Back in the late 1990s, Iyappan Subramaniyan, who hails from Edaiyur in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district, experienced a personal loss when his older brother with Down’s syndrome died. Having faced the lack of awareness and medical facilities in his village and society’s judgement, Iyappan started the Sri Arunodayam Charitable Trust in Chennai in 2002.
Twenty years later, Arunodayam is a shelter home to hundreds of children with intellectual disabilities, all of them abandoned by their own families.
“After the passing away of my brother, I decided to pursue an education in the field of disability and rehabilitation. During my coursework, I realised that very few organisations in India work for destitute children with intellectual disabilities. That’s when, in a small house with one child and a few provisions, I started Arunodayam with the help of my sister Jayachithra,” says Iyappan.
Arunodayam caters to children with multiple intellectual and physical disabilities including cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome and other neurological disorders. At present, it has 115 children ranging from the age of one to 35. Its main focus is to provide shelter and care for these boys and girls and also rehabilitate them through educational and vocational therapy.
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In its 20th year, Arunodayam also inaugurated an exclusive 21,000 sq-ft girls’ home in Kallikuppam in Chennai, which can accommodate close to 100 inmates.
Most of the children arrive at the home in pitiful conditions having endured rejection, abuse and unimaginable hardships, said Iyappan. “We have so many children whose parents left them either at hospitals or outside adoption centres when they realised that their child has special needs.” Several have serious medical conditions that require immediate attention, he said.
Pooja was a few days old when she was abandoned by her parents. She was then put up for adoption, thinking she was a normal child. But, within six months, her adoptive parents realized she had special needs and returned her to the agency. Pooja had intellectual disabilities with developmental delays and was then sent to Arunodayam.
“When Pooja came to us, she was eight months old, with several developmental delays. It took her two years to sit,” recalled Iyappan. Now, with therapy and training, 12-year-old Pooja is able to stand and walk with our support and is part of our special education training.
“This child had no life and no one for her. But, with timely care, her life has come back and has brought her a long way. Seeing this is extremely inspiring. It makes us so happy that we are able to transform a child’s life,” he said. This is just one example of the many stories we have, he added.
Since Arunodayam was established, Iyappan and his team have rescued 364 children. The main motive, Iyappan recalls, is to focus on rehabilitation through education and therapies that are expected to improve the quality of the children’s lives, enabling them to live as independent individuals contributing to society. “When we started, we had no corpus or funding to take care of these children. All we had was a passion to help them,” he said.
The main reasons why families abandon children with special needs are poverty, social stigma, family problems and the fact that it involves a lot of time, patience, and resources. And parents do not want to do it, Iyappan said. “It breaks my heart to see how parents leave their months-old babies out on the street.”
In 2008, Arunodayam was recognised by the state government. The government and the child welfare committees send kids found in hospitals to Arunodayam. The government also began providing grants to the organisation. “We get the children through the child helpline (1098), and child welfare committees from across all districts in Tamil Nadu, sometimes directly from government hospitals too,” Iyappan said. HIV-infected children are treated and handed over to the government-authorized HIV Homes once they stabilise.
Over the years, Arunodayam’s focus has also shifted towards rehabilitation, which includes vocational therapy. Based on the child’s ability and physical condition, they are put into early intervention, pre-primary level 1 and vocational programmes.
The NGO also has a vocational training unit called Prayatna, started in 2012, where older children (18 years and above) are trained in book-binding and making paper bags, envelopes, candles and beads. “We try and make them as self-reliant as they can be,” Iyappan said.
“At first, the focus was more on occupational therapy to help them develop the necessary interactive social skills. The centre provided a great opportunity for youngsters with disabilities to engage, learn, work and interact in a safe environment, helping them become more productive at their own pace,” Arunodayam’s website reads.
Apart from this, the students also learn other activities such as music and dance.
Sumangali was just a little over two years old when she came to Arunodayam in March 2010, after being abandoned on a deserted road near a hospital. She was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy, and her severely impaired condition made survival a grim possibility. However, with physiotherapy, speech therapy and medical care, she has become fairly independent and is even able to assist smaller children. “She is learning simple mathematics and can identify colours, shapes, fruits and vegetables. She can even tell time, which is quite a feat given her poor early prognosis.”
Over the years, Arunodayam has received various awards within India and globally, including the prestigious World of Children Award 2016. The organisation also started the Special Moms Awards in 2017 to transform the way society considers and responds to special children and their families, who are most often misunderstood, discriminated against and judged. Each year it presents an award to a mother of a special child.
Challenges faced over the last 20 years
Like any other NGO, Arunodayam has faced and is continuing to face several challenges. Iyappan listed three main challenges. The first is having the manpower to take care of such children with intellectual disabilities. “It is a huge responsibility. Our backbones are our caregivers. We ensure that they are trained, well equipped, loving and caring.”
Funding is a major challenge as caring for children with severe intellectual disabilities requires specialised care and services. Some children cannot sleep on their own, for instance, said Iyappan. “We face a lot of difficulty in getting properly trained caregivers”, he added. “This is a big commitment and many people don’t want to do this.”
Third, as Iyappan says, is paperwork. “As an NGO, there is a lot of paperwork and rules that we will have to follow. We required registration from different departments. If a child dies due to natural causes, we need to face inquiries and there are legal implications too.”
Iyappan recalls how the process of building a home for girls was a long and strenuous one. “In 2009, we bought land and it took us 10 years to get the approval. After that, we began fundraising and construction. Despite Covid-19, we managed to raise the required funds.”
The main sources of income for Arunodayam are donations (from within India and overseas) and corporate social responsibility funds, apart from government grants.
Sanyukta Gupta, co-lead for the India chapter of Catalyst 2030 and co-founder of Chennai Volunteers, has been associated with Arunodayam as a donor and well-wisher since its inception. “The first time I visited Arunodayam was with my two little kids when I moved to Chennai. Since then, it’s been a great journey of watching him work on his vision with so much commitment,” Gupta recalled how she saw Arunodayam grow from being in a tiny room to having two separate homes for boys and girls.
“I’m overwhelmed by what Sri Arunodayam has achieved. What I love about Iyappan is how he has a ‘never-say-never’ attitude, where he never gave up on the kids. Even with limited means, he was able to achieve this. They had no resources back then, and now, they have such good facilities,” she said. Gupta added that it took a lot of commitment and self-belief to do this with full conviction.
Reuniting children with parents
Over the last 20 years, Sri Arunodayam has also reunited close to 100 children with their families. “We have tried to identify the parents of a few young-adult children with clues that they have given us. We have traced close to 105 families and asked the parents the reason for leaving their child,” Iyappan said.