Mr. Venkatramanan, the founder of Ritham School for Children with Special Needs, is a physiotherapist by profession. He had his own clinic in Rajapalayam, catering to the local villagers. One of his patients, David Samrat, became his first student when he started to teach kids.
Mr. Venkatramanan didn’t know what special education was. He says, “It all happened out of the blue in the year 1999. David was the first child I treated; my other patients were all adults. David had Cerebral Palsy (CP). He was bedridden and could not even walk. David started responding well to my treatment. He could stand up and drag his feet within three months. His father was happy but he had another concern, which was his child’s education. I assured him that I would spend time with David after my clinic for two hours everyday. In the course of these evening classes, I realized that the child was not able to learn like any normal child. When I did some research, I realized that apart from CP, he was also mentally challenged. This worried me as I did not have the necessary skills to educate the child. He decided to go to Madurai (the closest city) from his village and visit special schools and educational institutions to learn about the same.” His visits gave him confidence and he decided that he must serve people in his village who were similarly affected.
It was in the year 2004, after much back-and forth with government officials, he finally could get all the required permissions and register a Trust. Ritham finally was born after four years.
He started with early Intervention and physiotherapy, initially in a small room with just around 17 children. “Parents were apprehensive in sending their kids to the school. They thought it was not safe and we might do something with their kids. Convincing them of our good intentions was exhausting and time consuming.”
After the early years of struggle, the institution started to grow and with it grew the aspirations of the parents. Where they were apprehensive and hesitant to trust him with their kids at the beginning, they now wanted their children to enrol in school and get formal degrees.
Slowly, the fragrance of Ritham began to spread and resources started to trickle in. Mr. Ramesh, who belonged to Rajapalayam but lived abroad, met with an accident and injured his spine. Due to the accident, he relocated to India and was being treated by Mr. Venkatramanan. “I used to talk to him about my school and shared some issues I was facing. Mr. Ramesh suggested few tips for fundraising and these worked. Since then, he has been my guide and support in fundraising and other activities related to the school” says he.
As we were speaking a man in his late 80s walked slowly into the room. Mr. Venkatramanan introduced him to me as his inspiration. When I asked how he had met this person he said “This is my father.”
“Ramana is the eldest of my three sons,” his father Mr. Kathiresan said fondly. “We stay in a joint family hence I never had any concerns about whether he was earning or not earning. When he started practicing physiotheraphy in Rajapalayam, many mentally challenged kids became his patients. I suggested he start a separate programme for these children. I had retired as a District Educational Officer and I knew the important role education plays. I could understand the concerns parents had in providing education to their special children,” he added.
I was shocked when Mr. Venkatramanan shared how the parents were so unaware of their childrens’ condition. “During a survey I have seen a child being tied to the window. His mother was at her wits end. When she untied the child, he would urinate or defecate anywhere. Nor was he stable. That’s when I started the early intervention programme. In this programme, we identify and stabilize the children by regular activities such as ball games or puzzles and improve their motor movement” he says.
What just started as a journey to learn and help one child has become a passion to serve the needy of the village.
“Ramana is a good man. During his early interactions with me all he spoke about was his school and how to improve the services. It was inspiring to see someone like him. His self belief and never say die attitude is ineffable,” said Mr. Ramesh when I met him.
Ritham School has grown to be a life changer for its children. They now have direction and and and the hope that they will be self-dependent some day.