It’s been some time since we consciously sensitized ourselves by replacing the word ‘disability’ with ‘differently abled’ and ‘challenged’. Now, here we have someone who has dared to replace ‘mental disability’ with ‘employability’ – Madhumita Puri, Founder of Society for Child Development. It’s indeed an endeavour that has hearteningly pushed the boundaries of limitation to claim new territories.
Madhumita was working as a clinical psychologist in the genetics department of a hospital in Delhi. She happened to frequently see parents who were being given the news of disability of their children. That was the beginning of a long journey for the parents. But Madhumita started to feel that as doctors, they were looking at the issue with a narrow perspective. The issue at hand was more a social issue than a medical one. She thought she could probably do more if she went out of her medical job to don the role of an enabler for these children and their parents. She quit her job way back in 1992 and took to work on her calling. That was the beginning of Society for Child Development.
The Society started a school and training centre in that part of Delhi where facilities such as this were not available for marginalized families. The idea was to take a life span approach through early childhood, school education, skill development, life skills and shelter care for young adults who have no families or have been abandoned by their families. She roped in doctors and educators to become part of the society.
In the beginning, there was a good inflow of donations, but that couldn’t be a sustainable roadmap in the long run. Also, Madhumita started realizing that there was a glass ceiling which they reached even by providing the children with education. The children suffered from severe mental challenges and education and training becomes insufficient after a point. The parents lose interest in sending their children to school. Was it possible to crack through this ceiling?
The challenges were to look beyond education, encourage parents to send their children to the school and reduce dependency on donations. And as serendipity had it, Madhumita was struck by a beautiful idea.
During one of their efforts to clean the surroundings of their vocational centre, they wanted to dispose the flower waste from a temple into a nearby lake. Shockingly they found that the lake was chokingly polluted and she brought the flowers back. This got her thinking, can we make good use of these flowers? There are tons of flowers from temples in India that get dumped into garbage. Can these be utilized in some way? Natural Holi colours, came the answer.
She got the ball rolling at the Society for ‘Trash to Cash’ – recycling trashed flowers which will reap economic benefits for challenged young adults above the age of 18. Skill development began for the children to recycle the flowers to produce natural and non-toxic Holi colours. Selling these colours, the Society was able to start paying the wards a stipend for their work.
For these young adults, this exercise offered a calming and aromatic effect, a sense of achievement and the unlocking of rewarding experiences. For parents, it was an unexpected sense of empowerment to see their children earn a living and often a great economic support. In some families, these children are the sole earning members. In recognition of the impact that the ‘Trash to Cash’ initiative has created, the United Nations awarded the Society for Inclusive Entrepreneurial Business.
Madhumita walks every morning into the SCD centre to see over a hundred enabled youth. Here, there is never a dull moment and the perception of a sorrowful fate vanishes into thin air. The children and youth at the centre are accomplished, they have liaised a gentle relationship with the dogs that are sheltered at the centre, and they know that it is serious business that they are doing. They have made a business out of flower trash and expanded to weaving, newspaper recycling, agarbathi making and bag making.
They value the notes handed over to them at the end of every month and they also know that they should not disappear from work. Madhumita has taught them that ‘if you don’t give, it’s not dignified to get’. This work ethics is so strongly engraved in their minds that some parents complain that their children refuse to take a day off from work and accompany them to go elsewhere!
Madhumita’s commitment, imagination, innovation and beyond all that her belief that there can be a better life for the mentally challenged, has carved out a new world for these children and their families. Madhumita is planning to take this change to more cities – Bangalore, Chennai, Ajmer, Jaipur and Kolkata will soon see more empowered and distinctly abled children.