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Dr Bhanumathi starts her day by helping the students get ready for the day’s activities before she goes to college. When she returns home in the afternoon, she spends more time with them Image Credit: kk najeeb

What A home for mentally-challenged adults and children in Thrissur, India
Where Thrissur, a district of Kerala in India
Who Dr P Bhanumathi
Why The charitable home takes care of mentally-challenged adults and children who can't get proper care due to their family's financial situation or apathy.

There was never any doubt that Dr P Bhanumathi would eventually take over from her mother when she was no longer able to look after her mentally-challenged brothers. But what put Dr Bhanumathi on her present path was the slow realisation that not every mentally-challenged child was going to be as fortunate in getting the care they deserve.

Her father, an affluent farmer, had the financial resources to give his children the medical care they needed. Her mother and Dr Bhanumathi (during time off from her studies) were there to look after them. Dr Bhanumathi knew this wasn't the case with many others who had children or siblings with disabilities.

Even at home, Dr Bhanumathi got a taste of what life could be like for children with disabilities. She has eight siblings and seven of them are older than she is. However, none of them showed the same level of concern for their brothers. "And it's still the same," she says. "Some of them drop by occasionally to see our two brothers who stay in the home I run. But they don't show interest in any of the other children."

Dr Bhanumathi is not bitter about it. Harsh reality taught her that blood is not thicker than water. She is all too aware that money does not assuage the pain that families experience. Nor can it buy genuine care and attention. "My siblings were isolated, but at least they had my mother and me," she states. But there are many other mentally challenged children who are not so lucky and who have no one to turn to for love and affection, she says.

"I grew up with my brothers and I learnt first-hand the problems my mother faced," says Dr Bhanumathi. "So I decided at a very young age to keep looking after my siblings, and other children like them when I grew up. Since we were well-off, we had the money to hire a person to look after them.

"But for the less fortunate, having a person to look after a child with disabilities is a major problem. If both parents work, then it's hard to find a person that one can trust. People with disabilities are among a segment of society that is often abused and exploited. I decided that when I became financially independent, I would start a home for people who are mentally challenged."

This motivated her to excel in school and college. Her academic achievements are no mean feat. She holds a doctorate in Cancer Biochemistry and a post doctoral fellowship in Radiation Biochemistry. She is now a Professor of Zoology at Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur, India.

However, an incident that occurred in 1997 was the catalyst that set her on the path her life was destined to take. "That year, one of my mentally challenged brothers died because he didn't get adequate medical attention," she says.

"He died in my lap while I watched him helplessly. He was 52 at the time. He had a problem with his throat and I took him to a doctor. But the doctor brushed him away without examining him properly. His attitude seemed to show that because my brother was mentally challenged, he didn't deserve his attention. This took place in Pattambi, Kerala, where my parents lived. That night, when I returned to Thrissur, my heart was in turmoil. It hurt me so badly that I immediately came up with a plan to start an institution that would look after people who have disabilities like my brother."

In 1997, Dr Bhanumathi founded the Association for Mentally Handicapped Adults (AMHA) in Thrissur. "I launched AMHA with the help of my friends. My salary was my only source of income then."

Of course, it wasn't easy and has been a slow process. Most people that Dr Bhanumathi approached for assistance couldn't distinguish children and adults who are mentally challenged from those with major mental problems. "Nobody would give us a place to rent," she says. Many disappointments later, she found a room to work from. "Luckily, the uncle of one of my students was the vice-president of the local municipal body and he arranged a room in a nearby school from where we started on October 2, 1997."

She began with three students in the classroom of a local school and organised a taxi for the students to commute. "My brothers were still with my mother at the time," she recalls. "They wrote about us in the local newspapers so news about our organisation spread pretty fast. Very soon, the number of students grew to 18. I started looking for a house to rent, but people were unwilling to rent a home for people who are mentally challenged."

Gradually, things started looking up. They moved to a rented accommodation in Punkunnam, a suburb in Thrissur. Then the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi donated a van for transportation.

As admissions grew, Dr Bhanumathi realised that owning their own premises was the only way to move forward. "In 2000, we bought a plot of land away from the city. We felt it would be a nice, peaceful place to base our home.

"We didn't have the money to begin construction right away. I had to ask for money and I realised that it was hard for people to give donations to an individual, however sincere his or her efforts might be." That was when Dr Bhanumathi decided to register AMHA as a charitable organisation.

Help came in the form of a television channel, Kairali, which featured her work in a programme. "It made a huge impact with donations pouring in from all over the world," she says. "With about Rs165,000 (about Dh13,000) we started construction to build a home for AMHA. Of course we could only afford to complete the ground floor, which took us five years. But that gave us enough space to start functioning."

The building is currently used as a classroom during the day, and converted into a dormitory at night. AMHA is in the process of building another block now that will be used for residential purposes only. What started out of a room with three students, now caters to 55 mentally challenged people aged between 12 and 58, mostly from destitute families. It also includes a residential and daycare centre and a special school that provides free physiotherapy, occupational therapy and vocational rehabilitation. AMHA also provides counselling to parents and guardians.

"Initially there were a lot of hurdles," says Dr Bhanumathi. "People, including a few colleagues, doubted my intentions for starting this organisation. Nobody seemed to understand why I had opened this home. What they couldn't understand was why an educated woman with a job was doing this; they thought it was a passing fancy, or worse yet, a bid to garner fame.

