KOCHI: In a house in Panvel near Navi Mumbai, live around three dozen children. They are no normal kids. They are fighters. If you ask them who their parents are, they will say Paapa Reji and Mini mummy. Pastor Reji Thomas, settled in Mumbai for the last 36 years, has been a guide and guardian to 32 HIV-positive kids since 2009. His home, called the Bless Foundation, is theirs too.
After he got his divine calling, Reji started working with abandoned kids on the streets of Mumbai. His journey with HIV-positive kids began after a tragic incident in 2008 at DY Patil Hospital in Navi Mumbai. “I was into social service at the time under an organisation. One day, the medical college asked me to visit the hospital and pray for a 12-year-old girl from Nepal. To me, she looked like a bag of bones. I was under the impression that she was struggling with tuberculosis. But I found out later that she had AIDS and was on her death bed,” said Reji.
The 12-year-old had one request for the pastor — she wanted to taste noodles. Though he searched shops nearby, Reji couldn’t find any. He promised her he would bring some the next day. “But I woke up the next morning to the news of her demise. I felt shattered. That is the day I decided to do all I can for HIV-infected kids,” he says. Reji has covered enough ground to understand the lives of such kids in the country. “There are many care homes for older patients, but none for the kids,” he says.
In 2009, Reji started Bless Foundation with his wife, Mini Reji Thomas. They had just four children staying with them at the time — three boys and a girl. The kids had lost their parents and were handed over to the pastor by an organisation that cares for elderly HIV patients. The pastor, his wife, and their biological children — Justin and Jeny — lived under one roof. “All we had back then was a mat and a few bedsheets. We gave the mats to the kids, and the four slept on the sheets on the floor for the next two months,” says Reji.
Eventually, their friends and a few good samaritans who appreciated the cause started contributing food, beds and other essentials. As the number of children increased, Reji decided to take in only boys. The girls go to other organisations.
Until 2012, Bless Foundation struggled to meet daily operational expenses. Due to financial constraints, Reji could only send three students to school. But life has gifted him many miracles since then. “Back then, if I had Rs 15,000, I could have sent all of them to school. Though I knocked on many doors, I hardly got any response,” says Reji.
In 2012, a day before the school reopening, Manu Punnoose visited the organisation offering food and essentials. He also handed over a cheque for Rs 21,000.
“I broke down in front of him. It was indeed a miracle. He is still an important ally of the Bless Foundation,” says Reji.
The 32 children, aged between four and 18, attend school now. After they turn 18, the kids at Bless Foundation are sent elsewhere, or the foundation helps them get a job. “Majority of them have lost their parents to HIV. The mothers of a few kids are alive. Around eight of our kids are employed now,” says Reji.
Though Reji had worked with HIV positive adults earlier, working with children has been a whole different experience, he says. Initially, he was sceptical about housing them with his kids, but he worked towards informing them better. “Playing or eating with an HIV patient won’t make you sick. I have told my kids to be careful if they are injured or have an open wound. HIV spreads easily through the bloodstream,” he said. “My brother and I accepted his decision. I was happy to get so many younger siblings,” says Jeny, Reji’s younger daughter.
Society and Stigma
Lack of awareness on HIV and AIDS causes discrimination. Children often internalise this stigma and begin to develop a negative self-image. Reji always insisted on never making them feel isolated or rejected.
“In Mumbai, my wife or I would take one of them along when we go out. Whenever I go to Kerala, I take one of the kids with me,” adds Reji. People were hesitant to interact initially, he admits. Some even had reservations about eating from their home.
“Many people feel that even brief interactions are dangerous. But when they saw our family living and playing with the infected kids, their prejudice broke,” says Reji, who has taken many awareness classes on the subject.
United by a cause
Children from varied backgrounds live happily at Reji’s home now. Most of them were abandoned by parents and relatives because they were sick. “In some cases, HIV-infected parents on their deathbed leave their kids with us,” he says. A few of the kids came to Reji when their illness was peaking. He managed to nurse them back to health. His only prayer is never to have to lose a child to AIDS. Unfortunately, his nightmare came true once. “Noor was just six years old. He had HIV and tuberculosis, and the infection spread across his body,” said Reji.
Little ‘joy’ of life
One of the inmates, Joy, is full of life. He started living at Bless Foundation when he was just one-and-half years old. His mother, a sex worker, abandoned him on the streets. If you ask him his name, he will answer Joy Reji Thomas. “I love staying here. They take care of me well,” says the 11-year-old foodie. The eldest of the house, Shubham, a Class 12 student, admires his ‘parents’. “If we ask Paapa for something, he would make it happen. He even helps us with our studies,” says Shubham.