Meet the Silver Social Workers of Pune. From helping local women earn a living to maintaining a clean and green city, they do it all. Chandana Banerjee meets them.
Meet Sister Rosalia – the 81-year-old nun who helps women earn their families’ respect by teaching them vocational skills. At first glance, Ishwari, the skill-building center in Phulgaon, near Pune, that Sister Rosalia runs, looks like an idyllic little farm. With a cottage and a communal kitchen set amidst green kitchen gardens, a winding river in the backyard, and a host of animals – chickens, ducks, dogs, rabbits, cats, cows, and once even a horse – this is the kind of place that soothes an urban soul with the balm of serenity. But don’t let this fool you. Within the sprawling but simple kitchen, there’s always a flurry of activity and a host of heavenly aromas that can give a five-star hotel’s state-of-the-art kitchen some serious competition.
A group of local village women turn out treat after treat, baking, cooking, canning, and preserving food, all of which is sold at exhibitions, or on order, at the most pocket-friendly prices. From oven-fresh ginger biscuits and a plethora of pickles to lip-smacking spring rolls, wines, herbal tonics, and decadent jams, there’s always a treat to tuck into or bring home if you wander into the kitchens.
What is also interesting is that the women who work here are not only trained cooks, but also businesswomen, who learnt all these skills in the 9-month long training program that Sister Rosalia runs for local village girls and women.
“Apart from cooking and baking, we also teach them embroidery, greeting card-making, stitching, medicine-making, and basic business skills,” explains this 81-year-old nun, who started this self-help program 25 years ago after retiring from the Medical Missionary. “The idea is to teach them life skills that will make them confident, bring out their creativity, and make them financially independent.”
While some start their own eateries or businesses, others who graduate from this program go on to work in factories or stores, more self-assured after the education they receive. Sister Rosalia also feels that these girls go on to create a more peaceful married life sans domestic violence because of the way they handle situations and people in their lives.
But running a program like this in a village, as well as managing a culinary business, is anything but easy. From convincing the villagers to send their daughters for this programme, to coming up with new skills to add to the already-existing repertoire, to ensuring that the highest standards and proper hygiene are maintained while creating these products, there’s always something to keep Sister Rosalia on her toes. “We also operate on funds and gently-used kitchen equipment that people donate, and so things can be tight,” Sr. Rosalia mentions.
Another Pune Good Samaritan is Sheila Christian, the crusader with a passion for helping people and cities. This 69-year-old is a stalwart in the city of Pune, and while many know of her as the lady who helps keep the city clean, she does much more than this. The Vice-President of the National Society of Clean Cities, Sheila is also the Trustee of St. John’s Trust, where she looks after an old-age home, an orphanage, a crèche, and schools where underprivileged children get an excellent education and a chance to eke out a career of their own.
Christian is also deeply involved in the social development of battered women, and used to run a program at the YWCA to impart vocational skills to them.
“We taught them tailoring, embroidery, home nursing care, naturopathy, and massage skills, to help them set up their own businesses. The idea was to help them become financially independent,” she explains. She adds that these days she dedicates most of her time to keeping the city clean and green. “We moved into our flat on Boat Club Road in 1985, and saw overflowing garbage bins. Shocked, I started trying out vermi-composting and other methods to convert my kitchen waste into food for my garden.”
An avid gardener, she created a model garden using these innovative waste-management methods when her kids were in school. She also persuaded other people to give it a shot to make the city a cleaner place to live in. Even today, she conducts workshops across the city to help people manage their wet waste.
For almost 30 years, Christian has been working tirelessly to make the city a better place to live in. She has armed several under-privileged citizens with education and skills to help them cope with their terrifying life situations. So what drives her to continue doing this work, day after day, year, after year?
“I think it’s a sort of craziness to do something. I hope that it will make a difference somewhere,” answers this cancer survivor with a pocketful of plans for Pune.
These two silver social workers of Pune are surely an inspiration for others. You can help them with their work by donating your time, energy, money, or simply by learning. Also, mention them to other senior citizens who may want to use their skills and time for the greater good. To get in touch with them, you can contact them at the following numbers:
Sheila Christian: 09881100270
Sister Rosalia: 07798833216
Silvertalkies is an online magazine and offline engagement platform that aims to create a vibrant community of people over 60. To be a part of their events, or to enrich your retired parents’ lives, visit their website.