BELAGAVI: It was the face of a small, helpless four-year-old child, Rupesh, that led to the building of the Mahesh Foundation. Little Rupesh (name changed) was an orphan, suffering from AIDS and in a critical condition. He was undergoing treatment at the district hospital when Mahesh Jadhav chanced on him. It changed his life completely.
That was back in 2008, when Jadhav was just 21 years old. He brought Rupesh home with his mother’s permission, though it raised many eyebrows in the area. “The child was in a critical stage and there was no one to help due to the stigma the disease brought. I wanted to help him at any cost and convinced my family that I wanted to bring him home. And this is how the first family member joined Mahesh Foundation,” he said.
After meeting Rupesh, Jadhav started finding out more about HIV patients. Five more orphan kids came home, as no one was ready to rent out a house to provide shelter. Mahesh Foundation (MF) has since been working with one of the most neglected and stigmatised sections of society, People Living with HIV (PLHIV). Since the early days, Jadhav has striven to provide dignity and livelihood to people infected with or affected by HIV.
Today, the foundation has many projects that benefit the bottom rung of society, and has brought recognition for Jadhav in the form of the President’s Medal in 2017 for his contribution to child welfare. He also received the State Award for the same in 2014.
Jadhav, a diploma holder, aimed to become a software engineer, but ended up with electronics and a transportation business. As he couldn’t give sufficient attention to kids at his shelter, he handed over his business to managers and focused totally on the Foundation’s activities. It was the local press that discovered Jadhav and the Mahesh Foundation: it was a feel-good story of a local lad who cared for pariah HIV+ children. He got extensive coverage, and as his foundation became famous, many more such kids were brought to the shelter, with the number quickly rising to 26.
It took a toll, though, of his personal life. Jadhav, who was engaged to marry, found that his fiance’s family did not approve and broke the alliance, suspecting that he could be HIV-positive too. “The stigma associated with HIV probably kills more people than the disease itself,” says Jadhav. “This stigma was affecting me and my family. People would look at me strangely, and ask if I or any one of my family members was HIV-positive. After my engagement was broken, I deferred marriage plans.”
There were many other hurdles too. Jadhav had enrolled the children in a local government school but in March 2011, the headmaster stopped them from coming to school. “We had to take up a fight with the authorities to reverse the decision and get our kids back into school to write their exams,” he said.
Mahesh Foundation started taking up educational programmes, providing school kits to HIV-positive students. Today, nearly 2,000 such children get books, bags, geometry boxes and more, like nutritional supplements. It has also set up a helpline to ensure the kids get medicine on a timely basis to stay healthy, and also offers counseling to keep their spirits up.
The Foundation now has its own premises for HIV-positive and underprivileged children. In 2018, it started a school for underprivileged kids, and provided them skill-based education for free. They, along with children from nearby slums, are educated under the same roof. It also supports the education of over 20,000 underprivileged children externally, providing computer skills, art and craft, etc. Currently, the school has students from Class 1 to 5, and plans to extend to Class 10.
As the Foundation grows, Jadhav is hoping to touch many more lives. It is building a 50-bed charitable hospital for the poor. “With conditions worsening after the Covid-19 pandemic, we plan to provide free healthcare to underprivileged children,” said Jadhav. MF also started a Mahila Udyog to manufacture bags. It employs women from slums, especially those who have lost an earning member or are in financial difficulty.
He met his life partner Madhu, a like-minded individual who was working with the Foundation, and is also dedicated to the betterment of society. After marriage, she dedicated herself to Foundation work, and has been taking up projects for betterment of women and the needy. They have a 2-year-old son, Yuvaraj. Madhu says she started working with MF as she was interested in social work, and it was when she came in touch with Jadhav that she realised the gravity of the struggle of the underprivileged. Over the years, Madhu has been focusing on giving voice to the unheard sections of society, especially empowering needy women. “I reached the grassroots level and could understand the challenges faced by women who lost their breadwinners and are facing financial difficulties,” she said.
Madhu started Prayatna, an initiative to support such women and other marginalised communities. “Our mission is to support educational and medical needs of vulnerable communities and provide them an opportunity to earn their livelihood. We have extended help to weavers and potters who are suffering due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and have provided a platform to sell their products. The revenue generated is utilised for needy children’s education.” Prayatna provided sewing machines to women so they can be financially independent and support their families.
In the coming days, Prayatna intends to set up a Livelihood Centre for women.
I lost my parents at a very young age and I thought that no one will take care of me. But Mahesh Foundation gives me all the love and care, like my parents would –Pooja, 14
I came to know that I am HIV-positive and lost all hopes of getting an education. Mahesh Foundation is educating me and helping me to be self-sufficient. I am working and leading a dignified life –Ramesh, 16
Mahesh Foundation has been taking care of all my needs and wants. I was not sure I would get a proper education when I lost my parents. Mahesh Foundation is helping me achieve my dream –Pallavi, 18
(Names of MF inmates changed)