Fr. Sebastian Mannapathuparambil
AMMAVEEDU, Thellakom Po.
- Render Education facilities, both academic and job oriented to students in and of the slums and colonies.
- Render boarding facilities for the students of slums, who live in utter proverty.
- Extend all possible care for the infants who are discarded and abandoned.
- Community based and institutional rehabilitation of the aged and differently abled.
- Create awareness of health issues and conduct medical camps and provide food and clothes in slums and villages.
- Extend facilities for the early detection of various diseases among the people who live in slums and villages.
- Offer house to house regular medical checkup for the diabatic hypertension and cancer patients.
- Establish pain and palliative care centers.
- Community based and institutional rehabilitation of HIV AIDS affected.
- Provide skills-Training Programs for the children and youth in the slums
- Establish counseling and Guidance centers for the poor and needy
- Take-up various developmental activities for the people
The life I lead today is entirely different from the life I had envisaged in 10 years ago. a few years ago, aged 20 I entered St Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, where I would study, be ordained and – or so I thought, dedicate my life to teaching the Word of God as a parish priest. Today, I am the founder and head of the Theresian Trust, the carer of 27 children and the product of a thirteen year struggle. A struggle that began with the choice I made at St Joseph’s to study for my philosophy course ‘Social Action’.
Whilst the 97 students who had chosen science or journalism sat down in their lecture halls, me and just two other brothers stood with our professor staring at a colony. This colony (you might know it as a ‘slum’) was built on the two banks of a waste canal near Cochin, Kerala. Our study would consist of neither reading nor writing, but of familiarizing ourselves with this colony: the way its people lived and survived in the lowest imaginable standards.
And so for the first time I walked through a colony. It was only 13km away from the seminary but to me it looked like a different world! 500 families lived there, each of their situations as tragic as the next. On the floor of one of these tiny, one-roomed houses there lay an old woman. She was shaking, her fists clenched and her body curled up into itself. She was suffering from rheumatism, but receiving absolutely no medical or emotional attention. These were lives absolutely devastated by disease, mental illness, crime, addiction and death.
Not long after my striking introduction to the colonies, one of its residents visited my seminary. We routinely gave him a cup of tea and a banana. He drunk the tea but as we talked he kept his hand firmly over the banana, clearly with no intention of eating it. It transpired that the man had TB, was unable to work and therefore unable to feed his wife and children. The banana, he explained, would be shared out between them. My whole life I had lived comfortably, with shelter over my head, clothes on my back and food on the table. My imminent life as a priest would certainly promise all this and more. But visiting the slums had drastically changed the way I felt about this. Being a priest and a follower of Christ, was it not hypocritical for me to simply forget this experience and continue to live in comfort, when Christ himself spent his life helping the disadvantaged?
It caused deep rooted pain and struggle within me.
For the next few years, I continued my seminary training but I did not forget about the colonies and the suffering people. I spent the month vacation toiling in a rubber and ginger plantation to understand the plight of the working classes.
In 1997 I was finally ordained, and the priest of my own parish by 1999. Not more than two years later, I made a telephone call to the Bishop asking for his permission to leave my diocese and help the poor and marginalized. “You must ask me this in person,” came his reply. I made that 120km journey to ask the Bishop numerous times in the next six years and each time my request was denied, until one day he told me to produce a document explaining my reasons and objectives. I did this once, and was denied; twice, and was denied again, the third time – to my great surprise, the Bishop told me “Yes, you should leave in two weeks.” On that day, 18th March 2006, my prayers were answered. My family were outraged, my parish appalled, I had but Rs.4000, no where to go and no idea what I was going to do but I was pleased and excited all the same
By God’s good grace, my old friend Fr James agreed to let me stay in a hospital in Kottayam, where he was an assistant director. I knew that the people of the slums can be aggressive towards outsiders and was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Jolly, a social worker who offered to introduce me to the people he worked with in Kottayam’s colonies. However, I was not prepared for the hostility I would meet with the residents of Kottayam itself. Despite his efforts, Fr. James was unable to dispel their notion that a Parish priest 400 km away from his own diocese must have caused a scandal, committed a crime or angered his parishioners. After a month I left the hospital, and Fr. James took me instead to a children’s retreat home.
