After Dec 26, 2004, nothing was ever the same again for the children of Pondicherry, India. Their homes were destroyed in the tsunami, and many of them lost their parents. Thanks to international aid, much of the infrastructure around them has been restored. But no one can give the children back their families. To replace a healthy family life as closely as possible is the approach pursued by the SOS Children’s Villages, which built new Children’s Villages at many places in India, including Pondicherry, after the tsunami.The relief organization was able to do so thanks in part to gifts from Bertelsmann AG and its staff: the group and its employees had donated €1.4 million to support tsunami orphans through an SOS Children’s Villages adoption program.
A little over three years after the disaster, there was much cause for celebration in Pondicherry. In past few years year, the new village’s residents had first lived in emergency shelters and then in a temporary SOS Children’s Village. Finally, in early January, their SOS Children’s Village was dedicated with a huge party. Ankush Bhandari, Country Manager of arvato India, joined local politicians and SOS Children’s Villages representatives as a guest of honor at the dedication ceremony.
Helmut Kutin, President of SOS Children’s Villages, had just one request to make of Ankush Bhandari, who had been invited to the ceremony in his capacity as head of the biggest Bertelsmann company in India : to please let everyone in the company know that the money in India is being put to good use. A message which was impressively borne out for Bhandari in Pondicherry. “I really had the impression that the SOS Children’s Villages have done an excellent job and continue to do so,” he told BeNet: “They are one of the biggest relief organizations in India. The employees I spoke to were all very professional and well educated. I really felt they did their work with amazing dedication and commitment.”
Ankush Bhandari spent the whole day at the Children’s Village. On behalf of the Bertelsmann employees whose money went to aid the children, he symbolically dedicated one of the houses and planted a tree. He also asked for a detailed explanation of how the SOS Children’s Villages principle works. “Between eight and ten children move into a house with their ‘adopted mothers’ to live there as a family,” Bhandari relates. SOS Children’s Villages mothers are young women specially trained by the organization. Many of them also lost their families in the tsunami, and the work gives them a second chance. The adopted mothers and children are ready to move on to a new life after the catastrophe. “Just seeing the children’s faces was worth the trip,” says Bhandari: “They were beaming with happiness, despite the tragedy they’ve seen. You could tell that the children were well taken care of, even loved.”
For the children, the village dedication is one of many steps on the way back to a normal life: one in which they can go to school, read books and play football again. Together with the “mothers,” the SOS Children’s Villages offer the children a number of activities including dancing lessons, a reading club and computer classes. Nothing out of the ordinary – but then again, life has been anything but ordinary for the children in Pondicherry for so long now. Thanks to the SOS Children’s Villages and not least thanks to donations from Bertelsmann, this is now changing.
In December 2004, Bertelsmann AG had spontaneously pledged one million euros to the relief organization SOS Children’s Villages, to provide lasting help in regions hit by the tsunami. In a follow-up fund drive, employees from around the world donated another €200,000, which the company then doubled. The €1.4 million gathered in this way went to sponsor children who had lost their parents in the disaster. The money will provide housing, food, clothing, medical care and education for 250 children in six villages in Indonesia, India and Thailand for at least ten years.
Work on the other new villages in India, Indonesia and Thailand proceeds apace, so that they, too, will soon be able to celebrate their dedications. Ankush Bhandari returned from the village full of inspiration from the many moving stories and fates he had encountered. “To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. But I’m glad I was there. It was a very beautiful and emotional event, a wonderful experience.”