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SOFOSH: In Conversation with Mrs. Madhuri Abhyankar
July 14, 2007 in Seattle, WA, and February 29 -March 4, 2008 in Pune, India
As India rushes to dominate the global marketplace, will she take on her social challenges with comparable determination? For example, what will she do about her millions of orphan children? This remains to be seen. In the meantime, the onus has fallen on individuals and organizations that are quietly chipping away at systemic social problems in India. They are in the business of making a tangible impact on a day-to-day basis in the lives of ordinary people. They fight daunting statistics in the trenches, one human life at a time. While the politicians pontificate and plan photo-ops, they scrounge together limited resources and make it happen.
Welcome to SOFOSH
One shining example is from the IT hub of Pune, in the western state of Maharashtra, a hop-skip-and-jump from Mumbai (Bombay). Mrs. Abhyankar and her team run one of India’s most well respected social service organizations in this bustling city. It is affectionately called SOFOSH, an acronym for the somewhat long “Society for Friends of Sassoon Hospitals.” Mrs. Abhyankar gives me an overview of SOFOSH, “Though we do not receive any official government funding, we are located in the public Sassoon Hospitals where the poorest of the poor come for healthcare. We provide food to the neediest relatives of the patients in the hospital; we give prosthetic aids and free nutrition counseling to pregnant women; but of course, it is our work with children that is most recognized.”
She is referring to SOFOSH’s program focused on child care and adoption: Shreevatsa. Since 1973, Shreevatsa has facilitated over 2,400 adoptions (most of them domestic). It has cared for over 5,000 children on a temporary basis, including children of patients at Sassoon Hospital.At the moment, it has 65 children in its facility in the Sassoon hospital campus, and 25 in foster care in families in Pune.
Though we didn’t discuss the patient care side of SOFOSH’s activities at Sassoon Hospital in great detail, I got the sense that it is where the organization got its start, and continues to be important to its mission. If you live in Pune or visit it, and you have never walked the halls of Sassoon Hospital, I advise you to do so. It is an eye-opening experience. Volunteers from SOFOSH quietly help the families of the patients here in their time of crisis. Since 1964, they have rendered this valuable service in addition to their core function as an adoption agency. They also reach out to HIV patients and raise awareness about public health issues like tuberculosis and child care.
The Context for Shreevatsa
There is still a very strong stigma against unwed mothers. Without this stigma, Mrs. Abhyankar is convinced that many babies would be saved and pre-natal care would be better. When you hear of 13 year old girls delivering babies in shock (they don’t realize they are pregnant), it’s easy to get frustrated. Worse are the macro-level statistics: India has an estimated 12.4 million orphans but only 5,000 children are processed for adoption. Most of these orphans are not available for adoption because they have at least one living family member – but poverty, illness, or migration for work has made it impossible for them to live at home. A large number live on the streets or in institutions, or they shuttle from one relatives’ home to another. They often lack education, stability, and opportunity.
I wonder if India is leaving too much latent creative and economic potential on the table by not having a progressive strategy for its millions of orphans and street children. The government has done a few things right, for example, it has encouraged domestic adoption. Underfunded and overwhelmed, even well-intentioned government officials do not have the infrastructure and resources required to run a world-class child welfare system. Also, if it supports organizations like SOFOSH, perhaps they could expand their capacity to serve more children.
Due to a corruption scandal at another Pune-based orphanage, the public is skeptical about donating money, and with good reason. Mrs. Abhyankar agrees that one bad apple can make life difficult for other orphanages. So she felt that SOFOSH should do its best to be transparent and accountable. Fortunately, as I found out from talking to people in the community, SOFOSH’s record speaks for itself and its reputation over the decades has stayed intact. The biggest misconception that Puneites have about SOFOSH and specifically, Shreevatsa, its child care arm, is that it is government funded. Mrs. Abhyankar assures me this is not the case. “We survive entirely on donations. Fortunately, we have continued the work for almost 35 years based on this generosity.”
Mrs. Madhuri Abhyankar
When you meet Mrs. Madhuri Abhyankar, she embodies everything you’d expect from a passionate advocate for orphaned children of India — with one important exception — she’s not angry. Through her twenty-three years of service, she has made a meaningful impact (despite the depressing statistics) in the lives of more than three thousand orphans and that’s what she focuses on. But if you ask her about her achievements, she’ll prove to you that that in fact, she has benefited more than the children she has cared for. Mrs. Abhyankar gets a twinkle in her eye as she admits that she still wakes up every morning raring to go to work. She loves what she does. “When I got married in 1984 and moved from Mumbai to Pune, I joined SOFOSH. I had a Masters is Social Work.” She quipped, “After more than two decades, I can say I have really enjoyed every moment.” Raised by a mother who served as principal of a Bombay Municipal School, she volunteered at an orphanage from a young age. Apparently, her parents brought her up to live simply and give generously. When Mrs. Abhyankar joined SOFOSH, the workload was tremendous, and it was extremely challenging. But over time, the organization grew and hired more people.
