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Vani Venkataram, who has spent 42 years working for the welfare of women and children in rural Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, still believes she has much to contribute.
Vani Venkataram turned 81 years young this year. She says that she feels not 81, but 18 – such is her enthusiasm about life.
This octogenarian decides when she was 38, that social service would be the focus of her life. Over 42 years, she has brought immunization to remote areas, supported livelihood programs for rural women and her crowning glory – built a village high school that educates 180 children today. She has also done her Vidhvath in music and teaches music in her spare team.
In this interview, she shares her experiences and insights from a lifetime as a social worker.
You have been single-mindedly working in the field of social service for the past 42 years. Tell us something about how your work began and evolved.
Vani Venkataram: It all started at the age of 38 in Annamalai and Valparai in Tamil Nadu where my husband was posted at Upasi Tea Research Foundation. To pass my time, I started taking classes on moral education for the children of labourers at the tea estate. I found out that none of the kids in Cinchona Plantation and tribal areas were immunized as the terrain was difficult and it was not possible for health workers to reach there. Moreover, there was no cold storage facility to store vaccines.
I decided to help the health authorities towards this cause. I would go to Coimbatore to get vaccines in a flask and store them in my house until they were administered to the children. Gradually I got more involved in related fields like nutrition, health and women’s welfare for the tribal and the tea estate workers. I was made a member of Valparai Panchayat and conducted programs for women and children in health and non-formal education; I also built a small school in a tribal area and worked in Tamil Nadu for ten years.
There has been no looking back since then. After the demise of my husband, I relocated to Mysore. I was 48 years old then. My two sons who now live in the US were studying in college at that time. I adopted six villages in Mysore district and associated myself with social welfare activities such as AIDS awareness, tailoring, basket weaving, and education on nutrition and hygiene. I immersed myself in social work to distract myself from the thought that I am living alone. I started 6 nursery schools and one preschool – the high school came later.
I immersed myself in social work to distract myself from the thought that I am living alone. I started 6 nursery schools and one preschool – the high school came later.
At that time, there was no bus service to the villages; I used to walk around 6 km every day to reach the village. I also formed Vivekananda Education Trust. The high school which began in 1994 without any government aid has 180 children and 10 staff members. This is the only high school in the village.
What inspired you to involve yourself in social work?
Vani Venkataram: I was drawn towards social service right from a young age. Initially I associated myself with social work to pass my time productively. Later it became an addition and the mission of my life. It gives me immense satisfaction that I am using my life to better the lives of underprivileged people.
What are the challenges you face in running the school?
Vani Venkataram: I have been running the school only through donations from family and well-wishers without any government support. My two sons who live in the US also support me financially. I am able to collect only Rs. 2 lakhs through fees annually whereas the annual expense for running the school is Rs. 7 lakhs. There is a constant struggle to look out for new donors and generate Rs.5 lakhs every year through donations.
I want to make a corpus fund so that the school can function even when I am no more. I am a positive person and believe that there are many kind people in the world who feel for the cause so I will continue to approach them.
Motivating children to study is another challenge as they belong to families where parents are poor and don’t know the value of education. We encourage girls to study but their parents generally marry them off young. So I have to also motivate the parents to allow their children to study – so even if the parents don’t pay fees, we still allow children to continue their studies.
We encourage girls to study but their parents generally marry them off young. So I have to also motivate the parents to allow their children to study…
How have you managed to sustain your motivation for forty-two long years? Did you ever feel like giving up?
Vani Venkataram: I had my share of low moments in life but the thought of leaving everything and living a comfortable life with my sons in the US never occurred to me even once. Initially I faced a lot of challenges, as there was no transport and no electricity in the villages; I had to walk for miles to reach my destination.
I just told myself that giving up was never an option. The love and respect that I have earned from people keeps me motivated. A continuous dose of motivation also comes from people who have benefitted from my programs.
What about the highs of your life? Could you share some of them?
Vani Venkataram: There are many! My high moments in life usually come on two occasions – first, when I am successful in bringing about even a small change in the lives of the beneficiaries of my programs. Second, when donors give me money without asking a single question about how I am going to use the money. Their trust in me reinforces my belief that I am on the right track and I must have done something good to earn the trust in people. They give because of their personal trust in me – there is no bigger reward for my services.
Taking into consideration your vast experience in education in the rural areas, how do you think girls in rural India can be empowered?
Vani Venkataram: Education is the only way to empower girls as behavioral patterns, attitudes, aptitude and values are shaped because of good education. You educate a woman and you educate a family.
I do this not only for the children but also for myself, as they are my source of happiness.
Now when you are 81 and are able to walk only with the help of a stick, you still visit schools and want to personally supervise the work. Why?
Vani Venkataram: I will continue to personally involve myself with my schools for as long as I can. The children require a personal touch. Now I go only thrice a week, teach them moral stories, compose my own music and teach them songs whereas academics are taken care of by the school faculty.
You watch movies, play bridge, socialize with select groups, while at the same time, making social work the mission of your life; how do you manage to take out time for everything?
Vani Venkataram: One has to live a complete life. Until 3 pm, my day is dedicated to the schools and rural development. After that I have sufficient time to play bridge, watch movies, teach music and socialize with my friends. There are also weekends to do plenty of other stuff. If one is systematic and meticulous, there is enough time to do everything in life as no side of life should be neglected.
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