The Secret of Their Success

The secret, alumni say, is love

text and photographs by Don Duncan

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Shipla Joy, Devika Narayanan and Deepu Sasidharan are three very different people.

They hail from different parts of Kerala, a state in southwestern India, and from different family backgrounds. They have different interests and pursue different callings. Yet these young adults share something in common: their needs as children and students were attended to in child care initiatives of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

“I had to leave home because my father was an alcoholic,” says 22-year-old Shipla Joy from the town of Mundakayam, in southern Kerala. To shield her from abuse and violence, at the age of 12 she was brought to a nearby children’s home run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

When Divika Narayanan’s father died of a heart attack, her mother wanted to be closer to her own family for support. She moved the whole family from their home in Wayanad in northern Kerala to Cochin, the economic capital of the state, where Divika, now 25, entered St. Mary’s Children’s Home and Girls’ School at age 11.

Deepu Sasidharan’s father abandoned his family when the 29-year-old Deepu was only 4. Unable to support them on her own, his mother was forced to place her children in the care of institutions. Young Deepu entered a home called St. Peter’s Sneha Bhavan in his native city of Attappadi in central Kerala.

Each of the three remembers the transition from family to institution as painful, but each also describes a fast period of adaptation, in which a secondary family structure — one cultivated by religious sisters — took form around them, comforting them.

“I was the youngest person at the children’s home when I arrived there,” says the young man. “But I soon realized that on top of my real mother, outside, there was a woman who was my mother at the home. I called her ‘mom’ too. She was a layperson who took care of me all this time. She gave me love and care when I needed it most.”

For Ms. Narayanan, her surrogate mother figure came in the form of Annie Augustine, who was raised by sisters after being abandoned. She grew up at the same home, and remained there afterward.

“She took care of me. She spoiled me,” Ms. Narayanan remembers with a laugh. “She has a very loving nature.”

The weight of social ills often falls heaviest upon the youngest. India, a nation of about 1.27 billion people, contains more than 400 million children. India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 estimated some 69 percent of children faced physical abuse either inside or outside of their family environment. Millions work as laborers and tens of thousands are victims of trafficking yearly. Poverty and malnutrition remain common at all ages; according to one study, in 2009, three out of four people in India could not consume enough food to obtain an average of 2,200 calories daily.

In Kerala, church groups and nongovernmental organizations have come to provide the lion’s share of initiatives to support at-risk children. The state itself runs just 25 homes for children either abandoned or removed from their homes by social services. Yet church and NGO sectors run more than 1,100 child care programs, many of them in the form of homes and boarding schools.

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