How Hermann Gmeiner’s SOS Children’s Villages strive to gift a mother to every abandoned child.....
The word ‘orphanage’ easily conjures up a gloomy picture, as in movies, of little, disheveled, un-groomed children, herded in crammed spaces enveloped in a general air of doom, with little to no one-on-one adult attachments or attention. Not necessarily an accurate generalization, but somewhere in there exists a grain of truth. Most orphanages are run like factories where financial strain and limited resources inadvertently result in compromising child-centered care.
Recognizing the follies of the structure of traditional orphan care, child-welfare worker and multiple times Nobel Peace prize nominee, Hermann Gmeiner’s (1919-1986) dedicated his life to developing innovative and effective solutions for broken systems, specifically for abandoned children. The concept of SOS Children’s Villages was his brainchild – a proposition where emotional, physical and social needs of a child are given equal importance in a structure where orphans are placed with a mother (a consistent caretaker assigned to a fixed group of children) alongside other orphans as siblings, in their own house, one of several that are built in a cluster to form a village.
Born in a large family of farmers in Austria in the early 20th century, Hermann lost his mother when he was very young. Raised by his eldest sister Elsa, Hermann experienced first hand the reality of being orphaned but then being given the nurturing that helped him grow up into a wholesome adult with an unswerving conviction that addressing only physical needs of orphans was simply not sufficient.
At the end of the Second World War, having experienced the horrors of war himself, he was confronted with the isolation and suffering of the large number of war orphans and abandoned children. With a paltry investment of his own (600 Austrian Schillings which translates to roughly $40USD) he established the SOS Children’s Village Association in 1949. A ‘Dedicated Father’ would probably be a more fitting description than his title of Village Director at this very first SOS Children’s Village in Imst, Austria.
The success of the Imst Children’s Village spread very quickly as children from its environment grew into adulthood more prepared, both emotionally and physically, with skills required to take on the challenges of the outside world. They also developed lasting bonds with their families and found themselves returning to visit even after leaving these villages as adults.
By the end of the 20th century, before his death in 1986, there were a total of 233 SOS Children’s villages across 85 countries with Germany, Austria and Norway being the leading contributors to their international arm.
Almost exactly 50 years ago, the State of Maharashtra adopted this nurturing model for its abandoned children. My association with SOS Children’s Villages in India started entirely through my mother, Suchita Shroff’s, long term involvement in the SOS Children’s Village in my hometown, Pune. She has volunteered countless hours and all possible personal resources to improving the efficiency and fundraising for these villages, commonly referred to as Balgrams in India. The individual homes that make up this village are called Balsadans. Today, apart from the very large Pune Balgram (accommodates about 200 children in 20 Balsadans) there are Balgrams of varying sizes all over the state in locations like Panhala, Alibaug, Latur, Panvel and Ambernath.
Groups of 8-10 children live in each Balasadan with their Mother or ‘Aie’ who is assisted by an aunty or ‘Maushi’. These ladies are usually, but not always, women who have themselves been abandoned or have left abusive marriages. All members sleep under a common roof, eat meals together, play in a common courtyard shared by several Balsadans, share responsibility for chores around the house, help siblings with homework, and basically live together as a single family unit.
The management duties of the Village Director who oversees the entire village primarily include property maintenance, providing security and supplies, and finding appropriate educational options for every child among others.
Government funds and private donors primarily support these villages but there has also been some recent effort on the management’s part to find ways to make it self-sustainable.
At our most recent visit to the Balgram that our family supports, located in the historic, hill-station town of Panhala in the Kolhapur district, my children and I had the delightful experience of shadowing a day in the lives of these families. A generous donation by Shrimant Vikramsingh Raje of his bungalow along with a sizeable property around it have been converted into a self contained SOS Children’s Village since 1977.
Language was no barrier as my children pranced and played with these bright boys (in this particular location they happened to have only boys) in their picturesque gated community. The interaction between these siblings was no different than between my children. They played one minute, squabbled another, needed intervention by an adult sometimes…or not, quickly made up with each other and then went back to being best buddies again.
My favorite time was when I hung out in the kitchen with the Aies and Maushis while they prepared an elaborate Maharashtrian lunch for us. Alternately complaining about our children and applauding them, I found myself instantly and effortlessly bonding with them.
The Aies insisted, as is their cultural tradition, that guests must eat lunch first. So while they rolled out fresh piping-hot Chapattis (Rotis) the older children served us the other dozen preparations. As I savored my first spoonful of varan-bhaat (Daal-Rice) with Toop (Clarified butter), it wasn’t just my mouth that watered. My entire being was flooded with the immensity of privilege that I shared with these ladies - we belonged to this elite anthropological classification called Mother.
Thanks to the legacy left behind by Hermann Gmeiner, no matter what our circumstances, mothers around the world remain bound by the common emotion of unconditional love that we feel for our children, whether biological or adoptive.
Image details :
Panhala Balgram: Clockwise from Left: One family unit, Bungalow converted to Balsadans, Shy children posing for a picture in their yard.
Photo: SOS Children’s Village Panhala