Celebrating a sanctuary of knowledge in Tamil Nadu's temple town

Arivalayam, an initiative of BHEL in Tiruchirapalli, which provides schooling and vocational training to differently-abled children, is a model of CSR at work


Shivani Chaturvedi | May 29, 2014

Kabila Devi, a qualified physiotherapist, gives therapy to a child
Kabila Devi, a qualified physiotherapist, gives therapy to a child

Located in Tiruchirapalli (or Tiruchi or Trichy) district of Tamil Nadu is Arivalayam, or temple of knowledge in Tamil, a school for differently-abled children and a hope for the parents in making them realise that having special children is definitely not a curse.

An initiative of BHEL Tiruchirapalli, this school and vocational training centre is taking care of children with special needs for 37 years now. The institute is set up in the BHEL township. It started in 1977 with seven children and now it accommodates about 200 students suffering from mental disability and hearing loss. All these children have not only found a place in the institute but also in the hearts of 50 staff members. Just a visit here gives a picture of how simple gestures and a little care towards these children are making their lives meaningful.

At around 9.30 in the morning we enter the campus. There is a playground like in any other school but it is not the playtime for the students so they all are inside the school. And there at the entrance of the building are Navin Kumar and Jeeva Nandan, both eight-year-old students, who welcome us with a smile and a song.

We move on to a room equipped with exercise machines. Kabila Devi, a qualified physiotherapist is giving therapy to Kabilan, 10, for his eyes and hands coordination. Devi who works with about 20 children on a daily basis says, “Depending on the deformity in a child we give them therapy. Some of these children are affected with cerebral palsy they suffer from paralysis in one or more limbs.” For special children below five Arivalayam has devised a programme where parents of these children are taught exercises so that it can be given to these kids at home. And after a month of regular exercise the parents are expected to come back give the progress report and take further advice.

In the adjacent room K Ravichandran, 10, is doing pulley exercise for hand and leg strengthening. As we enter the room he was quick to leave the pulley and go to parallel bar and posture mirror kept in the other corner. After exercising for a few minutes he went near a not too long ladder placed in the room and started climbing, which again is a part of his exercise programme, till he is asked by his teacher to stop and give a break for some time. Ravichandran displays all what he has learned. His teacher and even the principal of the school B Sakthi are happy with the improvement that he has shown since 2011 when he joined the school. “Earlier he was not even able to hold objects,” the duo remark. Ravichandran is living in hostel. The school provides hostel facilities for 40 children. Those who come from nearby cities and villages stay in the hostel. Ravichandran’s parents come to meet him from Namakkal district about 100 km from Tiruchirapalli and during vacations he visits his parents.

As nearly 80 percent of these children have difficulties with speech, individual attention is given to students by the qualified speech therapist and by specially trained staff of Arivalayam. Every student gets his or her turn on a rotation basis. Professional speech therapists also make periodic visits and provide guidance to both teachers and parents towards achieving speech improvement goals. Even a psychiatrist and a psychologist make visits to attend to special needs of these students. Parents-teachers meetings are held every week to discuss improvement and challenges.

Teaching a child with special needs is a privilege but it is also hard so their parents should definitely be counselled to help bring improvement in these children, feels Krishnaveni Sekar, administrator, DGM (HR), BHEL, who too takes out time to visit Arivalayam and spend time with these children.
“Teachers counsel the parents and make them understand that their child is suffering from such a problem but at the same time we tell them that their child should be further brought up in such a way that he or she becomes independent. From that stage itself we give counselling which again is a challenge,” says Radha Kumar, who is teaching here for more than five years. These children have become very attached to their teachers. “If we do not visit school for a day children inquire about us from other teachers who are present asking ‘where is that akka?’ (elder sister in Tamil),” says Debolina Sarcar, another teacher. “And we happily do whatever we can for these children. It gives us satisfaction,” express Subha Adak and Saleena Samad, teaching staff.
From educating them about everyday activities to how they should conduct themselves in the society and how to become self-reliant, the teachers are helping children to learn things differently.

