‘They call each other brothers’
When the alcoholic father of Muthailan and Muthuvel deserted the boys – then aged nine and 11 – and their mother in their small village in South India, the family fell apart. To feed her children, their mother turned to the flesh trade – and once neighbours discovered her shameful secret, they made her an outcast.
Cut off from all those she loved, and ridiculed daily, she was desperate. She poisoned both boys, and then hung herself. But villagers found the children in time to rush them to hospital, where doctors fought to save their lives.
Left homeless and orphaned, they had nowhere to turn, until the local child welfare office contacted a pastor, Jeyaseelan John, in Coimbatore, South India.
Muthailan and Muthuvel aren’t the only children Jeyaseelan has saved. Using his own money, he set up an orphanage – the Cornerstone Children’s Home – in an old warehouse to care for kids with no parents or whose parents are unable to look after them.
Traumatised by their experience, the boys did not speak or interact with volunteers around them for the first eight months. “At such a young age, they had suffered more than most will experience in a lifetime,” Jeyaseelan says. “But we were determined to help them put the horrors of their early childhood behind them, and make a life for themselves.”
The boys are not alone. India’s streets are home to more than 11 million children, according to a UN report, leaving many vulnerable to crime and entrapment in the sex trade. Faced with overwhelming need, the hot, cramped and unsanitary warehouse set up by Jeyaseelan quickly filled up with children who had nowhere else to turn.
Despite Jeyaseelan’s best efforts, the warehouse was simply not big or well-equipped enough to cope with the huge demand. And when Natasha Mansigani, now 25, volunteered at Cornerstone, she was moved almost to tears by the children’s stories. So three years ago she left her London charity job, determined to set up her own charity – what would become the Big Hug Foundation – to provide better accommodation for the children. The youngest child in the orphanage, Gowri, now seven, moved to Cornerstone as he was unable to live with his drug addict, abusive father and depressed mother. Gowri’s brother Keerthivasan, 10, was also sent to Cornerstone, while his sister stayed at a girls’ home.
“Gowri has no recollection of the events that led him to Cornerstone Home, as he was only a toddler when they occurred,” says Natasha.
“To him, the children at the home are his siblings, and the volunteers are his parents – they all call each other best friends, and brothers. He is an extremely bright boy who enjoys listening to music.”
Natasha searched for better premises, but landlords were wary about letting a family home to be used to house 30 children.
Then a friendly tuk-tuk driver found a kind landlord who was happy to rent a two-storey villa to be used as an orphanage – and careful refurbishment began. Natasha made several improvements over the old premises. Instead