Mrs. Abhyankar told me about the lost, abandoned, and abused children she has seen over the years – the preemies who literally have to fight for their lives, the special needs children who never get adopted, and babies left on doorsteps. One newborn was found floating in a plastic tub during a recent monsoon flood. “He was just born. Someone saw him floating… His whole body had turned blue…” Mrs. Abhyankar’s sadness was apparent but there was no cynicism. The horrors she has seen have not eroded her innate optimism. During this conversation, it became clear that in order be on the frontlines, one needed a huge reservoir of empathy but also a strong constitution. What makes her stick with it? “At the very core, I have to admit, I just love children,” said Mrs. Abhyankar. “They are completely innocent. And no matter what you put in, you get double or triple back.”
One of my discussions with Mrs. Abhyankar took place at the SOFOSH booth in the exhibit hall at the Brihan Maharashtra Mandal convention in Seattle, Washington, USA. Held once every two years, people who share a love for Marathi culture gather to celebrate it and meet each other. (My book, Wisdom Song about noted civil rights leader, Baba Amte, was launched at the conference). Mrs. Abhyankar is here to raise funds for a new home for the special needs children who do not get adopted, “the Tara Dadphale Center for special needs orphans.”
The Tara Home for Special Needs Orphans
“I know I can count on the parents of adopted children. It is their generosity that has kept us afloat all these years. But without any government support…” Madhuri Abhyankar’s voice trails off. “Who will provide for disabled children?” She’s hoping that Pune’s information technology companies will come forward and sponsor the monthly overhead of the new Tara Dadphale Center for special needs orphans. “All the children who come here have painful pasts. These children watch their peers get adopted, but because of their physical or mental challenges, they know they will never have the joy of family life.” Though Mrs. Abhyankar does not like the idea of institutionalizing these children, she does not have any alternatives. “One day in an institution for a child, is one day too many. But there is absolutely no other place for them to live so we created the Tara home.”
A passerby stops at the SOFOSH booth. Mrs. Abhyankar smiles and welcomes her visitor. Even though she has repeated it many hundred times, she eloquently describes the work of SOFOSH. The visitor picks up a brochure, thanks her and leaves. After more than a month of non-stop travel, Mrs. Abhyankar should be homesick and exhausted, but she perseveres, always that warm smile on her face. The convention is packed but people don’t have to enter the exhibit area in order to attend the main stage events. So the floor traffic is rather limited. Causes like SOFOSH compete with booksellers and jewelry vendors.
Abhyankar speaks admiringly of her committed team back in Pune without whom she would be unable to leave, and come to America on this tour. During this trip to the States, Mrs. Abhyankar has met grown-up children – she remembers when they came to Shreevatsa as babies. Now many of them want to volunteer at SOFOSH.
“Each adopted child is an ambassador for SOFOSH,” she said proudly. Mrs. Manisha Gore, a grand-parent of a newly adopted baby showed me photos of her grandson. “He’s only been in the family for two months or so, but we feel he has always been a part of us. He’s almost three years old…”
Mrs. Abhyankar says that nothing comes readymade. Make a plan and solve problems, she advises. Count your blessings. She’s grateful for everything, including donors who come by the booth and donate small amounts like $5 or $10 or buy a packet of bindis for a couple of bucks. Everything counts.
Mrs. Abhyankar says, “giving up a child for adoption is a confusing process for a young girl. Many of them don’t even understand what is happening.” One girl, after she delivered, kept asking Mrs. Abhyankar if she could go back home because she didn’t want to miss her exams. Many of these girls have been raped. One girl with mental illness kept changing her mind about whether she wanted to give up her child for adoption. SOFOSH offers counseling and support so girls can come to their own decision. For unwed mothers, issues of guilt and shame, and post-partum depression can also play a role. “Many of them don’t tell their fathers about the pregnancy. There are cases where the child is an incest child.” Abhyankar also recounted a story of a girl who accused her father of impregnating her but a genetic test proved her wrong. The family dramas, the complex inter-personal dynamics – these come with the territory at SOFOSH. “We see the best and the worst of human nature,” says Mrs. Abhyankar.
I asked what we can do to help. “Love your children,” Mrs. Abhyankar said simply. “Unconditionally. Many times, our love comes with conditions. Short, dark, slow, special needs… love your child. All of us have some purpose in life. Maybe we need to explore that purpose… make it more meaningful.”
