Sister Lizzy Chakkalakal was standing at a bus stop at Chellanam in Kochi one day, when she saw a blue plastic sheet tied to a tree. Underneath it was living a family of three. Out of curiosity, Lizzy, who is the principal of higher secondary section of Our Lady’s School at Thoppumpady, crossed the road and met the woman, Pushpa M.
“I came to know that Pushpa had two schoolgoing children. Her husband, an alcoholic and a part-time butcher, had committed suicide because of mounting debts. Now, she was struggling to survive, as the creditors had started asking her for sexual favours as she couldn’t pay the money,” says the 49-year-old, who felt compelled to do something. “But Pushpa has held on to her integrity. She always kept a machete under her pillow.”
This was the day when her journey to help people began. Sister Lizzy, who belongs to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, a Catholic order, started her House Challenge Project in 2013.
“The beneficiaries are mostly widows, and families of differently abled children, because they are the ones who need the most protection,” she says.
As part of the project, she has built 60 houses, and 10 more are in varying stages of construction. All this is being done with the help of teacher Lilly Paul and many others like her who help in buying material and volunteer for collecting donations.
Pushpa had a small piece of land, so, through donations from retired and current teachers, students, parents, and affluent businessmen, Lizzy built a 500 square feet house. She says, “Donors usually help by making payment for the material bought at shops.”
There is a hall, kitchen and a room which opens towards the street.
“There is a space for a shop,” says Sister Lizzy. “Now, Pushpa sells tea, coffee and snacks in this shop. Children gained self-esteem when they started staying in a proper house. They began performing well in their studies.” Among the financial contributors is T A Joseph, Managing Director, Confident Group, a construction firm, who says, “Sister Lizzy is doing a remarkable job.”
But what is most amazing is the quality of the houses. They are better than most middle-class homes. All the floors are tiled, the walls are painted in bright colours, the kitchen counter has a granite top, and there is a washbasin in the dining hall, apart from bathrooms, with faucets and cisterns, and wooden doors. Each house costs around Rs 5 lakh and it takes six months to complete a house.
Dr P J Abraham, chairman of Divine Developers, who has built most of the houses, says that he did not want to distinguish between poor and middle-class houses.
“We always use quality material,” he says. “And Sister Lizzy told us that the poor don’t have money for repairs. So the houses have to be in good condition.”
The impact has been stunning for the recipients. New house-owner Mini Benny says, “It sometimes feels like a dream. My children are so happy now.”