"It was tough for me to explain that it stemmed from a very personal pain that had been gnawing at me since I could remember."

However, Dr Bhanumathi does not hold any grudges. "Now the same colleagues have come to accept my efforts. There are many who help in running the school. Lekha, who is an executive committee member of our trust, has a mentally-challenged son and helps us run the school. My husband is also fully involved in it. We get a lot of help both in cash and in kind. I can't manage to run the place on just my salary now. We have ten trained staff members, including a driver, who looks after the students. Our expenses have increased. Thirty of our students live in the home and the rest are day scholars, which is why we need transportation.''

Some days, the meals of the students are sponsored. Some people donate food items or send small donations, which always come in handy when running the home.

Apart from her own determination, Dr Bhanumathi gets great support from her husband Saleesh, who quit his job as a manager of a pharmaceutical firm to work with Dr Bhanumathi full-time.

"I balance my work life pretty well; if I compromise anywhere, it's in my personal life," she says matter-of-factly. "That's why I decided against having children of my own. One reason is that I don't believe a child or a person has to be your own to love. Also, if I have my own children I need to be responsible for them, which would not have been possible in this case. I see the 55 ‘children' we have as my own. I am afraid I may not be able to do that if I had my own children. I don't see it as a sacrifice. It's just a practical solution, and luckily my husband agreed."

Dr Bhanumathi and Saleesh live on the school premises. "I get up with the children at 6am, and along with the staff, supervise their daily routine - from brushing their teeth to getting them ready for school. Many of them have to be bathed, so extra help is required. I go to college after they finish their breakfast at 9am. When I get back home at 3.30pm, it's back to work again."

A typical day at the centre begins with yoga, followed by reading, writing and painting classes.

The students are categorised into mild, moderate and severe depending on their condition. "There are children with Down's Syndrome. Only the children in the mild category can be taught to read or write. They may have problems retaining what they learn. The others are classified on the basis of their intelligence and some are given vocational training which includes making paper cups, detergent powder, oil and writing chalk. All the nearby colleges and schools use the chalk produced by these children, she explains.

The students who are unable to do anything are placed in a ‘care' group where they are looked after by a team of people. "There are some who have special talents such as drawing or painting," says Dr Bhanumathi. "It was at a painting camp we organised last year that we learned of their talents. It was an eye-opener for us. Some of my students from college also visit us to help such talented students."

Only children above the age of 12 are admitted to the school. The eldest student is 58 years old while five of our students are orphans.

"The orphans were introduced to us by the Childline Foundation, a nationwide child rights protection organisation," says Dr Bhanumathi. "The children they come across are usually sent to juvenile homes. Since I'm a member of the Juvenile Justice Board, a local body, I bring those children to our home. The rest of the students come from poor families who can't afford to pay for their upkeep. Only three of them come from affluent homes."

Despite a steady trickle of help, a lack of funds is a big challenge as expenses continue to soar. "We are now well-known across the state, so we are inundated with requests from people who have children with special needs, but we have to sadly turn them away as we simply do not have enough space," says Dr Bhanumathi. "When the construction of our new residential block is complete we can take on a 100 children. I don't want to increase it any further as we won't be able to take care of them properly if we're too big. We would like to open other branches, limiting the number of students to 100 in each."

There are quite a few people overseas who support Dr Bhanumathi in her initiative. K R Anilkumar, a Dubai-based entrepreneur who has an autistic son, is one of them. He voices the common fear of parents when he says, "One of the greatest fears is what will happen to our child after we have passed away. With AMHA and Dr Bhanumathi we can rest assured that our children can find a safe refuge.

"For me, what is important about AMHA is that Dr Bhanumathi has shown us that it is possible for an individual to create a micro-organisation which can be replicated," says Anilkumar. "She's been running AMHA for 12 years now. Usually, someone starts such an institution and gives up after a couple of years. There are certain personality traits you need to run such an institution, not to mention a very generous heart. This is not a business; this is pure charity."

But for Dr Bhanumathi, the biggest gift she got from her experience is getting to know the children. "Now after my experience with the 55 students, I have come to realise that no two children are alike," she says with a smile. "All of them are different. I know them all: their quirks, moods and peculiarities. In time, you realise that they don't need your sympathy, but they do need recognition, care and protection."

How Find out how steely grit and determination helped Dr Bhanumathi fulfil her noble dream of caring for people who are mentally challenged in her home state.

Activities supported by AMHA

 

  • Operation of a dairy farm The income generated out of the sale of dairy products is distributed as an incentive for the trainees.
  • Organic agro-based activities Cultivation of seasonal vegetables, fruits and nursery plants.
  • Animal petting farm Developing an animal farm that houses cows, dogs, rabbits, poultry, doves, love birds and fish.
  • Micro enterprises and home-based activities Manufacturing of household materials such as cleaning agents, soap, oil, incense sticks, soap, telephone mats, wire bags, key chains, fur dolls and eco-friendly paper bags.
  • Printing press Helps in job training besides providing sheltered employment. Here, students are taught binding, printing, screen printing and the art of making envelopes.
  • Trading and marketing A trading enterprise for students to understand and operate a commercial establishment.

 Dr Bhanumathi can be contacted at amhaindia@yahoo.co.in.

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