FOUNDED in 1949 by Hermann Gmeiner, an Austrian philanthropist, SOS Children’s Village is present around the world. The nonprofit has been working in India for the past 57 years, helping over 25,000 children who were once parentless, or abandoned or belonging to vulnerable families through its 32 SOS Children’s Villages across 22 states.
SOS strives for the welfare of the children in need of care and protection by providing a family that cares for them, conducting family strengthening programmes, ensuring they have proper access to healthcare, nutrition, and education and also undertaking emergency relief work and rehabilitation programmes.
Sumanta Kar, Secretary-General of SOS Children’s Villages India has spent 26 years of his career working with children, SOS-mothers and caregivers. The aim is to let children grow with love and provide them a solid foundation on which they can build their lives.
In this interview to GiveIndia, Sumanta talks about his organisation’s work, the plight of Covid orphans, the lessons he learnt from the children and much more.
GiveIndia: Many children lost their parents to Covid. You are dealing with such kids. How is SOS helping them come to terms with the loss and the mental trauma?
Sumanta Kar: All SOS Children’s Villages across the country accommodated such children in our Short Stay Homes. We have sheltered over 500 new children in the last few months. More than two-thirds of the 500 have now joined our 6,500 children living and growing in 32 Children’s Villages across 22 states.
Working with thousands of children without parental care or those at the risk of abandonment, we have first-hand knowledge of the emotional distress and the boredom they are going through every day. We have developed several modules for resilience building, positive youth development and a new child entry programme as children coming to our villages have already undergone some form of trauma. There is also a programme for the emotional well-being of SOS Mothers, as the mental health of caregivers is equally important. We also build the emotional capacity of our children.
GI: Tell us about your work during Covid. Did your organization do things that you had never done before in terms of emergency relief etc.?
SK: We are safeguarding over 22,000 children and their families from the disadvantaged rural or semi-urban communities under the Family Strengthening Programme. We have ensured that these children continue to get nutritious food and learn online.
Our teams have also undertaken several initiatives like supplying hygiene kits, Covid-medical kits, dry ration, community kitchens, free ambulance service etc. for the affected families which are beyond the ambit of the programme. Our co-workers are tirelessly facilitating vaccination drives in several clusters, busting misinformation and encouraging communities to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
We are supporting Covid-19 Firstline Treatment Centre in Thrissur, Kerala that supports Covid positive children with the help of nurses appointed by us. We have helped 581 Covid positive children so far by helping them engage in various activities like reading, playing indoor games, online classes, story-telling etc. We also provide nutrition supplements for covid positive children as per the need.
GI: Youth unemployment is a global crisis that has only increased because of the pandemic. How is SOS doing its bit to tackle this in India?
SK: The impact has been particularly adverse on our youngsters and settled youth. Many of our youth lost their jobs and those who completed education in 2020 could not get placement. We are trying our best to support our care leavers either with financial support to meet their essential needs and subsistence for 3-6 months or through a re-skilling programme, enabling them to get new employment. Several initiatives have been undertaken with corporate partners for youth skilling and employment and we look forward to more such support.
SOSCVI adopted a multi-pronged approach to increase youth employability, such as training sessions on employability skills where they are being trained on writing their CVs, upgrading communication skills, interview preparation, building online profiles on different job portals, and leveraging resources of corporate partners. Around 2,250 young people were trained virtually by Tata Steel and Indus Towers on employability skills, job interview preparation, office etiquette, and financial literacy among others. Over 150 youth were given career guidance and counselling through a partnership with Reliance Foundation.
GI: Tell us about ‘SOS Mothers’. How have they shaped the lives of the children in the villages?
SK: Universally, mothers are venerated for their role as selfless caregivers for children. When children lose their mother’s love – and parental care, it does not have to be the end of all hope for them. We at SOS Children’s Villages of India believe that every child who has lost parental care can find new hope in a caregiver-mother, a professional caregiver who takes up the role of a selfless mother.
We have over 600 SOS mothers and aunts. They raise more than 6,500 such children like their own, in what can be termed as India’s largest and successful initiative where selfless caregivers are professionally trained as SOS Mothers. They provide love and warmth and play a central role in the upbringing and development of each and every child under their care.
The commitment SOS Mothers bring to their work is complete and the bond they enjoy with the children is so deep that even after the children leave them and have their own rewarding careers and loving families, they don’t forget them. The children stay in touch with their ‘mothers’ and continue to visit them.
Even during the pandemic, which disrupted the lives of children the SOS Mothers swiftly responded to the situation by providing undeterred support. They ensured that children’s education did not suffer by lending their mobile phones till suitable arrangements were made for distance learning. They also ensured that children remain happy and upbeat. They are made to practice yoga and meditation. Our SOS Mothers ensured that the daily routine of these children is not affected and they continue to study and lead normal lives.
GI: Can you tell us three things you have learnt from the children in the villages?
SK: A few of the things I learnt from the children is to take life easily, be playful, be willing to provide unconditional help and stay resilient during tough times. They constantly teach me to keep the child inside me alive.
GI: If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?
SK: I would like to invite Hermann Gmeiner, Founder SOS Children’s Villages for his unswerving conviction that help can never be effective as long as children have to grow up without a home of their own. He set about implementing his idea for SOS Children’s Villages and founded the organisation in 1949.
The second person would be Mother Teresa, for complete and selfless devotion, at a very young age to uplift the poorest of the poor and especially children and finally my mother – for instilling confidence in me, teaching me to help others and give respect to everyone and to be empathetic.
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
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