Soon I was down to my last Rs.10. I spent it on three oranges to eat, but I peeled them to discover that two were rotten! My life seemed to be in ruins, I faced hunger, criticism, uncertainty and worst of all, failure, but inside I felt calm. I felt God’s presence and knew that what I was doing what I had dreamt of for years. I was still visiting the colonies and had met an 8 year old boy, Rajeev. He had matted hair, dirty skin and wore only a pair of tattered trousers. Rajeev’s parents had separated and abandoned him with his grandmother, who told me how he refused to study, how he ran about as he pleased and was being used by his neighbors to distribute heroin. I asked him if he would stay with me if I got a house, “Yes” he replied.
It had been two months since I left my diocese when I received a call from the Bishop telling me that if I had not been successful in my mission I must return immediately. I persuaded him to give me just two more weeks.
The days passed and success seemed impossible. I had begun to pack my bag when I came across a visiting card: ‘Mathew Kuravilla’, it read, and was followed by a phone number. I had met Mathew three years ago and mentioned my intentions to work with the poor to him; he had said that I should contact him if my plans ever materialized. I expected his number to have changed, him to be busy or uninterested. My expectations could not have been further from the reality! He met with me the next morning and within a week he had given me a house in Kottayam!
Returning to the colonies, I collected Rajeev and other boys from similar situations, and so begun the first initiative of the Theresian Trust: Ammaveedu.
The love of humanity is a gift from God, but with it is given to us a responsibility to act on it. This is the philosophy of the Theresian Trust, which is a registered charity dedicated to philanthropic action in the region of Kottayam, Kerala.
Our primary aim is to provide needy people with life-improving aid; to provide them with what is among wealthier people considered to be basic. This includes food, education, clothes and healthcare. We pride ourselves on our direct involvement with the community - our regular trips to the colonies, our personal relationship with those who receive our aid and our neighbors’ tendency to inform us of the needs of other families that need our help.
We are entirely dependant on the donations we receive and the constant support of our trust members, to whom we can hardly express our gratitude. Only by God’s grace and the generosity of these people have we so far been able to fulfill all of our duties. But still we know, there is much more to be done…
The twenty seven boys who currently live at Ammaveedu all come from the colonies. They are boys without families who can provide for them the standard of life that they should be entitled to. Food, shelter, education (as well as the required books, uniform etc.), toys and sporting equipment, and occasion day trips are provided to the boys at no cost. Furthermore, Ammaveedu gives the boys routines, rules and a moral education that will enable them to grow into respectable and happy adult citizens.Being accustomed to complete freedom, the early morning starts and teeth brushing are often met by an initial animosity, but slowly the boys learn to accept that their domestic responsibilities are of equal importance to their school work or play times.
Above all, Ammaveedu aims to provide a safe and stable environment and a high level of education. Indian society tends to dictate that the children of the wealthy will grow up to be wealthy, the children of the poor will grow up to be poor and those of the marginalized will grow up to be marginalized. We are determined to break away from this. Although some schools refused to educate our children, fearing the ‘shame’ that an orphan might bring on them, all of out boys over the age of six now attend school on a daily basis, and study in the hope of a bright future.
Again trying to defy the trend in India of a lack of education for the poor, the Theresian Trust has founded its own nursery school. It is a fully funded scheme and is run at no cost to those who attend it. Although it was intended for the younger members of Ammaveedu, we have now welcomed six other disadvantaged children at the request of their parents (who cannot afford to send their children to traditional nurseries). We employ a teacher who has begun to teach them basic English, Malayalam and mathematics forming the foundations for a thorough education in later life.