The role models of social parenting

Children need good caregivers and good care even if they are underprivileged or orphans. We feature three homes set up by philanthropists that are exactly caregiving homes – and not mere institutions.

By Shashwathi Sandeep

The role models of social parenting


Research shows that people who have grown up in a good home that is safe and secure, tend to be more positive in outlook and respectful and caring about other human beings. Those children who are unfortunately denied this privilege tend to grow up aggressive, anti-social and are more prone to bad habits like drug or alcohol addiction. Most of the child’s neural development happens between 0-5 years of age, when proper parenting is critical.

What happens to orphans and underprivileged children with broken homes or no homes? There are many orphanages that go with the misnomer of homes and many ‘recognized’ homes are little better than residential hostels for destitute children. These places still do not provide the child the haven of security he needs, nor do they provide him the privilege of bonding with a caregiver.

Social parenting in its proper family context, helps the lesser privileged children understand the concept ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the whole world is our family).

SOS children's village of India (Chennai)

58-year-old B Vatsala and her daughter Chandralekha, doing a diploma course in the Hindustan College of Engineering and Technology, invite us into their house with radiant smiles on their face. We notice the array of trophies and medals, neatly arranged in a glass showcase, in an otherwise Spartan house. One of the cups awarded to a child is the best prize for a stone-picking event – something that revoked nostalgia in us about our own long forgotten childhood. Vatsala joined the SOS village in 1984 and almost immediately became the foster mother of nine children – the only mother these children know and love. Some of these children came to her as infants.

About SOS

The SOS movement was started by Hermann Gmeiner, an Austrian. Gmeiner and his siblings were brought up by the eldest sister, after the death of the parents. She never married because of this responsibility. Gmeiner himself had to give up his medical studies to enroll as a soldier in the Second World War. The number of war orphans and homeless children he encountered prompted him to set up SOS villages where a single woman (modelled after his sister) took care of a group of such children.

Each village has around 15 homes. Each home is run by a mother, who is either unmarried or single, and who becomes responsible for bringing up nine to ten children of varying ages. She is paid a salary. “We keep the mother on probation initially, to check if she likes the work. After all, she has to take care of a large household and also bond with her children. She instils in these children, a sense of self-esteem and values,” says R Jayabalan, the Assistant Village Director at SOS Children’s Village, Tambaram.

Each family is given a two bedroom house. The Chennai SOS village houses are surrounded by greenery and we see shikakai and other herbs drying under the sun near the tulasi plant in a common courtyard.

The family is given a fixed allowance for its maintenance, and the SOS mother has to manage the funds carefully. Education expenses, and private tuition fees for children in the 8th standard and higher, are managed by the SOS administration.

Life in an SOS home:

“We deliberately do not have a centralised kitchen, because that denies the family concept of the ‘home and hearth’ says Jayabalan. The mother has to keep house, cook and pack lunches for her children, wash clothes and do other work.

“I have to get up really early. All my children go to school at different times, with a gap of hardly 15 minutes between each of them; I have to finish all the cooking by 7 am and ensure they board their (different) school vans,” says V Uma Devi, a 30-year-old mother at the village.

But she is not complaining. “I got married when I was 15 years old and I lived with my husband for seven years before he died. I had no children. After coming to SOS, that void was filled and I felt at peace,” she says.

These mothers also do other typical stuff that mothers get to do in normal families. That is, worry about the teenage daughter who has suddenly become morose and suspect a boyfriend’s entry into the daughter’s life. Or stand in an endless queue in school to secure a son’s admission. Or finally give in to the children’s pestering to buy something or the other. And organize picnics. Many mothers also try to make small gold jewellery as dowry for their grown up daughters from money saved from their own salaries – which speaks of their involvement!

After boys cross 13 years of age, they are sent to another home managed by `an elder brother and his wife’ – but they visit their original home for every festival and holiday. Children of the same family get to visit each other even after they grow up and usually a married son keeps the mother with him after her retirement. “We visit our elder brother and his wife during the holidays. We miss them and want to spend time with them,” says Devaki, one of Vatsala’s daughters, who is studying BCA.

