No matter what I put down here, my words will not do justice to my visit to El Shaddai. The Kurians extended their welcome to me by inviting me to stay at their old Children’s Home, which is where El Shaddai volunteers now stay.
On my first day, I visited Shanti Niketan, which is a school that was set up in 2001 for children at the home . While it mainly services children who live at El Shaddai care homes, there are a number of day scholars too. Currently, 300 children between the age of 4–18 years attend Shanti Niketan. I learnt that all these children hail from poor backgrounds, some are orphans, and many not from Goa. Their not being from Goa is one of the biggest obstacles that El Shaddai needs to face. As Goans are reluctant to help slum dwellers and children simply because they hail from a different state ( finding their way to Goa only for work).
The children at Shanti Niketan looked very happy to be there and in every classroom, they sang a song for me and introduce themselves too 🙂
After lunch, we headed to Rainbow House, which is their girls home. I arrived as the children were coming home from school and chatted with them till dinner as some played and others completed their homework. Rainbow House currently has 46 girls.
Next to Rainbow House is House of Kathleen where smaller children, up to the age of 6, are cared for. The children were bustling with life and all wanted to play with me, whether it was the girls braiding my hair or the boys sliding across the floor!
On the second day, I visited Little Acorns, their day shelter. This is a centre for slum children where they can come through the day. The centre running all day means that their parents can work and not have to worry about what their children are up to. A lady called Margaret is the caretaker here and she plays with and entertains them all day; and also feeds them a healthy lunch. The centre sees around 80 children a day; most come to play after school before returning to the slum. That day when I visited, Margaret was keeping them super busy through a colouring competition.
I then headed to Victory House, which is their boys’ home. Jaya runs this house and like quite a few of El Shaddai’s staff, he too grew up at one of the organisation’s homes. I was quite amazed to learn that he had spent most of his childhood at Victory House itself! I was amazed at the innovative system they have in place at the home – all the boys (currently, 47 in all) are split up into fours groups and they do all activities/ chores in their groups whilst competing for points! There’s also cottages at the back of the home for the older boys; who wish some privacy away from the younger children.
My next visit was to Tremera Community Development Centre, which is situated in Goa’s Chimbel slum. The slum has a population of 14,000 people, who live within a radius of just 2 km. Most of the slum dwellers are migrants from Karnataka and 98% of them are Muslim. Set up in 2008, the Community Development Centre offers non-formal education to children below age 10. They also offer classes in tailoring and sewing for the women of the slum, in the hope that they will be able to make products and sell them, earning some extra income.
El Shaddai adapts to the needs of the people in the area. I noticed this when I was there as they were working to reconstruct houses that had received quite a lashing during the recent monsoon. Many of the houses in the slum are made out of mud and materials such as tarpaulin and palm leaves. El Shaddai is working to rebuild as many as possible with bricks as they fear that when the monsoon really kicks in, the houses will just fall away. I was invited into many homes and it was really great to see the love and respect the El Shaddai staff were showered with.
After lunch, we headed to Asha Deep, which is a day care centre cum night shelter. The children take part in after school activities here such as face painting, singing and dancing. Most of the children here are attending school but come from slums so they go to Asha Deep for meals and to interact with others.
Before I caught my train back to Mumbai, I had time to visit Stepping Stones which is a day centre in Margao, Southern Goa (closer to the railway station and 2 hrs away from the other homes). Each month, 170-180 children benefit from this shelter. They provide education, food, bathing, medication, clothes and counselling. Computer education and literacy classes are also conducted. The day I visited, the children were practising dance routines to celebrate Independence Day. It was amusing to watch them get creative with the music!
My time with El Shaddai was extremely enjoyable and it was such an honour to be taken in by the organisation and be treated like a family member. Over the weekend, I spent time with the staff and it was great to see that they are all friends outside of work; they attend the same church and regularly meet for dinner too. My highlight of the visit though was meeting Rucha, who took me to all the centres and looked after me way beyond her job description. She is the organisation’s PR manager but knows all too well what these children are going through as she grew up at the homes too. She had a troubled life before arriving at El Shaddai. But with the organisation’s support went on to graduate from college, and also has her own apartment today. Having benefiited from the organisation, she feels it’s her duty to give future generations the same happy childhood she got within El Shaddai. I could see that not just her but all staff strive to fulfill Matthew’s founding mission – which is ‘to give a childhood to children who never had one’.
El Shaddai has come a long way – 3 shelters, 3 community centres, 6 childrens’ homes, 4 childrens’ cottages, one activist organization called Scan and several slum schools. There’s more on the charts as they wish to support more children with an expansion in their projects.
Mr. Kurian spoke to me about his mission to give hope to every child. He wants to instill self-dignity in each child so that they can see past their birth status and not be supressed by the brainwashing effect of caste. Mr. Kurian aims to create more awareness and increase support for his charity. The reason he started his work was because he did not want to be part of a society that pretended that poverty did not exist. He wants to challenge other well off people to think like him and encourage more of them to support his cause.