‘They call each other brothers’

Friday - - Society Making A Difference -

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

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