In a the small village of Nilakottai about an hours drive from Madurai in the Tamil Nadu region of India a little bit of magic takes place each day, changing the lives of disadvantaged children by giving them the chance to turn impossible dreams into reality.
It all started 25 years ago when Jean Watson a New Zealand (NZ) writer came to India on a holiday, and in spirit never left. A chance meeting resulted in Jean selling her home in NZ to establish a children’s home in Tamil Nadu, South India.
The Karunai Illam Trust (KIT) a New Zealand charitable trust was set up in 1991 to help Jean fund the day to day running of the Illam. Karunai means grace and Illam means home. It is a place that provides the children with a loving and stable home environment ensuring they are well fed and clothed. They are given everything they need to attend the local schools for an education denied them before coming to the Illam, due to poverty, dysfunctional family or losing one or both parents. At the Illam the children also receive tutoring over and above their school day, in academic subjects, sports, arts and culture. Jean spent the rest of her life dividing her time between NZ and the Illam until her death in 2014 from a short illness.
In 2007 a partnership with the Development for Humane Action (DHAN) was established guaranteeing the future of the home and renamed to DHAN Karunai Illam (DKI). Since then a nursery and primary school for local children has been set up offering places for around 250 children. In addition DKI has established a vocational training school called ‘LIFE’ offering skill training in trades such as mobile phone repairing, computer training, beautician and tailoring, giving them a greater opportunity to earn a living.
How did I come to be here? My journey is a more recent one, which began with a chance meeting with one of the NZ trustees of the Karunai Illam on a visit “down under” in 2014. I couldn’t help but be moved by the achievements of the charity, so when earlier this year they asked me if I could help them with their new project of course my answer was “yes”.
At present the Illam provides a home for 36 girls and 8 boys, simply because that is what the current buildings can accommodate. The plan is to have an equal number of boys and girls. In order to achieve this a new dormitory building for the boys is required.
I am a photographer so they asked if I could engage with the Illam and take photographs that could then be used to help raise funds for the new building - around INR 7,500,000 (GBP £90,000) is needed.
My aim is to develop a collaborative project of life at the Illam that enables the children’s voice to be heard with them telling their own stories using photography. So now with a handful of cameras kindly loaned by Photovoice, and buckets of enthusiasm, I am here guiding the children to learn camera skills and trying my best to remember everyone’s name.