Deep Griha, Pune (April 14  - April 29,  2002) 

New Zealand

Hospet/ Hampi
Deep Griha


After settling back into the Sangams WAGGS centre in Pune, we took a rickshaw on Monday morning to Deep Griha to find out how we could help for our two weeks of volunteer time. Deep Griha is a charitable organization started 27 years ago by Dr. Neela Onawale and Reverend Bhaskar Onawale to provide child and family health care and development to people living in the slums and outlying villages in the Pune area. 

We expected to be assigned to help in the balwadis (pre-schools) with craft programs, or perhaps do some computer work. However when we arrived we were told that one of Deep Griha's long term donors was nominating both Neela and Bhaskar for the Kellogg's Hannah Neil World of Children Award. They had e-mailed Neela the night before we arrived to ask her for some operating statistics and a biography in support of the application. Neela was wondering how to incorporate this request into her busy schedule, when Sarah and I arrived in her office. She asked us to come up with the initial drafts. This meant that we got to spend most of our time listening to Neela and Bhaskar talk about their lives. It was an honour, a source of inspiration, and  a wonderful experience to do this. 

Here is an excerpt from the biography that Sarah wrote. It is Neela talking, and at the time, Bhaskar was a lecturer at the UTSM seminary:

"On July 5th, 1975 we opened a dispensary for women and children, which operated from one room of our house on the Seminary campus. I was the only member of staff and went without pay. I was warned that it may take a while before I had any patients, but fortunately I had my first patient within 24 hours. Treatment was provided for a nominal fee ($0.12 US), but no patient was ever sent away because of lack of money. Over the next 25 years, tens of thousand of patients were to visit me at the various dispensaries I ran in the slum areas and in the villages.

In 1976 an 18 month old girl, Shobha, was brought to the dispensary by her grandmother suffering from a cold. I found the girl to be severely marasmic (undernourished) and underweight. When I discussed this with the Grandmother, the Grandmother said the parents had been told that Shobha was under the influence of evil spirits, and as long as she was in the house there would be poverty. As a result, Shobha was left outside to sleep, which was why she caught a cold. This incident, together with other cases of superstitions, under nourishment, and parent's inability to recognize symptoms of malnutrition, motivated me to commence the Nutrition Program. It also planted the seed to commence education for mothers, as we realized that we could really only make a difference to the lives of the children if we educated the Mothers. Shobha was the first child that I started feeding. Initially I fed some of the children with our own food, but then food was graciously provided by others. Very quickly the number of children fed grew to 150. However the Seminary terms and conditions that allowed me to operate a clinic did not really foresee having 150 children running around their grounds. With the financial aid from the Trinity Episcopal Church of Princeton, New Jersey, Deep Griha bought a bigger building close to the slum in the Tadiwala Road area."

Neela and Bhaskar

Creche in Deep Griha

Ramtekadi Slum

Neela's venture now has about 140 staff. Programs cover child and family development - health care, nutrition, counseling, coaching classes to help children with homework, literacy classes for people of all ages to learn to read, adult education, technical training courses (computer, sewing, etc) and more. Her programs and efforts have helped thousands of people over the last 27 years. She gave up practicing medicine a few years ago, and now spends all of her time with Administration and Fund Raising.

Neela has a unique ability to make people want to help her cause. She is also terrific at fostering ideas - the person who came into her office years ago suggesting an Adult Education program, now runs that program in Deep Griha and has won a national award for doing it.

Suffice to say that Sarah and I were both a bit awestruck after our two weeks.  It was incredibly rewarding and we certainly learned some fundamental lessons about life.  In the depth of what most of us would consider tremendous poverty, a lot of people appear far happier than many people we know who have, by all material measures, enormous wealth.

The middle picture is a crèche that looks after children while their parents work - it is naptime. As you can see, the children are extraordinarily well behaved. Imagine trying to get 25 Canadian toddlers to sleep in the same area! The third picture is the migrant worker houses in the Ramtekadi slum. Most other parts of the slum are 'nicer' with brick walls and tin roofs - although they tend to be just as small for each family. 

Heather and Komal

Heather enjoyed her time at Deep Griha - she often assisted the other volunteers in their craftwork with the kids. She also picked out the child she wanted to sponsor: Komal Geikwad, aged 6, is cute as a button, but quite shy. She did not know what to make of Heather. Komal's father died in a fire when she was a baby. She now lives with her Mother, grandparents and uncles. Heather's sponsorship will fund schooling in english, nutrition and various other services from Deep Griha for Komal. We look forward to watching her grow up and wish her well. 

The volunteer work was less of a success for Mark and Chloe. They are less craft oriented, and had a harder time motivating themselves to help out with things they did not like doing.

We did visit one other organization while we were in Pune. On our day off, Teresa (a former Sangam employee who we were introduced to through a New Zealand Guider), organized a visit to Anand Gram, a leper colony near Pune. The colony was started years ago when there was a tremendous social stigma attached to Leprosy. People with leprosy, regardless of caste, would be shunned by their families and by society at large.  The disease can now be cured, so the colony exists for an increasingly aged population. They started a school a few years ago, and now bring children of parents with leprosy from all over India. The children can attend school without being taunted because they are children of leprosy victims. 

On my birthday, we attended the "Catch Fever" musical performance put on by staff, volunteers, and friends of Deep Griha. The goal was to increase local awareness of Deep Griha. This was the first time they put on a show like this, and it was excellent - we heard some tremendously talented amateurs.

After spending two extra weeks in Pune, we needed to extend our visit in India. Of course, we knew this a long time ago, but it never occurred to us that it would be difficult. We called Lufthansa to change our onward flight to London from May 5th to the middle of May, and found that we'd be about 100th on the waiting list for a flight that was already 70 people overbooked. We were hoping to visit Rajasthan, but now only have time for Delhi and Agra. We'll have to go to Rajasthan on our next trip to India, whenever that is. 

Having to take our early flight meant we had to get a train ticket in a hurry too. This is very difficult to do as it is holiday season and trains get booked months in advance. We ended up having to ask for an 'emergency quota' train ticket. We got only four bunks for the five of us, but at least we got to Agra.