Tamil Nadu: Transforming lives, one street at a time

They have rescued and rehabilitated more than 1,500 people in the last 10 years.
Atchayam Trust has rescued and rehabilitated more than 1,500 people so far
Atchayam Trust has rescued and rehabilitated more than 1,500 people so far | Express

ERODE: Draped in a cotton saree, Jayalakshmi flits around the room of a care home in Salem. She wipes off drool from the face of a girl while feeding another. This Sri Lankan woman, who once battled mental health issues and rehabilitated by Atchayam Trust, is now tending to children with intellectual disability.

P Naveen Kumar (30), founder of Atchayam Trust, a rehabilitation centre for the destitute, can never forget the night he met Jayalakshmi first. “In 2021, I was on a walk near Erode GH when I came across a dishevelled woman crouched in the darkness with bruises all over her body. When I tried to approach her, she was erratic and terrified.” His voice cracks up as he explains how she was afraid of him. “This is because most men would thrash her for rejecting their sexual advances. I waited patiently and with the help of other caretakers and police, tended to her wounds.”

After being orphaned at a very young age, Jayalaskhmi got married to Rajashekaran. However, her husband deserted her soon. Unable to cope with the death of her infant as well, Jayalakshmi went through a brief period of depression. She was left in the streets and would soon be susceptible to multiple sexual predators and brutal abuse.

The Atchayam team gave her the psychiatric help she needed and admitted her to E comwell trust where she is currently employed. This is one of the many day-to-day incidents handled by volunteers of Atchayam Trust, an organisation that rescues and rehabilitates people abandoned by their families in the streets of Erode. They have rescued and rehabilitated more than 1,500 people in the last 10 years.

Naveen said, “We have successfully rehabilitated 1,270 out of 1,500 destitute. Most have been reunited with their families and a majority of them are working. A few who have been rehabilitated through Atchayam help us to save others.” Born to a father with disability and a mother who suffers from intense rheumatoid arthritis at Paithampara village in Tiruchy, Naveen was raised by his grandmother. Mostly left to fend for himself, Naveen would clear weeds from the fields in the morning for Rs 4. After school, he would rush to clear cow dung off the stables in the two-hour window between school and tuition.

He soon joined a mechanical engineering course at Kumarapalayam college. In his second year of college, Naveen was walking to his hostel when a person with disability begged him for money. He handed over the Rs 10 he had saved for dinner. When Naveen asked the man why he begged, he answered that because he was disabled, most people looked down on him and didn’t give him any job.

Naveen lay awake all night with an empty stomach, recalling how his villagers used to bully his father for having a crippled foot. He imagined them begging after being left with no other means. That night, he scoured through Vivekananda’s books and decided that he would create a ‘Yashakam Illa Thayagam’ (a society without destitute and beggars). “I went around asking for help, but most people advised me to save my parents out of their poverty first.”

With a new purpose, Naveen who was an average student up till then passed out as the topper in 2014. He got a job as a private lecturer and donated the bulk of his salary to charity. Soon, he realised that most of the money was used to buy drugs or alcohol. Another issue was how they would relapse to begging even after rehabilitation.” Most of them would go back to the streets even after getting jobs. After doing more research and seeking clarifications through RTI, Naveen realised that there are no generalised schemes for beggars.

“From Atchayam’s point of view, there are 10 types of beggars, including addicts, disabled, abandoned, and elderly. We realised that one major reason for relapse was a lack of confidence due to being shunned on the streets for so long. It is the hopeless who turn homeless. So, we give them a bath and a makeover which makes a load of difference, a sort of baptism into a new life,” he added.

Atchayam Trust since then has been helping the mentally challenged, the elderly, the destitute, those abandoned by their families, and those who are lonely due to illness. At present, 20 people are working on a salary basis in the trust. A total of 40 volunteers work to pick up the destitute. Besides them, 400 volunteers support the financial needs of the trust.

The turning point was in 2018 when Naveen received the national youth award from the Ministry of Youth Welfare and Sports Development. He also received the state youth award from former Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami the very next year.

By 2020, they rented a place in Manickampalayam in Erode to set up a shelter at a rent of 20,000 per month. The corporation offered them a building in the solar area free of cost. They are currently taking care of 40 people here. Besides, 25 mentally ill patients are housed in Perundurai Government Medical College Hospital and 15 in Gobichettipalayam Municipal Rehabilitation Building.

“A permanent shelter that can house more people is one of my dreams. For this purpose, we have bought 1.8 acres of land in Nasiyanur which can accommodate over 200 people. But, we don’t have sufficient funds. So we have introduced a scheme where those who want to help can pay a donation of Rs 101.”

They face several issues every single day. “But the joy of healing the rescued and reuniting them with their families makes us forget all challenges.”

(Edited by Mary Catherene)

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