“He was a tiny, malnourished child,” she recounted. “Because of his learning disability, he was almost like a vegetable, and could hardly eat his food.” Over nine years, he has learned to excel in all activities, from basic education to singing, dancing and games. The lives of many children have improved greatly after coming to Ashabhavan, said K. K. Jayachandran, a Kerala legislator and an associate of the school for the past 15 years. He attributed this success to the care and attention the sisters and their lay colleagues give to each student. “Generally, our society does not care much for such children,” the Hindu assemblyman said, also commending Ashabhavan for serving people of all creeds. Another Ashabhavan associate, Thomas Ramapurath, said parents often hide disabled children from the public, to spare themselves and their other children stigmatization. Or, in some cases, parents choose to ignore their child’s special needs. “Some parents consider it a shame to send these children to institutions such as Ashabhavan. They are sent to public schools that are not equipped to help them,” explained the retired bank manager, the first chairperson of Ashabhavan’s governing body. Over the years, both Mr. Ramapurath and Mr. Jayachandran have observed improvements in these social attitudes, which they attribute to Ashabhavan’s public outreach efforts. Ashabhavan is one of about 300 special educational schools in Kerala. According to the 2011 census, about 762,000 of Kerala’s 33.4 million people suffer with disabilities. Throughout the subcontinent, most live in rural areas. According to Sister Elsa, who served as secretary of the All Kerala
Sister Elsa, the principal, said the school strives to teach the children self-reliance. Special Schools Association for nine years, church groups manage nearly 75 percent of schools catering to children with special needs. Of the 11 such institutions in Idukki, all but one are church-based, she said. Ashabhavan, added the 49-yearold sister, strives to teach self-reliance. Its curriculum runs the gamut from daily necessities such as hygiene and grooming to vocational skills, such as candle making, tailoring and other useful arts and crafts. Through practical, patient lessons and a nurturing environment, Ashabhavan’s Sacred Heart Sisters are helping some of India’s most vulnerable young people achieve a better life.
rom its humble roots — little more than two rooms inside an orphanage for girls attached to the convent — the school has grown by leaps and bounds. It began with the pioneering efforts of sisters in Thodupuzha, 50 miles west of Nedumkandam. As more children arrived from distant villages in Idukki, a larger facility became necessary, Sister Elsa said.
Idukki, Kerala’s second largest district, covers 1,729 square miles of rugged mountains, crisscrossed with serpentine roads through massive tea and cardamom estates that employ hundreds of thousands of people. The district is also home to thousands of small-scale farmers owning fewer than five acres of land. Sister Elsa said they came to Nedumkandam because of a bank manager — the father of an autistic boy — who was so impressed with their work in Thodupuzha, he hoped to bring a similar institution in his own village. His son was among the first students at Ashabhavan. By 2000, Ashabhavan enrolled some 25 children, still growing in number and age. Soon, limited space became a problem, and the sisters pressed their superiors to erect a separate building. Their request was granted in 2002. Ashabhavan now comprises two buildings connected by a corridor. An L-shaped three-story building houses the principal’s office, faculty room, dormitories and classrooms for both academic and vocational
OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF CNEWA
The official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA)