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Holding hands with children in need

Mariellen Ward surrounded by the children at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

Me, surrounded by the children a the TDH CORE home for HIV infected children in Tiruvannamalai.

Visiting a children’s home in India

Sushila is about six or seven years old, with fine, delicate features and long bangs that fall in her face. Shortly after my arrival at the TDH CORE children’s home in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, she gently reached out to hold hands with me. And for almost the entire length of my one-hour visit, she would not let go. And neither would I. My hand got sweaty, I couldn’t really use my camera properly to take pictures, and I missed some of the tour. But I decided not to let go until she did.

I keep thinking about Sushila, and the other boys and girls who live at the TDH CORE children’s homes. My short visit there left a deep impression on me — a mixture of love and compassion for these children, whose precarious lives are fraught with challenge; and admiration for Ramu Chezhian, the man who almost single-handedly has given these kids, and many others, hope and a chance to have a good life.

Ramu and some of the children at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

Ramu and some of the children at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai.

I visited the TDH CORE office and homes while on the Redback Travels tour of South India (which I wrote about in In the shadow of the sacred mountain). Redback founder Ashley Ruback wanted us to meet Ramu and tour the centre, so she made an appointment for us on Saturday morning, when the children were home and not at school.

Follow my South Asia Sojourn from October 2012 to May 2013 — a six-month blogging trip through India, followed by a search for my family roots in Ireland. Subscribe to Breathedreamgo in the “Get updates by email” box to the right. Join the Breathedreamgo Facebook page; and the Breathedreamgo Twitter stream (hashtag #BDGIndia).

First we met with program director A.B. Sharmila who outlined the extensive list of programs and projects TDH CORE runs. With about 200 employees and many volunteers, the organization, which is dedicated to providing “direct aid to children in distress, free of political, religious or ethnic bias,” essentially gives all of the children of Tiruvannamalai and about four other districts a lifeline. There are homes for children with disabilities and HIV; homes for orphans and street kids; and homes for girls who need protection. Girls are particularly vulnerable in this tradition-bound and poverty stricken area. TDH CORE also runs programs to offer in-home support to families, education to poorest slum children, and a project to prevent female infanticide.

Sharmila, student and Ramu at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

Sharmila, student and Ramu at TDH CORE office. This girl grew up in TDH CORE home and is now a college student, studying engineering.

I was impressed just hearing about the extent of the approximately 18 programs, and then Ramu arrived, full of infectious energy, beaming warmth and commitment. He told us his story, which you can also hear in the video below. Originally from Chennai, Ramu lost his parents when he was only 21 years old. He drifted to Tiruvannamalai where he started to take care of a couple of street kids. In 1994, along with a German man, he founded TDH CORE, inspired by the Terre Des Hommes movement.

The programs have grown in response to need. When he discovers a new need, Ramu simply creates a new program. He is incredibly efficient in a country not known for efficiency; effective in a country known to be mired in bureaucratic delay; and able to attract support and funding from a wide range of people and organizations, including an American company that builds devices for the disabled and an Italian architect who designed one of the children’s homes and provided the funding to build it.

Girl children at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

Some of the girls at TDH CORE showing me one of the bedrooms. Four-five girls share a room, like sisters, in each house.

After our interview, Ramu took us on a tour of five of the children’s homes, which are near the TDH CORE office, and adjacent to each other. We started in the home for children with HIV and I was almost speechless, watching these small kids who have been handed such huge life challenges play on the trampoline, mug for the camera, and of course reach out and hold my hand.

In each home the children gathered around us, filled with obvious affection for Ramu, who treats each one as if they are his own. He was like the pied piper, constantly surrounded by children, and looking relaxed and happy, but also attentive to need. Some of the girls did a yoga demonstration for us — and they were seriously advanced! — and several presented me with beautifully arranged flowers. We had tours of the bedrooms and kitchens, and took lots of photos. Each house is run like a home, with a “mother” and cook, and only four children to a room (totally about 20 children per home). The houses were well-maintained and spotless, and the atmosphere was homely and congenial. I was truly impressed.

Some of the girls, both new and long-term, at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

Some of the girls, both new and long-term, at TDH CORE. The ones who have been there a long time seem very happy and well-adjusted.

Ramu also showed us a guest house on the property for volunteers, who each have their own room and bath, and share a kitchen and common area. He welcomes volunteers who want to come and share a skill with the children after school. For example, if you know gardening, you could help them create and tend a kitchen garden. If you know carpentry, you could teach them, and help them build something.

He also welcomes donations, of course, and I can tell you from personal experience that your money would be going to a lean, well-run organization and a very worthy cause.

