Life couldn’t have been better for young Preethi Srinivasan. She was a professional swimmer, a meritorious student and the captain of Tamil Nadu’s Under-19 women’s cricket team. But in one stroke, Preethi’s life changed. In 1998, she was out with friends when she met with an accident which left her paralysed neck down. The incident failed to quash her spirit. With time, all her fighting qualities surfaced, as did the sportsperson in her – one determined to never give up. Today, she runs her own non -governmental organisation, Soulfree, which helps people whose lives have changed because of mishaps.
In conversation with ParentCircle, Preethi Srinivasan talks about her struggles, Soulfree and the role her parents played in helping her fight against the odds.
PC: You were among the top two per cent merit students in grade 12. How important do you think it is for children to do well in studies?
PS: Yes, I was among the top two per cent merit students but my parents never pushed me. If a child has an automatic preference to excel and is ready to put in the work to do so, it is good. However, I don’t think it should end up being a burden on the child.
PC: You were also the captain of the U-19 Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team and a champ swimmer. How did you manage to find a balance between your education and sports? And how important do you think it is for children today to be fit?
PS: It was tough to find a balance between the two. There was a time when I was swimming 6-7 hours a day and practising for over 10 hours. I never had time for a social life. There were times when I was unhappy with the way things were and yearned to just sit and play games like other kids. My parents didn’t push me into it, but once you reach the competitive stages, it does get difficult and hectic.
I still think fitness is the key in today’s world where children, by and large, lead a sedentary life. The gift of a healthy body is a miracle — 200 muscles need to work together for the human body to take a single step forward. A fit body helps the mind stay alert and concentrate more. Extra-curricular activities are as important as academics for the overall growth and development of a child’s personality. Sports, especially team sports, are important as they give the added advantage of team building. But, while fitness is necessary and important, it shouldn’t come to a situation where the child is forced into it.
PC: That one accident changed your life. How difficult was it for you to cope with the sudden change?
PS: Our identity at the age of 17-18 is largely based on the way we look, behave, our friends and our achievements. And in a split second, I was stripped of everything that I was.
For the first year you are just fighting to survive. Every morning, you wake up thinking that there is going to be a miracle. You can’t accept that this is going to be you for the rest of your life. Suddenly, people were looking at me with sympathy and pity. Some of them would even look at me and then turn away. I couldn’t imagine what I had done to deserve that. For two years after my accident, I isolated myself and stayed in my apartment. It was a long process of healing. It took almost a decade for me to accept myself again.
PC: What role did your parents play in helping you rebuild your life? Do you think parents’ motivation is the key to helping a child move forward in life?
PS: In my case, my parents have been instrumental. I’m paralysed below my neck and without my mother I wouldn’t make it through a day. My parents sacrificed their entire life so that I could live with dignity. I have always been close to my parents, but after my accident we started living like a single unit. I lost my father to a heart attack in 2007. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it. The role of a parent is instrumental in moulding the personality of a child, but at the same time they should give their child the space to learn more about herself and not be too possessive.
PC: Tell us more about Soulfree. What made you want to start such an organisation?
PS: When my father passed away in 2007, we were left helpless. He was our only connection to the outside world. And when he passed, we didn’t know what to do. My mother and I had to learn a lot of things and it took almost two years for us to get back on our feet. In 2011, my mother had to undergo bypass surgery and our well-wishers realised that we needed to do something to secure our future. So, we started looking for long-term rehabilitation centres across India that would provide us care, and we couldn’t find a single one. This is when my mother asked me to be the change and start Soulfree.
Our ultimate aim is to start an inclusive township where people can come, live and learn skills that will help them become productive so that the township can be self-sustaining.
PC: Do you think people with disabilities are treated differently from everyone else? What kind of challenges do they have to face?
PS: We are like an invisible segment of society; nobody sees us. I know of cases where women have been encouraged by their own families to commit suicide. A person in a wheelchair is looked at and pitied. But what I want to say is that if someone was in my condition, she probably wouldn’t be able to take it for even half an hour. However, we need to be given a chance to get educated and lead a life with dignity and purpose. We can be productive too, and lead a normal life.
PC: Any success stories of Soulfree that you can share with us?
PS: Just recently, we had a wheelchair donation drive. We gave a young man from an impoverished family a good wheelchair because he was excellent at wheelchair basketball. He was overjoyed and told everyone that he would never have to crawl on the floor again.
There was another man who was a paraplegic. His upper body was functioning properly, but he wasn’t doing anything. However, by the end of the year, with the help of our monthly stipend programme where we provide the needy with Rs 1,000 per month for a year, he had leased a small piece of farmland. His land had abundant harvest, helping him employ three others and lease a bigger piece of land.
PC: How does it feel to be an inspiration to so many people?
PS: When people tell me that they are inspired, I feel happy, for this makes my life meaningful. I’m serving the purpose that I have chosen, but other than that I do not have the ambition to become anything.
PC: Do you have any message for children and parents?
PS: Children, enjoy your life. There is only one life we live; live in the present and live it to the fullest. Write down your goals. And if you are passionate about something, do your best to achieve it.
Parents, give your children unconditional love and care. But, also give them the space to be themselves. Let them learn things by themselves, and lend them support and encouragement.
Preethi’s advice is certainly worth taking, coming as it does from a person who believes, “The experiences of the last decade have taught me much more than any degree or any other type of academic or material success could have ever given me.”