When Nihal Kaviratne, who retired from Unilever after 22 years of postings across the world, returned to Mumbai in 2005, he and his wife Shyama were disturbed by the sight of children, afflicted by cancer, and their parents, sleeping on the footpath opposite the Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH), that specialises in the treatment of cancer, in Mumbai.
They found that while TMH, in partnership with charitable trusts, offered free treatment and other voluntary organisations offered money for medicines, accommodation was a huge challenge in a mega city like Mumbai. Parents, with their children afflicted by cancer, came from all over India. While the families who had a little money stayed in dharamshalas (modest lodges) until their money ran out, the majority settled down at railway stations and on the pavement outside the hospital. “Living on the street amidst unhygienic conditions rendered the already weak children susceptible to infections. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system and the children often succumbed to pneumonia and tuberculosis long before their treatment could be completed,” says Mala Swarup, Secretary, RC Bombay Midcity, which is one of the nine clubs from RI District 3141, that are helping this project in a big way.
Many families dejected with the challenge of street life, abandoned treatment of their children, and returned to their villages, where their children might live for a few months, but die in peace and dignity in their own homes.
– Nihal Kaviratne
Adds Kaviratne, “When I did some detailed enquiries, I found that a space to stay in Mumbai posed a huge challenge to these people, forcing large numbers to live on the streets. What was worse, many families, dejected with the challenge of street life, abandoned the treatment of their children midway. They preferred to go back to their villages where their children might live for a few months, but die in peace and dignity in the comfort of their own homes, rather than on the streets of a big city.”
The abandonment of treatment was the biggest cause of mortality in cancer-afflicted children, found the Kaviratnes and they decided that something had to be done. Thus began their work to create a centre to give decent accommodation to these sick children, a clean and hygienic place where they could stay with their parents free of cost. And thus was born the St Jude India Childcare Centre (SJICC), named aptly after St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.
The centre had a humble start with just eight family units at a dilapidated building in the BDD Chawls of Lower Parel, kindly offered by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro, the then chairman of The Bombay Mothers and Children Welfare Society.
While the families who had a little money stayed in dharamshalas (modest lodges) until their money ran out, the majority settled down at railway stations and on the pavement outside the hospital.
– Mala Swarup
A prototype was developed and refined to become a model for all such centres. In ten years, SJICC has made tremendous strides and now has 33 centres across five cities — Mumbai (22), Delhi (4), three each in Kolkata and Jaipur and one in Hyderabad. These centres can house 418 children and their parents. One good deed gets another, so in 2016, thanks to a generous donation from the Bombay Port Trust to the Tata Memorial Hospital, which in turn offered it to this organisation, three disused buildings at the city’s suburb Cotton Green have been converted into a beautiful campus, with two playgrounds and space for 165 families.
Rotarians step in
In 2013–14, when Rotarians from D 3141 learnt about this worthy project, they decided to get involved. Mala points out that cancer is one word that carries with it “the finality of a life sentence.” Parents come under enormous stress and anxiety when they learn that their child has been diagnosed with cancer. “Underprivileged people living in small towns and rural areas have to bear the crippling expense of treatment as they bring their child to a large metro for treatment. And Mumbai, in particular, intimidates ordinary people who come from outside. We found that such families often come here after selling their small piece of land, cattle or any other asset they own, to seek a cure for their child.”
Nine Rotary clubs came together to join hands and raise money for this cause to serve children with cancer. From 2013 till now they have sponsored eleven family units of SJICC, raising ₹49.5 lakh. Mala says that last year the capital for two centres in Mumbai has been raised by RC Mumbai Malabar Hill and RC Mumbai Queens Necklace; each raising ₹1 crore. Jai Diwanji, a Rotarian of long standing is a Director and one of the original team members of the organisation. Another team member of the Sponsors and Donors Team, Dr Ajay Bhatnagar, is a PDG from Basle, Switzerland.
More St Jude centres for children with cancer are coming up in Vellore (Team Leader Rtn Selwyn Ratnarajan), Chennai (Team leader PDG Rekha Shetty, D 3232) and Guwahati. During the last three years, RC Zurich Belvoir has been raising funds by organising runs for SJICC. While the Vellore centre will be opened in March, Chennai and Guwahati will follow later this year.
The centre had a humble start with eight family units at a dilapidated building in a chawl in Lower Parel, offered by former Mumbai Police Chief Julio Ribeiro, the then chairman of The Bombay Mothers and Children Welfare Society.
Facilities at SJICC
Each family unit at a St Jude children’s centre contains a bed, space for a mattress, a steel cupboard and a rack of shelves. It can accommodate a sick child and her parents. Each family has access to a single-burner gas stove “to prepare fresh meals, a storage space with weekly rations of rice, sugar, tea and oil and utensils, plates and glasses for the use of the family, all free of cost. Each centre includes a common bathing and toilet area, with separate facilities for men and women, a common kitchen and dining area, and a common recreational space. All centres are identical according to the prototype.”
Families also receive free transportation from the centre to the treating hospital, besides nutrients to build the children’s immune system. This support is supplemented by educational and recreational activities such as art-based therapy, music therapy and yoga. To minimise disruption of the child’s education during months of treatment when they are away from home and school, basic computer skills, English, reading, math and science are all taught in a creative and engaging way. “We, Rotarians from D 3141, feel very happy to be associated with this NGO, which brings hope and happiness for children battling cancer,” says Mala, who is volunteering with SJICC to help in administrative matters.
Needless to say, Rotary has become a proud partner of St Judes in this venture.
… and they get cured
Thanks to the little cancer patients getting a comfortable and hygienic accommodation, nutritious food and the care of their parents, apart from of course the treatment and medicine given by the hospitals, many children are now getting cured and returning home to pursue their education and lead a normal life.
“The vision is to ensure support for every needy child under treatment for cancer and Tata Memorial Hospital, India’s premier cancer hospital, has asked SJICC to be their partner wherever they set up hospitals. As childhood cancers have a high cure rate if treatment is properly and timely administered and completed, thanks to SJICC, thousands of families are able to ensure their children have a fighting chance to overcome cancer. And we Rotarians feel privileged to be a part of this humanitarian service,” adds Mala.