saints. The girls also set aside time each day to reflect and pray. On special occasions, the girls take a break from their schedules and watch cartoons and Bollywood movies on DVD.

“We try to provide a family atmosphere,” said Sister Jane. “The girls are free to pick and eat the fruit that grows here and learn how to look after their home and keep it clean. We have a couple of women who come to cook, and most of the vegetables we eat are grown in our garden.”

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Tags: India Sisters Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Women in India