Another visitor hovers near the booth. Mrs. Abhyankar sells a few bindis. Clearly, caring for the children is the easy part. Fundraising is a necessary function of what she must do to keep the work going. “We just have to present it to society and well-wishers and hope they will fund our new endeavor.” No sales pitch, no fancy powerpoint. She waits patiently till an interested passerby approaches, and then answers their questions. Mrs. Abhyankar advises prospective parents to think carefully before they adopt. “Ask yourself why do I want to adopt? Think about your career and how a child will affect it. But once you decide, the child must be your number one priority.” SOFOSH gives preference to domestic parents, then Indian parents living abroad and then foreign (non-Indian) parents. But Mrs. Abhyankar clarifies that this is not because any one of these parents is better than the other. From the child’s point of view, she feels it would be better to be closer to their own cultural setting.
As it gets closer to the time for the launch of my book Wisdom Song at the hands of Dr. Narendra Jadhav, Vice Chancellor of my alma-mater, Pune University, Mrs. Abhyankar said, “I think SOFOSH is part of my body. It’s part of me. My son would sometimes say, “I wish I was a Shreevatsa baby. Then my mom would take me to the doctor. Since we live in a joint family, I didn’t take always take him for his medical check-ups, but I took so many orphans from Shreevatsa – to the same doctor.”
Mrs. Abhyankar and the SOFOSH team in general remain largely unknown (even while Paris Hilton’s every move makes international headlines!).
Update: March 25, 2008
I just returned from India. I visited SOFOSH four times. I played with the kids. I met the staff. Many of the nurses have worked at SOFOSH for more than a decade. They are extremely dedicated to the children. Their work is challenging. I know I couldn’t do it. The office staff is equally dedicated. I realized on the third day, that while I gave a lot of importance to Mrs. Abhyankar in my piece, and rightly so, the staff that supports her also deserves a huge amount of the credit. She mentioned this during our interview in Seattle but I didn’t internalize it till I saw it in person. Two young women from SNDT, both volunteers, taught the kids sequential learning with great patience. A local technology company organized a magic show. I met an old friend of my family, Mrs. Tehmi Karbhari, who has volunteered at Shreevatsa/SOFOSH for many years. Every little bit counts. The older kids need to learn more English. They are fluent in Marathi but don’t have enough exposure to Hindi and English. They space is a bit limited and the building is old but the atmosphere is warm and inviting in spite of that.
AUDIO/VISUAL FROM SOFOSH
View the entire photo album of the SOFOSH team, volunteers, and group photos of the kids from my recent visit. (External Link to my Picasa Web Album)
William Widmer’s fantastic slide show and audio documentary on SOFOSH (including interviews with Mrs. Abhyankar and others).
Image to the left: A list of donation items needed at Shreevatsa
I just received this announcement from Mrs. Abhyankar:
Dear All Friends,
We are happy to inform you that 14th May 2008 is special day in the life of SOFOSH. Our dream is coming true. We will be having small inauguration function at 6.30 p.m. at SOFOSH DHADPHALE CENTRE, Pimple Gurav (TARA). Mr. Rahul Bajaj (Industrialist) will be the Chief Guest and Mr. Dilip Band (Commissioner) of Pimpri-Chinchwad) will inaugurate the Centre. You all are been so kind and helpful.
We humbly request to keep this evening for TARA and make it convenient to attend the function. We and our children will be waiting to take you around and show our newly built home. Your active support has made this possible.
Thanking you, Sincerely Yours, All at SOFOSH.
SUPPORTING THE TARA HOME
I asked Mrs. Abhyankar how we can help. She broke down the funding needs for Tara this way:
Each Child’s expense $5 per day x 365 days = $1825 (Rs. 80,000 per year approximately)
- $5 to support a special needs Tara child for one day (one trip to Starbucks!).
- $37.50 to support a special needs Tara child for one week.
- $150 to support a special needs Tara child for a month.
- $1825 to support a special needs Tara child for a year.
- Tara also needs approximately $400,000 for the building expenses.
Tara plans to take care of 100 kids but getting support is crucial for them to make a lifelong commitment to these children. Instead of accepting gifts at your kid’s next birthday, consider asking those who want to offer a gift to donate to Tara instead. If your child is one of those who ‘has everything’, this is the perfect gift. Says one mother of two in the US, “It teaches my kids to be generous and kind. It makes them grateful for what they have. A gift to Tara or a place like that is much better for my own children than yet another Gameboy or Playstation or Barbie…”
Contact Information for SOFOSH:
The Sassoon General Hospitals,
+91 - 20 - 2612 - 4660
+91 - 20 - 2612 - 8219
+91 - 20 - 2612 - 8219
This entry was posted on Thursday, April 10th, 2008 at 11:59 am and is filed under Children, In the Trenches.
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