I think if anyone had told me all those years ago that I would be a writing a report on my 50th visit I would have said it was almost impossible! Yet thanks to the most incredible support on what has been a roller coaster ride here we are!
This visit should have happened in November last year, but emergency hospitalisation of first my daughter, then my husband 24 hours later, led to the trip being cancelled. Both are fine now, but apologies for the long gap in reports.
Many of you are reading this will have been part of the whole journey and for that I'm so thankful, for the support has been amazing both emotionally and financially. Perhaps it will be good to reflect not so much on what has happened, and there have been a lot of "downs"as well as "up's" but on the positives of where we are now and we are in a very good place.
The trip so far has been rather chaotic and hasn't quite gone as planned but that's not unusual! One very sad thing was the sudden and totally unexpected death of our Kerala auditor, George Pulimood. We have worked together for over 16 years, he was a great support and a good friend. Muthukumar and I had lunch, then dinner with him just 48 hours before he died when we discussed the mechanics of some of our work. We had just reached Madurai by road, visiting some of the children with cancer en route, then had to do a quick turnaround to go back to Trivandrum for his funeral - a round trip of 700 km. it was a privilege to speak at his funeral. George's wife Shoba is one of the lead volunteers on the Care Plus project.
So I have been thinking of the past and what it's been taken to reach this point from starting with the Street children program, helping children who are disabled, starting a home for them and then moving on to the point we are in now via our Boys and Girls Homes, and of course there was the Tsunami that took us on a detour.
This was our starting point with the building of the school for deaf children as part of the YMCA project that lead to a love affair with the city this is never really left me.
Over a period of time l build up my visits staying at the YMCA boys home, not in the home itself but in a shack in the grounds. It wasn't the best place to live but I was happy there and gradually over a period of 3 to 4 years my visits increased from two weeks to 6 or so weeks at a time. I spent many happy hours on the streets and learnt a lot in the process. In those days there were an estimated 25,000 Street and working children. There were also hundreds of people living on the streets, somehow creating a happy, vibrant community in all the depravety . I helped to start a street children centre but that is not really needed now. 27 years has seen great changes, slum clearance programmes, and most importantly all children now going to school. The government over several years has made schooling compulsory and provided uniforms, books and lunch for all of the children. The few children who remain on the streets are usually runaways, and they are picked up by the police, and via the local child rights committee are housed in one of our old buildings. The government pays for their care via a weekly allowance for each child until they are reunited with their families. So few children seen working in the city, more will be though in rural areas and it is estimated that over a million children work in bonded labour.
Slums still exist of course and our work is based in one of them. The biggest change here is drought. Those early days saw full monsoons- now only a very few days of rain are experienced each year. The main river has been empty now for at least eight years and the side channels and other areas where we would expect water are totally dry causing quite serious problems in the city. The health map has also changed, malarial mosquitoes need stagnant water, there is none, so they have been replaced by dengue mosquitoes and another mosquito carrying a debilitating disease called chikungunya. There has also been a notable increase in cases of leprosy. More of that later. The situation with the elderly has hardly changed, many still live on the streets, but thankfully we have been able to do something about that. Madurai remains a vibrant but poor city. The rural areas because of drought are suffering really badly and many of those on the streets are there because they cannot grow food, this with lack of sanitation compounds an already difficult situation.
Was never as bad as Madurai, but had different social problems. Here we started with our own boys, then girls Homes. We also started a facility for "hotel" workers - young children, many in bonded labour, who had been contracted to work in eating houses, but were in very real danger of sexual and physical exploitation. After several years the government stopped employment of children. After years of renting we moved our homes out to a rural Mavelikara, partly in response to social and economic problems caused by the tsunami. Until recently those homes ran very successfully alongside a tuition centre. Hundreds of children grew up with us and it is a delight to see many married with their own families and settled in good jobs.The fact that the Homes are no longer needed indicates the rapid social changes in Kerala, however, there is still a lot of poverty, some of which we address with our ambulances and cancer care schemes.
This work has been in progression for 16 years now as we work with a wonderful voluntary organisation called Care Plus ( a bit like the East Anglican Big C). We provide and cover the running costs of 2 ambulances to take palliative care to patients too poor or sick to reach hospital, no NHS in India of course. Well over half a million visits have been made in the 16 years, we are expanding this work now to help children with cancer, and are about to provide our 5th ambulance. More of this later.
