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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.