How it all began at Deepalaya

The seeds for the establishment of Deepalaya were undoubtedly sown while one of its’ main founders, Mr. Mathew, was still a young boy growing up with his mother in a remote village in Kerala. “I was born in Cochin but the entire family, excluding my father, moved to our native village while I was still very young. Since my father stayed away and visited us occasionally, we were brought up under the strict discipline of our mother. My mother was someone who would not tolerate anything, which was not right or ethical. So in the whole village, people used to cite our example for the way we were brought up and the way our family used to be managed. We belong to a particular Christian community so we had a church. As Christians, our day used to begin with the Morning Prayer. Besides prayers, we used to regularly read our Bible. We used to be regular in the Sunday school, church and other fellowships organised in the church. So bringing up has made a difference and inculcated certain life skills and religious values. Deepalaya is a direct result of my value system.”

Set up in 1979, Deepalaya aims to identify with and work along with the economically and socially deprived, the physically and mentally challenged — starting with children — so that they become educated, skilled and aware. The organization has established the first NGO public school for poor children and a human resource centre for capacity building in Delhi. The organisation’s Deepalaya Gram rehabilitates street, working and disabled children.

 “It all started back in the late 70s when three of Deepalaya’s founder members – Mr. Y. Chackochan, Mr.P.J.Thomas and myself – were office bearers at the St. Thomas Marthoma Church, New Delhi. We were Treasurer, Accountant and Secretary respectively,” recalls T.K. Mathew. “We used to meet regularly and reminisce about the Sunday School lessons we learnt while growing up in our native places. We pondered over those teachings – that as Christians, we had to be the salt of the earth, the light on the mount and a seed in the soil. We began to ask ourselves: How do we serve the society as true Christians? Deepalaya was the result of such introspection.”

Being a non-Christian myself, I wasn’t familiar with those teachings. So, on my request, he elaborated first on the term Salt of the Earth. Salt is a flavoring agent cum preservative. It adds taste to food and even keeps it from getting stale. It used for enhancing the flavor of the food; not adding any value by itself. When added to food, it adopts the color and identity of the food and is therefore self-effacing. This sacrificial nature of salt is how one should serve others – selflessly.

If the light is on the mount or any other high pedestal, it provides illumination to a large number of people. This shows that light does not exist for itself. In the same manner, one should lead a life through which others can be enlightened or others can draw inspiration from.

In the same manner, a seed does not produce anything by itself. When it comes in contact with soil and water, it germinates and becomes a plant. Plants go on to flower and give fruits. Similarly a person should commit oneself to nurture this growth process.

These principles made the 3 of them speculate on what they could do for the society at large. All three were born, brought up and educated in Kerala villages. They were lucky to have been educated, which is what brought them to Delhi. In fact, they had been educated by civil society because in that pre-independence era, there were no schools run by the government. It was local elders who took the initiative to establish and run a local school with their own resources, thereby facilitating them the ‘right to education’. They thus wanted to do the same.

At that time, less than 50 percent of the country was literate. On considerable reflection, they felt that their efforts should rightfully be directed at educating the poor. To meet the mandatory seven-Board member rule, they invited like-minded people from their church – Mrs. Grace Thomas, Mr. C.M. Mathai, Mr. Punnose Thomas and Mr. T.M. Abraham to be part of their initiative too. In 1979, Deepalaya Education Society was registered and the Deepalaya School opened, teaching just five children, in a rented house at F Block, Chittaranjan Park in New Delhi. Mrs. Grace Thomas herself taught the students. Each of them contributed Rs. 2,500 each as an initial investment, apart from Rs 100 as membership fee. He says, “This was a fairly large sum in those days; especially since all seven of us hailed from lower middle class families.”

By 1984, the strength of the school had grown to 133, with 44 students obtaining free education. The following year, they had 356 students, 158 of which were girls.


Obstacles have been a part a parcel of this 25+ year old organization; starting with space for the first school that was set up in 1979. He recalls, “No one was willing to rent their house for a school. Luckily, one of Mr. Y. Chackochan’s contacts, someone he knew for a long time, agreed to rent his house to us.”In order to reduce burden of the rent on Deepalaya, Mr. Y Chackochan himself moved into the house with his family.”

Funds were also a problem. In addition to the initial investment of Rs. 17,500 made by the original Board Members, the children paid Rs. 20 as an enrollment fee. The team also organized a funfair, where proceeds from the sale of raffle tickets and home-made eatables was donated to the foundation.

Even registration of the organization turned out to be quite an ordeal! Mr. Mathew recalls how he had to make 13 visits to the Registrar’ office, till they were finally registered!

In 1990’s, when the number of children enrolled could no longer fit into the Chackochan living room, finding new premises took forever. Until that was done, the school ran as two shifts – one in the mornings and another in the afternoons.

First Funding Breakthrough:

In the middle of 1982, after much research on grants, a proposal was submitted to Moviento Sviluppo e Pace (MSP), Italy requesting a grant of Rs. 1,00,000 for a school van. Mr. Giovanni, the company’s representative in India, strongly recommended Deepalaya’s case and got it sanctioned. This was Deepalaya’s first tranche of external funding, which encouraged them to seek out more support. A second grant from the same organization added two rooms to the first floor of their new premises. Brick by brick, the strength of the school grew. By 1984, 44 of a total of 133 students were receiving free education!

Emerging of different projects:

The school was the first of many projects to come. Deepalaya truly believes in ‘Journey is the destination.’ Mr Mathew laughs and adds “We have dared to build beautiful castles, some of which are still in the air. We need to forge ahead relentlessly to put pillars under them so that they remain not in the air but rather become a ground reality.”

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