For me personally it has been a steep learning curve with some quite hard lessons to learn, not least about the risk of corruption which is still a major problem here. With a lot of bad press at home concerning aid to the third world I have come to the conclusion that you must have someone "on the ground" monitoring, setting up projects in the right way with appropriate safety measures in place. This we have done by setting up our own Trusts here in India as well as the managing Trust in the UK. We use independent auditors, ( one of whom was George) and I personally meet on a regular basis with trustees, who are well known local people of standing. We are open and transparent and as a result safe, trusted and respected. We can still say ( proudly) that every penny donated by our wonderful donors is used for our work. Any land or buildings we have purchased are registered to our Trusts, and remain our property in perpetuity- we hold the deeds and although I hesitate to use the word control, we have it.
I am writing this in Madurai after an interrupted visit, but it has been wonderful to be with our people again. Our work here is big! It encompasses running a slum project, which includes an elders lunch centre, a tuition centre for almost 150 children, supporting a leprosy colony and leprosy home. In conjunction with Care Plus we care for 50 children in poor rural villages who have cancer and who would otherwise not have treatment. After years of renting buildings for Street Elders we finally have our own home! Our buildings in Kerala, once the Boys and Girls homes, now house community projects under the care of our trustees, but the buildings and land remain in our ownership.
The Madurai home is everything we had always hoped for. It provides accommodation for up to 40 elders who had previously lived in the streets . Residents share 2 bedded rooms, with electricity and fans. There are toilets and showers. They are joined daily by some of the Street elders. In the slum we also have a lunch centre for 50+ ladies. So over 100 meals daily! Many of those living with us now came from the streets, some have serious health problems, but all have improved considerably since moving in to our care. Above pictures, our home, larger picture slum lunch centre ( first sitting!)
Thanks to generous donations we are able to offer regular food to the residents of a government run leprosy home. We give a nourishing lunch to 300 twice every month
This is a big undertaking, however we are providing essential nourishment to what was barely a subsistence diet. The conditions there are poor, the place is overrun by monkeys, and many of the residents are too badly disfigured to leave the centre. We offer love and friendship as well as the food.
In the colony we support 29 families, all of whom cope with quite serious leprosy disabilities. This project has been running for 4 years now, and as with all of our work I think that the love and concern has as much effect as the regular food, medication and sanitation goods we provide. I love going there, it's an incredible privilege and joy.
This is new and really important work that we have promised to do with the Regional Cancer Centre. The children we care for will be receiving free treatment if they live in Kerala, but pay full costs if living over the border in Tamil Nadu, all will live in very poor rural villages. For some the hospital is anything up to 120km away. A typical example is a family with a 2 year old boy with leukaemia. Father rents a bicycle for 34p and cycles with wife and son balanced on the bike 30km each way, they cannot afford the bus fares. This week I met a young girl in a dank shack with leg cancer. She has had surgery but cannot stand up, she is 80km from the hospital, and it would need 3 bus changes to get her to the treatment she needs. The others I saw were in similar situations. To those who have committed to helping these children I can only say thank you. It was heartbreaking to see the distress, helplessness of the families, and awful conditions. We are helping 50 children now thanks to sponsors recognising the acute need. We work under the umbrella of the Regional Cancer Centre who refer the children.
This work was started just over a year ago now when we were approached by the doctors of the Unamalaiammal Mission Hospital where we helped a UK Rotary club to set up a cataract surgery centre. The doctors were concerned that in one or two rural villages the poverty because of drought was so extreme that elders were considered a drain on the family food supply and they were sure that in some cases radical action had been taken. They gave us details of the worst 10 situations, and since then the elders of each family have been given a food supply - this stops if the elder is not alive. Difficult to write about this one, but we did the right thing.
Likewise with families in bonded labour, usually in brick factories. Of course we can't help them all (the WHO estimates that 2.5 million children are in bonded labour ), But over the last year we have helped 3 families to leave their bondage, setting them up in a rented house, providing beds, cooking pots, food supplies and most importantly getting children in to school. Within a few months the families can become self sufficient. We are in the process of helping another family who will hopefully move to live in a small shack on our land, which should develop in the next months as a smallholding - a step towards self sufficiency.
The Tsunami led to us helping in Sri Lanka for 2 years during recovery, a difficult but rewarding time when our help really went to source with excellent effect.
My final meeting tomorrow will be at the Regional Cancer Centre where I have time with Care Plus and the hospital director. This will be to discuss the need for a doctor on at least one of our ambulances as increasingly morphine therapy is needed and that has to be under strict control. I will send out more details about this to those supporting this work after my return home.
So the end - almost of trip 50 and perhaps the best piece of news of all. Dear Muthukumar takes a lot of responsibility for our work, assisted by Ranjith, and now, as from today, by Karthik. This is so wonderful because both boys ( well young men but they will always be my boys) both possessing Masters degrees were picked up by, and educated by our Trust from ages 4 and 7. They are our long term future. Could the work be in any better hands?! Thank you so much to you all for enabling such events to take place.