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Family—one word with multiple meanings and thousands of emotions.
In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly declared 15 May as the International Day of Families “to promote [the] awareness of issues relating to families and to increase the knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting families.”
Every year since, this day is used as a platform to highlight various issues plaguing families around the world and measures that can be taken to resolve them and move towards a harmonious future.
While many of us think of our blood relations as our family, it is also true that the term encompasses several people who are well outside that circle. Like, for instance, the landlady who took care of you when you fell ill, or the neighbour who fed your pet when you were travelling, or even the friend who bailed you out of a tight spot.
The Better India brings you eight beautiful stories of people who formed a powerful connection with others, and redefined the meaning of a family:
1. Solomon Raj: A Father to 45 HIV+ Kids
In 2005, when Chennai-based Solomon Raj learnt about an abandoned 6-year-old who was HIV+, his first instinct was to involve an NGO that could take care of the child’s upbringing.
However, he soon realised that NGOs were afraid to admit the child because of their regressive attitude and stigma. Nevertheless, he continued to try, till the day he met the child, Arputha.
After finding out that Arputha’s family had succumbed to the virus, and he had nowhere to go, Solomon decided to make him a part of his own family. He took this step despite having a wife and two biological children.
Today, he is ‘Solomon Appa’ to 45 HIV+ kids, and through the Shelter Trust, his registered non-profit, he has created a safe haven for kids once abandoned and left to fend on their own.
Solomon has taken the entire responsibility of their food, education, health and wellbeing. The shelter home has an on-call doctor, counsellor, accountant and psychologist.
2. Fiza Shah: The Head of Mumbai’s Most Pawfect Family
Losing her beloved pet dog 21 years ago opened Fiza Shah’s eyes to the plight of other animals around her. Since then, the 54-year-old has rescued over 300 animals including dogs, goats, rabbits, horses, cows, bullocks, geese, hens and cats.
She rehabilitates them to her 6-acre farm in the Virar region of Mumbai.
Fiza has employed 15 people who look after the welfare of the animals and nurture them 24/7, and she takes care of all the expenses like food, medical treatment, maintenance, and the salaries of the employees.
“Adoption is not everyone’s cup of tea. Most people today adopt an animal as a social status to show off. Some NGOs mint money in the name of rescue work. One important thing to keep in mind while adopting is that the puppy will one day turn very old or may get injured severely. In such times, most people give up on them. This is the cruellest thing one can do. So adopt purely out of love and compassion.”
3. Deb Kumar: A Son to 300 Elders In Kolkata
For around 300 seniors who cannot afford a care home in Kolkata, Deb Kumar Mallick is nothing less than a saviour. Be it the scorching summer heat or torrential rains, a medical emergency or the simple wish to go on a short trip, they know that their ‘son’ will help them out, no matter what.
Born and brought up in Baranagar, Kolkata, Deb Kumar battled immense hardships throughout his growing years, but he was always keen to help elderly people in need. So, in 2015, when his finances were finally in place, he started feeding a group of homeless, elderly people every day in front of his house.
“One afternoon, my neighbour approached me and asked for some food for his wife. The elderly couple lived in a decent house, so I was taken aback at his unusual request. That’s when I got to know that their only son had deceived them of the entire property and left them to die. I was beyond shocked,” recounts Deb.
He started enquiring about such elderly citizens in and around his area who were enduring a similar fate and was soon flooded with appeals. That is when he decided to take over the responsibility of their lunch, dinner and medical expenses, indefinitely.
Deb is assisted by 64 other dedicated volunteers who deliver wholesome meals twice in a day to the elderly.
Not just that, Deb also maintains two cars for a medical emergency and provides a dignified funeral service at only Re 1 for homeless seniors.
4. S Ramakrishnan: Building An Inclusive Family
Growing up in Ayikudi, Tamil Nadu, S Ramakrishnan, dreamed of becoming an Indian Navy officer. In his fourth year of college, he sent in his application and went through various endurance and intelligence training programmes in Bengaluru.
During one of the sessions, he was asked to jump from a tree to a platform. Before he knew what happened, he had leapt off the tree but was on the ground, wincing in pain. He was rushed to a hospital, but the damage was done—he was diagnosed with tetraplegia, a condition in which the body becomes immobile from neck down.