Despite SOS being so well- grounded, Uma Narayanan the Managing Trustee of the Chennai SOS village says, “Our families need to constantly understand the world outside and adapt to that change, without compromising on values. The world outside can be challenging and difficult. Technology is racing ahead leaving behind an impact. We have to prepare our children suitably to face the future.”

Daughter speak:

Rekha M, 25-year-old classical dance teacher, is a SOS child. She visits her mother Muthulakshmi, who stays with her elder brother in Hosur, at least once in two months. She also keeps in touch with all her other siblings, who are in Chennai and Trichy. She reminisces about her life as a child at SOS Village. “A clutch of five houses were grouped together to form a cluster. The cluster we lived in was a lot of fun. We used to plan trips to temples and beaches. We would ask the village administrators to organize a bus, all the mothers would pitch in the money and we would have a great time. I also remember distinctly that whenever there was a function at school, my mother would make haste and get me a new dress. My family is awesome and I am lucky to be a part of it,” Rekha says with affection.

Venus Riviera, Kalpakkam

Maheshwari is a 16-year-old studying in a CBSE School. She lives in a lovely house in a gated community, three kilometres from the Vayalur Junction, along with her 11 brothers and sisters. Everything seems normal. What sets House 39 apart is the fact that the children in this house do not live with their biological mother or father but with their foster mother Vimala Mummy (Vimala Seshadri). Sunita ‘Chitthi’ ( V Sunita) who lives next door takes care of the children in Vimala’s absence. The biological parents of other children living in this house are mostly daily wage labourers, or single parents and cannot afford bringing up their children. “Vimala has returned from the US and would like to impart better global values in her children. All the children have chores allotted to them and everyone has to speak in English,” explains Sunita.

Vimala gives the children very good education and clothing – no skimpiness is evident in this home. But no child is allowed to take the material comfort for granted. “I make it clear to them that financial independence is very important and that they have to study well and take up jobs. I tell them that they eventually have to support their biological family.” She runs a trust in the US called the Niveditha Trust through which she raises funds for the home, and also works as a consultant for CW Solution.

Family life:

The inmates live together like any other family where they pull each other’s legs. “During Lent, each of us had to give up one thing that we liked, but none of us saw this through till the end,” says Esther, with a mischievous smile. “I did try giving up fried food – but my resolve broke towards the end,” says Maheshwari. Says Sunita tongue-in-cheek, “I thought I would stop seeing movies, but then I felt that the children will miss my presence as we usually watch movies together and I had to break my promise for their sake.”

Are there fights in this house? “Yes, of course! But, we do have some rules that we do not break. No physical fights and no bad words,” says Maheshwari. “That is why we prefer not to talk to each other when we fight,” Esther pitches in. “Whenever the house is unnaturally quiet, Vimala realizes that there has been a fight. She resolves the dispute,” completes Sunita.

The children visit their real parents from time to time and vice-versa. Says Divya, now 22 years old and who had come here at the age of 12, “Last year was my 21st birthday and my father had come here to celebrate my birthday with me,” she says. “He is a chef and he cooked lunch for all of us,” says Sunita.

There is no television in this household – it is difficult to divide one among twelve children of varying ages. Instead the children play and go swimming. The children go on a holiday every year. Vimala actually has multiple vacations with the children. “While the older children would like to go to some place really ‘cool’, the little ones might like a trip to the zoo. This time, the older children went to Bangalore and the little ones will be going to Kanyakumari soon”, says Sunita.

“This place has become as good as my second home. When I was younger, I did not realize the impact as much - but now whenever I go back to my family during vacations, I find that I miss everybody here and keep calling them up every day,” says Maheshwari.