If you want to donate or you want to know about volunteering, please contact Ramu Chezhian, TDH CORE at [email protected] or visit the TDH CORE website.

The guest house for volunteers at TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

The guest house for volunteers at TDH CORE.

The real meaning of yoga

Many people “do” yoga for health benefits and peace of mind, and I can certainly understand the appeal. I, too, started “doing” yoga when I was having back problems (in my early 30s). But the essence of yoga and the roots of yoga are all about stilling the mind so that you can “yoke,” or connect, to your true self, your divine self. Yoga is an attitude, it is a way of being in the world. It includes the understanding that we are all “one,” part of the same divine consciousness or life force energetic system. One of my all-time favourite quotes about yoga is, “If yoga is not making you a better person, what are you doing it for?”

Traveling to India to learn about yoga and/or spirituality is a wonderful idea. But the more I learn about the true essence of yoga and spirituality, the more I realize it is largely about selfless service. With a holy mountain, ashrams and an important Shiva temple, Tiruvannamalai is considered to be one of the most spiritual places in India. Pilgrims, students and devotees flock there. But there is no greater demonstration of spiritual dedication than serving those in need, perhaps especially children, who are so vulnerable. Staying in Tiruvannamalai and volunteering would indeed be a life-altering and deeply moving experience. It would give you a real experience of yoga and spirituality. If you are thinking of experiencing yoga and spirituality in India, I hope you will consider volunteering for an organization like TDH CORE.

The girls who live in the girls' homes of TDH CORE in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

The girls who live in the girls’ homes of TDH CORE, posing outside one of the homes in Tiruvannamalai.

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9 Responses to Holding hands with children in need

  1. desi Traveler November 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Hi Mariellen…..yet again you have written a post that confirms that travelling has a bigger purpose than just site seeing… thanks..
    desi Traveler recently posted..An Evening At Taramati Baradari HyderabadMy Profile

  2. Travel and Tourism November 20, 2012 at 4:50 am #

    That was a perfect reason for traveling.Nice taught on traveling.

    thank you!!!!!
    Travel and Tourism recently posted..British tourism ropes in James Bond to boost tourism!My Profile

  3. Dhruv @ HealthCage November 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Your journey is something which taught us many things.. :)

    Really outstanding post!

    Keep going on!
    Dhruv @ HealthCage recently posted..Miranda Kerr Beauty Secrets – Diet ChartMy Profile

  4. Paul Krol November 20, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    Mariellen, thanks for sharing, especially that part about the real meaning of yoga!
    Paul Krol recently posted..Toronto Engagement Photographer – Edwards Gardens : Laura + JeremyMy Profile

  5. icyhighs November 21, 2012 at 3:59 am #

    Such an insightful post. Do check out Kranti if you’re ever in Bombay – they work with daughters of sex workers, and are always on the lookout for volunteers to help the kids with their studies, etc.

  6. Shalu November 26, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    This is very noble of you. You thought about these children in need, its very nice of you to do so. Thank you for mentioning the TDH CORE website.
    Shalu recently posted..How to book train tickets in India?My Profile

  7. Mariellen Ward November 30, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Thanks for the comments everyone, I appreciate it for this special post.

    I agree, Desi Traveller, there is much more to travelling than just seeing the sites. For one thing, it can make you a better citizen.

    Thanks so much for the tip Icyhighs, I will try and find out more about that organization when I am in Bombay. I hope to write more posts like this one, and I am also hoping people will contribute to these worthy causes.
    Mariellen Ward recently posted..Hotels in India: 24 hours in hotel heavenMy Profile

  8. Rig December 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    Travelling with a purpose and that too for the humanity is a fabulous idea that can keep a traveller spiritually content. Thank you Mariellen for inculcating such a though in my mind.
    Rig recently posted..What to do in DubaiMy Profile

  9. Marie Goninet January 25, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    I thank you for this so nice report. I thougt I was in Puspam with “our children” and Chezhian. I am french and i live in the Alps. I created an Association of sponsorships with some friends and I work for Chezhian since the begining of TDHCORE. I saw the beginings in 1991. There was almost nothing at that time and you could see the result!
    R; Chezhian was with us in november for 3 days, it is always too short, but as we say in french “it is better that nothing”. Our association paid for the building of Puspam II and we sponsor the girls living there. More recently we paid for the pink building for the students (after have received a donation). In Kolkata we have 2 programs with Howrah South Point and with Park Circus (Our Lady of the Missions)
    Our association is local: its name is “Parrainage Enfants Calcutta”. For our 25 years we edited a book “Le regard des enfants de Calcutta”, after my last travel in India. There are nice photos abour “our girls” in Calcutta and in Tiru. Yours faithfuly, Marie Goninet

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