However, he refused to wallow in self pity. Taking inspiration from Air Vice-Marshal Dr Amarjit Singh Chahal, who would often say that there was much more to his life than a frail body, he decided to write his own fate, and went on to establish the Amar Seva Sangam, an organisation that rehabilitates and empowers people with physical and mental disabilities.
The organisation has made a difference in the lives of over six lakh people so far..
“Every time we would step out, people would either look at us with curiosity or pity. Here, none of that happens. We fall, we laugh, we pick ourselves up and keep going. I haven’t felt this liberated ever before,” says a young lady, living at the Sangam.
Ramakrishnan’s efforts are showing the world that disability cannot and should not be the basis for discrimination.
5. Ashok Deshmane: Building A Happy Family With Children Of Distressed Farmers
Ashok Deshmane, the son of a farmer in Maharashtra’s Parbhani district, grew up witnessing the several problems his father faced every crop cycle. From heavy loans, crop damages to high-interest rate, the Deshmane family suffered both financially and mentally.
That’s when Ashok swore that he would not let other children go through the same circumstances that he did.
So, in 2015, Ashok founded Snehwan, a home and school for children of marginalised and drought-affected farmers. Here, he not only imparts primary education but also teaches them necessary life skills to succeed in life.
“Even when there used to be a drought in the village, you could always find some farmers who were unaffected. The secret was knowledge. These kids will learn farming without even going to school. But they will learn to deal with farming problems only if they have the knowledge, and only quality education can provide them with that,” says Ashok.
6. Rahul Yadav: A True Warrior
In 2017, Rahul Yadav succumbed to Plasma Cell Leukaemia (PCL) in 2017, and hundreds of condolence messages poured in from all across India.
Rahul’s death left an irreplaceable void among the members of his NGO, Yoddhas, which was founded to bring together people living with cancer so that they could share their daily ordeals. It also acts as a crowdfunding platform to lessen the financial burden on families of cancer patients.
After his passing, his wife, Rashi Yadav took over the NGO, that currently has 15,000 members who help each other overcome challenges–both financial and emotional–just like a family.
“For every cancer patient, it is nothing less than a battle. They fight the disease irrespective of the outcomes. Many people do not share [news] about their cancer [diagnosis] out of embarrassment or [to avoid] sympathy. Here at Yoddhas, everyone is a family [and] supports each other through thick and thin,” says Rashi.
From educating students and corporate houses about life and health insurances, helping patients connect with doctors, caregivers, visiting bone marrow registries to raising money, the organisation that Rahul is touching several lives each day.
7. Annie Babu: Giving a Home to Orphans & Abused Women
Annie Babu, a resident of Kottayam, discontinued her social service at an NGO after a tragic incident.
What happened was that due to financial troubles, the NGO she worked for refused to admit two women, and with nowhere to go, they committed suicide.
But, if one incident made Annie leave the field, another brought her back. When she got to know about a 3-month old child who had been abandoned in a train by her own family, Annie adopted her and inspired by the event, eventually, opened her own NGO named Santhawanam Charitable Trust to give a new family and provide shelter to orphans and abused women.
It houses about 90 orphans, abused young mothers, and elderly abandoned women.
Even though the beneficiaries are rescued from clutches of a dark world, the emotional trauma is very hard for them to overcome.
To help them, Annie provides psychological treatment counselling, meditation, police intervention and free legal aid to these women as per the situation and later, opportunities that can help them attain self-reliance and financial independence through education, job-oriented training and placements in vocational institutes.
8. Sudhir Goyal: Giving a Shelter to Destitutes
As a child, it was not easy for Sudhir Goyal to see his grandmother and uncle suffer constantly and be ridiculed, because of their mental illness.
So, in 1986, he started an NGO, Sewadham Ashram, to provide shelter, food and medical aid to the elderly and needy.
“When I started my journey, I found so many helpless people; men, women, and children. It changed me in ways that I cannot even describe in words,” he says.
Among the destitute people are the ones who are abandoned by their own families. “They are just abandoned there, with no money, no food, and no means of finding their way back. I have personally brought so many elders left behind to the ashram,” he says.
Sudhir, who is 61 now, has been running the ashram for almost three decades and never turned away anyone who comes for help.
It is people like Sudhir who are showing us that families can be formed anywhere and with anyone. All you need is a big heart, and the willingness to help.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)