Shishur Sevay, Kolkata

Michelle Harrison, an American doctor sold her property in the US and moved to India in 2005. Her connection with India and the city of Kolkata dates back to the year 1984. “I have two children. I adopted one from Kolkata when she was just two months old. In the US, I tried my best to inculcate in her a love and appreciation for her culture and people,” she says.

Later, in 2000, during one of her visits to India, Michelle was affected by the plight of the street children. She started contributing towards the improvement of infrastructure in orphanages and sponsored the education of many children – and then decided to make Kolkata her home.

Shishur Sevay was set up as a home for orphan girls. It is a registered Non- Governmental Organization (NGO) in Kolkata.

Family life:

What sets Shishur Sevay apart? “It is not an orphanage but a home. My girls are part of my family and I share space with them ,” says Michelle. Twelve girls live together in a 1500 sft house with her and go to a regular ICSE School, because the government-run schools left much to be desired. A special educator comes home to teach children with disabilities,” she explains. The girls also take dance lessons and drawing lessons at home thrice a week.

Michelle is quite clear that the girls need to be comfortable with their own roots and traditions. “Durga Puja is celebrated in the home. The girls fast voluntarily and cook the feast every day, without being prompted by the staff. We have a puja every evening,” she says. She is a firm believer of self-discipline and ensures that the girls are disciplined too.

The home has become crowded, and Michelle has to move to a larger place in a safe locality. “We are getting money from Children’s Hope of India (US-based), Baal Dan and Asha Foundation – but I have to expand my network for more funds. What we have now is not enough,” says Michelle.

What we like about SOS village:

  • There is a large playground. Young children swing like monkeys from hanging banyan shoots. We see a three-year-old twin Vinodhini attempt the jungle gym without any fear. Uninhibited and carefree children demand that we take pictures of them as they come shrieking and speeding down the slide. The older ones play ball games. We get to see how physical activity develops a fellow-feeling and a sense of fun and relaxation among these children. There is no television to distract them.
  • The successful modelling and the scaling of the individual family concept, made sustainable through organized funding. This concept in turn promotes bonding with the mother in the family, as also with other mothers and elders in the community; there is understanding and affection among siblings. “The children may have been exposed to shock and trauma before they came to the home, but the environment we provide helps remove such stress to a great extent,” says Jayabalan.
  • The Chennai SOS village has its own visiting counsellors and nutritionist. Mothers are given regular training and counselling on how to handle situations when something becomes too overwhelming for them. Help is just a furlong away - the resident village director is always available.
  • Children are provided education right through college. However SOS does not dole out money without questioning everything, including the level of interest or talent in the child, to fund higher education. The rule is to optimize the use of money. This provides reassurance to donors and sponsors.
  • With at least 11 occupants in a house, furnishing is minimal. The houses are reasonably neat considering the number of children living inside. Everything, including clothing and pencils and water, are carefully used. Budgeting is essential to maintain the household. Thrift is ingrained as a value.
  • The mothers, over time, thanks to the exposure they are getting, become good psychologists themselves. After retirement, they are also given a pension. Before they leave, they train the new mothers, to make the emotional transition as smooth as possible for the children.

What we like about Venus Riviera:

  • The enthusiasm of the founder mother Vimala Seshadri, who is committed to her family and goes all out to get requisite funds to run the home successfully.
  • That she makes it clear that she is only the foster mother and that her children should not snap ties with their real mother, if there is one.
  • Even as Vimala offers considerable material comfort to her children in keeping with her lifestyle, she continues to make them understand the need for financial independence and pushes them to it. Two of her grown-up daughters, are planning to rent a house in the city and go to work.

What we like about Shishur Sevay:

  • It takes guts for a foreigner, a woman at that, to settle down in this country just to take care of girls who would otherwise be left to the mercy of the streets. The act is particularly notable and selfless, as there is no missionary zeal driving Michelle.
  • That Michelle could leave the US and the associated material comforts she could have easily enjoyed had she continued her practice there as a doctor. 
  • That Michelle respects the culture and ethnicity of India and is committed to her home, despite finding it a challenge to make ends meet.