Meet Alice Thomas, a social worker from Puducherry who has spent 32 years funding the education of over 150 children from tribal and marginalised communities and helping them find jobs as paramedical staff, teachers, engineers, and more through her NGO Udhavi Karangal.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a young Alice is bored of sitting by the river with her sister. She spots a rabbit that looks rather different and decides to follow him on a whim. And so she heads down a rabbit hole and arrives in Wonderland.
As children, all of us who read the classic by Lewis Carroll dreamt of visiting Wonderland ourselves some day.
But what is this land? I suppose it depends from person to person. For me, it’s a fantasy land, but for many children who do not have anyone to look after them, it is basic education, dignified life, and a secure future.
Such is the case for several children in Puducherry, for whom ‘Alice’ has created a sort of ‘wonderland’ for the past 32 years.
Alice Thomas is a 53-year-old who runs Udhavi Karangal to work towards rehabilitation of children who have nowhere to go. These include those living on the streets, coming from tribal communities, orphans, or any child who needs a good education and life.
Take, for example, seven-year-old Subash* (name changed). His life included begging daily and eating whatever he received as alms. His parents were ragpickers and depended on him to collect money.
In 2001, Alice took him under her wing and transformed his life. Today, he is an engineer working in a MNC.
Subash is one of over 150 children that Alice, who started Udhavi Karangal in 1991, works with. She runs a primary school, a boys’ home, a girls’ home, and a girls’ observation home in Puducherry.
She began her endeavour when she was only 21 years old, and it all began with an eight-year-old boy.
Finding her ‘true calling’
“I was sitting at my friend’s house and a boy came begging and asking for food. I told him, ‘Why do you want to beg? Come with me, I’ll feed you and educate you’. He agreed immediately, but said that I must inform my mother. I took him on my cycle and the first thing his mother asked was, ‘Did you bring food?’. When he said no, she started yelling and beating him,” Alice recalls to The Better India.
But the boy insisted that he go with Alice, and the rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to him, she found her life’s purpose, she says. After he came to her house, he brought along two more friends. Alice helped them get a basic education and vocational training.
“Today, that boy’s daughter — my granddaughter — is pursuing her final year in BSc Nursing. Another grandson is a state hockey player in Tamil Nadu,” says Alice as she beams with pride.
Interested in social work since she was a teenager, Alice was involved in the total literacy programme in Puducherry even as a student.
“I was in charge of certain areas in town and slums. Most of the parents we saw were alcoholics and their children were ragpickers. They were dependent on their children for food and money. I always knew I wanted to help these children, but I also dreamt of becoming a lawyer like my grandfather. But that small boy showed me my true calling,” Alice smiles.
Initially, she would enrol the children in schools and provide vocational training. “But I was unable to help them beyond Class 10 or 12 initially. Slowly, as we grew and built these homes, we also started our own primary school. Today, we are fully equipped to help them with their post graduation and beyond,” she says.
When the first boy came, Alice rented a place next to her house. After a year, she says, she shifted them to her parent’s home. She later bought land in Nonankuppam, Puducherry.
Her organisation is government funded, with additional funding coming from Alice and well-wishers for provisions.
‘My biggest victory is their success’
Initially, getting children to their home was a challenge, but thanks to changes in government policies, it has become easier, she says.
“In the beginning, I would be on the roads to find these children. It was also tough convincing the parents. But now, people know of us and they send their children to us. It has become easier in the past 10-15 years. The government is also more aware, with the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and juvenile justice law,” adds Alice.
But even today, getting some children, like those from tribal communities, remains challenging.
“Some parents take their children to work in brick kilns or for sugarcane cutting. My focus now is on such children. For children whose parents don’t cooperate, we also offer home schooling and make them complete their education through correspondence,” adds Alice.
Such is her dedication to her children that she and her husband decided not to have any themselves, as they already had 13 when they got married.
As for what Alice means to the kids, Balaji, who has been associated with Udhavi Karangal since he was a child, says, “I came here in 2002, when I was about seven years old. It was just my mother and I, and Alice took us under her wing. Today, I’m an engineer working as a software developer in Chennai.”
In fact, many of the children, who Alice says are like her own, are engineers, nurses, paramedical staff, musicians, and social workers. “One of my children completed MPhil and MSW and is working as a senior child counsellor in our home. Another one did MSc Med and is the principal at my school. Their bright future is my biggest victory. They are able to give a good life to the next generation,” she says.
Edited by Divya Sethu