Sometimes one particular incident sparks off a major change and that seems to be the case with how Maria Seva Sangha was set up. Ms. Ethel Brito was volunteering with a small school in Ashoknagar, and purely out of curiosity she asked a class of 60 students this simple question: “How many of you bring lunch to school?”
24 hands shot up. That shocked her when she realized the majority were hungry. Then, she said, “Open the tiffin boxes children, I’d like to see what you have brought.” This was at the gentle prompting of the principal. It turns out that 11 of the 24 boxes were empty. Says Ethel, “Those kids were too proud to say they were hungry, so they just carried an empty box.” This sole incident led to the setup of Maria Seva Sangha – an organization through which she would provide midday meals and more to underprivileged school kids.,
Infact, another problem in schools that came to her attention was poor attendance. An old newspaper article quotes her as saying, “The poor kids preferred going to work as domestic help in order to get some food rather than go hungry to school. This was an issue that had to be addressed if we were to bring the little ones back into schools.” Providing mid-day meals seemed to be the right step to take because attendance rose sharply to 80% after that.
Educated in the Good Shepherd Convent, Bangalore, Ethel joined the Government service soon after her graduation. She rose through the ranks to become the Deputy Director of Information and Publicity in the Government of Karnataka. An old newspaper article quotes her as saying, “It was tough going. I was faced with severe male chauvinism during the ’60’s and’70’s, but I never gave up and with sheer belief in myself I carried on to reach a reasonable level of success.”
And on how it all built up – “Slowly,” she says, “we found more and more families that required help. Either there was an irresponsible father who frittered or drank up all his earnings with a wife who was unemployed, unable to work as she had the children to look after. Or the man of the house was disabled or seriously ill with no means of earning a livelihood for his family.” The poor, mainly from the slums of Murphy Town and Munnivenkatappa Gardens, came to them for help. Even the old and destitute whom their children could not support and look after started coming in for help. “That was heartrending,” says Ethel. “It was not that their families did not want them, there just wasn’t enough to go around.”
Throughout her career her husband, Anslem, supported her whole heartedly and they untiringly spent all their free time doing social work and jointly helping the poor. She currently lives in an old age home after she sold her own house and donated a chunk of the sale proceeds to welfare projects.