The students are given training in vocations such as making garlands, envelopes, greeting cards, office files, screen printing, tailoring, pickle making and more. Along with their small incomes, they earn back what they had lost most — their self-worth. Selvam, 22, who has become an expert in recanning work, also making files, folders and envelopes, of late got a job in a hospital but till he turns 25 he wants to be in Arivalayam – otherwise he will miss his teachers, he has been in this school since 2007. He is quick to add, “This time I took part in karaoke at the school annual function.” Like Selvam his friends from Arivalayam are also getting job offers in nearby plants. Sarvana Kumar, 18, is called rockstar by his teachers. Living up to the title given to him by his teachers, Sarvana presents dance steps with a lot of confidence while his teachers sing a dance number for him. He is equally good at glass painting and recently he earned '1,000 by selling garlands which he made at home, Sarvana says with pride. All the activities from dance to singing, painting and more they learnt at the school. Students have also won prizes in state-level competitions.

Now we proceed to hostel building in the school campus. Hostel incharge Jyothi has been working in the school for 17 years and joined as in-charge two years back and the warden Jayarani is here since two years. They are the ones who spend most of the time with these children. They are happy discharging their duties. “We teach them etiquette of eating, dressing, combing hair. It gives us satisfaction,” the duo say.

There are spacious dormitories with six beds in each room, and for each room there is a caretaker who is on duty in night hours. One of the caretakers is Vijayalakshmi who is a product of this school. She is very happy serving these children.

There is a kitchen which has a menu chart for all the seven days. In the entrance hall of the hostel hangs a timetable for these children. Timings for all the activities including time to leave bed and time to hit bed are also mentioned in the chart and the children are taught to stick to the time-table. As a part of outdoor activity, hostel students are taken every Saturday to a nearby children’s park.

There is a hospital across the road and in case of emergency children are taken there. But before getting admission in the school children have to undergo eligibility test. There is a recruitment board comprising medical specialists and child psychiatrists who selects children. Some children need medical attention before getting admission so their parents are advised accordingly. Every year a fresh batch of 30 to 40 children comes in and nearly same numbers of students pass out.
What made BHEL take up this idea?
S Sundararajan, general manager, engineering (FB), BHEL, who is also the president of Arivalayam, shares how the school started. Long back one of the BHEL employees was not very participative and active in the office. One day he told his seniors that his three-year-old child was suffering from mental disability for quite some time. BHEL decided to visit the child and took him to a doctor. That time BHEL decided to cater to needs of such special children in the township and nearby areas who required special attention. First it started with personal interest that the employee had be happy so that the company’s interests are taken care of. Then it slowly turned into social responsibility. In the school only around 15 percent of the children are BHEL wards and the rest are from towns and villages around Tiruchirapalli.

K Murali, senior deputy general manager (admin), BHEL, who takes care of CSR activities, says it was little known at the time when Arivalayam came up. In 2009 CSR started in all the PSUs as per the department of public enterprises (DPE) guidelines. “For the corporate as a whole (0.5 percent) of our net profit was earmarked for CSR. That time DPE guideline said anything within the campus cannot come under CSR later on they found that PSUs within campus are running several schools which mainly caters to outside people that means beneficiaries are outsiders. So the DPE revised the guidelines to include these schools also, as it serves the society. This way Arivalayam also became part of CSR activity,” Murali says. BHEL was taking care of the school but through CSR they extended the help for the last three to four years: they support running and operation of school. On a monthly basis they don’t provide money to the school but whenever the school asks for money BHEL immediately provides financial assistance.  

BHEL is working out to form a society for these special children that will be run by their parents. They can be employed as outsourced component of BHEL, if things shape up, says Sundararajan. Best people to take care of such children are their parents. “We have had a few meetings with the parents and some of them showed interest. It is at the nascent stage. The last part that is missing today is we are unable to do anything for these children after they turn 25. They get jobs but for them adjustment in such environment is difficult,” says Sundararajan.




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