Kanchana Kathiresan is one of those people whose stories are an endless source of inspiration. She makes you wonder how real life accounts can be as fascinating as fiction.
Why is Kanchana’s life so extraordinary? Because of what she has seen and experienced, and how she is using every bit of it for the society. Kanchana started off with a degree in social work. After completing her education, she started working with various NGOs. One of them was the Cheshire Home in Chennai; it mostly serves mentally disabled children along with others. Here Kanchana saw great friendships foster between the disabled – friendships that were reassuring for even the able bodied. One of these was between Suresh and Maylappan. Suresh, who was in grade six at that time, Kanchana tells me years later, was confined to the wheelchair. His mother had died when the wall of their house had collapsed. His father was already dead due to drinking. All he had was a younger sister, and a best friend Maylappan, who was visually challenged. In a poignant voice, Kanchana went on to narrate how Suresh took a year to heal in the hospital. He had bed sores but he lived through it as he wanted to be there for his sister. “He said he wanted to get her married. I remember on World Disability Day, there was a function for the children. Maylappan, who was blind, would drag Suresh’s wheelchair and Suresh would give directions. It was overwhelming to see them,” says Kanchana. And then the serious look on her face is suddenly replaced by a smile as she tells me how Suresh recently got married. “He even called me last week to tell me that they have just had a baby,” she says.
Kanchana Kathiresan is one of those women whose strength of character and motivation to do good can only form part of ageless literature. In 2007, she started a small school in Mysore, under the name Praythna Trust. Why Praythna? “Because it is the adult’s commitment to the child’s life that makes the difference,” says Kanchana.
Discussing her work and model, she adds, “I run a school for children from low income families. We are in the fourth academic year now and have over 60 children. The idea is to create an environment for equal opportunity.” How is her school different from any other? “We focus on both the mother and the child. We are working with almost 20 mothers, teaching them vocational skills like stitching, tailoring, computer basics, cooking, as well as awareness on health and nutrition, etc. If mothers also come, read and write, it gives them more confidence. They are equipped to support the progress of the child. We faced major financial challenges in implementing this idea. I make it a point for mothers to seek some form of employment, either with Praythna or elsewhere,” she adds.
Kanchana’s school works on the Montessori Method of education. A few years ago, she had enrolled herself in a B.Ed just to know what they teach future teachers. She found a lack of motivation in most candidates pursuing the course. Later, she decided to enroll herself in Montessori learning and implement it in her school. “This method focuses on teaching through stories, rhymes and games. We display the material on shelves and encourage children to learn through hands-on experience,” she says.
Kanchana’s target is to grow the school by one class every year. Apart from educating the child, she has achieved a lot in terms of providing training and employment to mothers. “We have established a unit for mothers to stitch and make products like bags, ladies’ purses, etc. We source material from Karur, TN. There are sixteen women here who can now stitch confidently. Thirteen have started training others already. We could buy eight sewing machines (each machine with stool costs about Rs 3900) in two batches because a ladies club here expressed their willingness to rent small sums to our women groups. The women paid it all back in three months. We are now able to pay Rs 9250 to one trainer per month,” she explains.
A constant question in my mind is how the women are able to sell the products they make? In this case, people in Karnataka have been quite supportive. “Karnataka has had a tradition of giving blouse pieces to guests who comes to someone’s house. Now they’ve started giving our purses!” says Kanchana.
Today, her unit has two design supervisors also. Training and cutting of cloth takes place in the school premises while stitching can be done in the women’s houses. This way, the husbands have no reasons to complain either.
Has Kanchana looked at the personalized gifting model? “Yes, but we haven’t done it because money gets tied up there,” she says with a smile that reflects confidence of a self-taught social entrepreneur.
For more, visit http://praythnatrust.org/