December 15, 2000 Features & Images » Feature Story

children of india 

The children of Bethania By Janet Love Morrison These eyes have seen a lot of pain. Barathy wore the clothes of an orphan. A faded yellow dress with white and orange brocade decorating the front panel. The young dark-skinned girl sat quietly on the steps, a curious look on her face, but with no humour in her eyes. Her straight black hair was pulled back, her small calloused hands tightened the pink elastic behind her head. She had a strong face, nearer 12 than 15, with skin that is constantly exposed to the sun. Her tiny figure remained stationary, but alert. Her younger brother Prabakaran sat beside her. His rough hands fidgeted on his lap. He wore dark green shorts, with a cuff around the edge. The buttons on his abstract beige and brown shirt were done all the way up to the top. Prabakaran appeared proud that his shirt had all its buttons, and he wanted to use them. He pulled his knees up, blinked his eyes, and flashed a mischievous eight year old smile. Their sibling profiles appeared virtually identical; high foreheads, flat noses, round gofer cheeks, full lips and long eye lashes. Neither child wore shoes. All four feet were dusty, their skin hardened from the heat, sand, and gravel. Eight months ago their mother committed suicide. She sent her children to their grandparents’ house, doused herself in kerosene, then lit the match. She burnt herself with the children's school books. Apparently she had had a little misunderstanding with her husband. Twenty three children call Bethania Orphanage home. Twenty girls and three boys. Their ages range from five to 18. Bethania is located on the plains of Southern India, two kilometres from Kannivadi, a small town on the Madurai-Palani Road. Situated on 13 acres of land, a rectangular, light green, main building houses the kitchen, dinning hall, sleeping quarters and offices. Steps lead down from the verandah; to the right a path leads to the barn, to the left a small playground. A set of monkey bars, a couple of see-saws, a swing set, and a slide all freshly painted sky blue sit under the shade of several Neen trees. Behind the building a manual water pump, embedded in cement, provides water for drinking, laundry and all the household needs. Bethania opened in 1987. Mrs. Dayavu Dhanapal, a retired social worker, founded the orphanage with her daughter Priscilla Mohl, Peter Jayapandian, S. Alexander, B.S.J. Victor, Pennarasi and A. Watson. For years Mrs. Dhanapal had taken orphans into her home in Kodaikanal, however, the needs of the children quickly outgrew her home and she appealed to friends and family to help her attain her goal to develop an orphanage. As the orphanage grew, and water was needed for irrigation purposes, Bethania searched for international aid to build a new open well. Eventually a church in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan came up with the $8,000, and the new well was dug in 25 days. Today K.I.S. alumni generously keep Bethania open with their annual donations. When Bethania was being built, one of the construction workers knew of a young child in Kannivadi whose mother had doused herself in kerosene and committed suicide. Then her father died from a fever. Antonnia was four years old, crying and begging in the streets. The construction worker appealled to Bethania on Antonnia's behalf, and she became one of their first residents. Today Antonnia is 18 years old. Her long black braid falls down the back of her grey, white, and maroon abstract patterned blouse. Her simple jewelry includes a gold chain around her neck with a heart pendant dangling at the end, pearl-looking ear rings, and a gold nose stud. Antonnia has seen many changes at Bethania. When she first arrived there wasn't a schedule to be followed. Now there are specific times when children eat, study and do their chores. Another big difference is transportation. Formerly the orphans took a bullock (a cart pulled by oxen) to school, and it took approximately 45 minutes. Today a van has them at the school door within 10 minutes. Antonnia's favourite subject is political science. She wants to be a teacher, get a good job and settle down. Joshua Inbaraj, a 35-year-old social worker, is the current director of Bethania. Inbaraj has counselled children in the rural area for 11 years. He is in charge of the day to day operations, organizing and implementing policies at the field level, hiring contractors, counselling, and being held accountable for the books. Inbaraj reports regularly to the president and board of directors. The biggest challenge he faces is winning the confidence of the children and earning their acceptance. Once Inbaraj has been informed of a child in need, he travels to where the child currently lives to assess the situation. He cross checks with neighbours, tries to attain the parent's death or destitute certificate, and puts together a case history for the committee's approval. There aren't any municipal restrictions that he must adhere to. Most of the children come from a 5 km to 100 km radius and come from a lower caste. Barbara Block, from Saskatoon, is president of Bethania. For her two year tenure she is responsible for co-ordinating fund-raising, and handling public relations. Block has been teaching art at Kodaikanal International School for 12 years. When she moved to India she started spending her holidays at Bethania with Mrs. Dhanapal, and quickly grew fond of the children. Bethania's annual expenditure is $20,000 which includes education, food, maintenance, agriculture costs and staff salaries. Inbaraj takes home $120 per month. There are nine other staff members to be paid. Amara Crimson is in charge of the children. She supervises their study hours, tutors, oversees the kitchen and the store room. Bethania's driver, Mr. Tangapandi, is the watchman at night, he shops for food and runs other errands during the day. There are also five farm hands who work with the animals, and in the fields. Some of the staff live in Kannivadi, and some live on the premises. Block told me about Elizabeth, a young woman who had grown up at Bethania who is now in her second year of college. Although the association doesn't have a legal responsibility to care for the children once they leave, Block feels that they have a moral obligation to set them up with a trade or profession. Just like Antonnia, Elizabeth grew up at Bethania. Recently she received $100 from Linda and Cam McKie, (Whistler locals) to help pay for her school books. Currently Elizabeth is working towards her Bachlor of Science at Gandhigram. Bethania's ambition is to become self sustaining through agriculture and dairy farming. Bethania's goal for their children is for them to be respected and settled in society. Poverty doesn't stop life from happening. Whistler resident Janet Love Morrison is spending a year teaching at Kodaikanal International School. Anyone interested in further information about Bethania Orphanage can contact her at:

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