wheelchair user D Indra was barely four when she was admitted to a shelter home for children with mental and physical disabilities. She was allowed to visit her parents and elder sister only during the weekends, so she was aware of the pain of staying away from loved ones in hours of need.
Today, at 36, Indra is making sure others in her village find solace and comfort amid the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. In Sirunallur village, Tamil Nadu, she runs Prem Illam, a shelter home of Prema Vasam, an organisation for children with disabilities.
In 2019, Indra had started farming to provide healthy and organic meals to the children of Prem Illam. When the lockdown was imposed, she increased the yield. She provides lunch to those affected financially or due to COVID-19. She has also fed children whose parents were infected with the deadly virus.
“We grow 25 sacks of rice per cycle, which is sufficient to meet the needs of our organisation. The rest is distributed to the villagers. We are also planting vegetables and fruit-bearing trees on the organisation’s compound. The pandemic has been hard for all of us and we are happy to make a tiny difference with organic farming,” Indra tells The Better India. She often visits the farm, which is located on the outskirts of the village, to monitor the work.
Indra is like a mother to 30-odd girls with disabilities, but very few know about her inspiring journey.
A different world
Indra was diagnosed with polio when she was five months old, which led to a 90% disability. With the hope that she will one day walk again, her parents shifted her to a children’s organisation in Chennai. With no formal education beforehand, Indra learnt to read and write here. If other kids were attracted to toys, Indra found her solace in books. However, having academic dreams and career goals was never encouraged in her family.
This continued until Brother Selvyn Roy came into the picture. A clinical psychologist by profession, he was offering his services to several shelter homes across India and Sri Lanka when he met Indra.
Impressed by the teenger’s zest and curiosity, Selvyn decided to start his foundation, Prema Vasam, in 1999 to give special education to kids like Indra.
“Brother Selvyn believed in me and tried to convince my parents that I would be able to cope in a regular school. But my parents were very adamant about protecting me from being subject to mockery and jokes. They were looking out for my safety but I was not scared. He told me it would not be easy but he also assured me that he would stand beside me,” Indra says.
Indra was turned away by many schools, who either refused because of insufficient infrastructure for PwDs or because other students would not be comfortable. Finally, one school agreed to take her in Class 8.
“I’d spent the first 10-12 years of my life in the organisation or at home, so I was unaware of how our society functioned, or what was out there in the world. I had never been with children who weren’t physically or mentally disabled. I not only had to catch up with the curriculum at my new school, but also get used to being around other children of my age. At the end of every day, I would cry and complain to Brother Selvyn. But he did not give up and instead worked harder to teach me. He would even carry me to the school,” she adds.
One thing that helped Indra improve her grades was eliminating the fear of failure. Selvyn told her that it was okay to fail multiple times, as long as she didn’t quit.
Fortunately, when Indra switched schools in Class 9, she found herself amid supportive and friendly classmates. The school administration even shifted her class to the ground floor. This significantly boosted her confidence and morale and she scored 420/500 marks in her SSLC board exams.
She completed her graduation from St Joseph’s College and post graduation from Anna University. “My classmates and teachers made college life less hard. They would carry me from one lecture to another. I got lucky that way,” says Indra. With hard work and dedication, she not only secured a distinction, but also went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Computer Application.
While she received a job offer, Indra chose to work with Prem Illam as a way to give back. She wanted to be to other children what Brother Selvyn was to her, and so, in 2017, she joined his organisation as a head and has been working there since then.
“We take care of 30 girls, of which five are going to school. The remaining are home-schooled. I got a B.Ed degree in special education to help the children,” she adds.
Selvyn, who has been Indra’s unwavering support system throughout, is all praises for her. He says, “Indra is hardworking, very ambitious, and giving. She takes great care of the children and it is heartening to see her give back to society.”
The organisation is running on donations and currently, Indra and her team are looking for donors who can finance bedding for the children, provide support for cattle feed, and sponsor a solar plant.
You can reach out to her here, or donate below:
Account Number: 6893753941
Account Name: PREM ILLAM
Account type: Savings
IFSC code: IDIB000M072
Bank Name: Indian Bank
Branch Name: Madurantakam
Edited by Divya Sethu