I saw happy kids hanging on somebody like bunch of grapes or may be like little monkeys on a palm tree laughing and caressing and talking constantly. When I reached closer I saw a very modest simple lady dressed in cotton salwar kameez surrounded and playing with the girls.
JK: (Jane Kataria) Hi Monika, so these are your children and this is how they show love and affection?
MK: (Monika Kretzdorn) Yes Jane, they are orphans and they truly appreciate someone who genuinely takes interest in their little lives and who plays with them. Children are children after all.
JK: They seem so attached to you…
MK: Yes, we are like one family now. It is my third visit here to Chennai to this orphanage Good Life center. My first visit was in 2015, that time I had been already working in Munich, Germany for one and a half years as a physiotherapist in a hospital. I attended one fundraising event and was truly touched by what I saw. Orphans in India, some of them were disabled children and all of them required help and assistance. I just graduated college in 2013 and didn’t have any saving to contribute financially but I decided I would spend my time and share my knowledge to contribute to their needs. I volunteered as a physiotherapist for the physically challenged children and was all set to go for the first time to India
JK: So your travel, stay, basic needs are taken care of?
MK: As I said I volunteered. I requested a leave from my hospital job in Munich but was not granted a leave since three months were too long for a vacation. So I quit the job, bought my air ticket and arrived here in Chennai.
JK: Really? Weren’t you scared that once you come back the vacancy might be filled and you would be staying without a job?
MK: (Smiles) I did assume that hospital would hire some other physiotherapist but at the same time was quite confident that I would find a placement since people of my profession are always in demand. To work with disabled patients requires a special mindset, a lot patience and strong belief that I would be able to help them. And you know what, after I came back from India, after many months they took me back! I was very happy.
JK: Miraculous! So they didn’t have anyone since were gone.
No, there was a person who worked in my position but left soon before I completed my stay in Chennai and returned to Munich. After working for six months in Germany I was thinking about all the children back in orphanage and was making plans to go and stay with them again.
JK: Did you have to quit your job again?
This time the arrangement was different. I was working for nine months and taking three months leave at my own cost. But my nine months’ salary was equally divided in 12 months and I was getting my pay even when I was away. Which is very helpful when you travel and live abroad.
JK: But why would you spend your own money and time and go so far away, India is quite far from Germany?
Jane, when I look into the eyes of all these children I see hope, I see their blind belief that we are here to help, we are here to care and not to leave them alone. And I can’t undermine this belief because I share it too – I am here to help them. They can trust and rely on me and I can do the best of what I learnt and know. Now it is difficult for me to imagine that I could stay only in Germany and not in India. I always have an urge to come back.
JK: What do people say about your mission, your colleagues, your friends, your parents? I guess it’s easier said than done to arrange your life around an orphanage in Chennai.
They are very proud of me. All of them say – we wish we could do the same. I know it’s not very common; this is a different way of charity. It’s not exactly donation or fundraising it is contributing your heart actually and part of your life. Good life centers did become part of my life. Every time I come to India I stay with Mr Basharan, the founder of these orphanages and his wife Uma, they are so kind and pleasant people. I love Indian cuisine and enjoy not only eating but coking as well with Uma. I even cook dosa and chutney back in Germany!
JK: And what is your plan, how long do you think you will be living between the two countries and between the volunteer job and a hospital job? Planning to change your schedule?
Never! (laughs) I mean I don’t think I am planning to stop working for the social cause. There are so many children out there who don’t have parents and family, who don’t have medical insurance or proper medical care and access to modern facilities and there are so many physically challenged patients who need professional help. I understand that alone I can do very limited work so I plan to take educational classes. Teach physiotherapy to medical students, to teach general sanitary norms to the caretakers and to educate and bring general awareness about problems and needs of the disabled children.
JK: What would you name as five basic hygiene principles that you keep bringing out here?
1) To wash hands. Often disabled people walk using hands or pushing the wheelchair, so it is important to have a golden rule – to always wash hands after restrooms and before taking meals
2) Flees in orphanages is a very common factor. It is important not only to take bath daily but also have washable bed sheets and blankets. In many places it would be just bamboo mats.
3) In order to eradicate parasites bed linen and clothes have to be washed in high temperatures, so we ensure through our organisation to provide these institution with modern washing machines and even dryers because in monsoon season it is very difficult to have linen and garments dry.
4) Restricted use of antibiotics. I find that lack of knowledge in medical fields and awareness leads to overuse of antibiotics. They reduce immunity and further resistance of body to bacteria. Antibiotics should be used only under doctors’ prescription and only after all other means of treatments have shown little results or if a patient in a critical condition.
5) Last but not least – regular visits to hospitals. It costs money and we are here to ensure that our children have enough support to exercise their basic rights – proper medical care.
These are really basic principles but it is very important to have them in-built and executing all the time as a rule of thumb
JK: Monika, what you be your general day be like at the orphanage?
After waking up I would do yoga and meditation, have breakfast with Mr. Basharan and his wife and then have session of physiotherapy with children as per the schedule.
JK: But I see here all healthy children?
You are right, there are several buildings of good life center and this one is for girls. I do come here quite often what do we do here? All the girly things! Braiding their hair, trying bangles and earrings, gossiping, dancing and singing, drawing, learning English and of course a lot of games and laughter. The biggest gift for them is love, our participance and acceptance our interest and understanding. And they pay double with all their heart full of devotion and joy!
– By Jane Kataria. Jane is a Doctor of Arts, a radio jockey based in Chennai, has acted in several movies, TV series, short films and YouTube channels, professional belly dancer and was also crowned Mrs. Tamil Nadu 2018.