Nurturing India's street children

Tue, Jun 26, 2012, 01:00

MICHELLE McDONAGHtalks to Edith Wilkins, who spent 30 years creating caring communities for India’s street children

WHEN EDITH Wilkins was handed the keys of her new council home, with its spectacular views across the bay of Crosshaven in her native Co Cork last week, she was over the moon, describing herself and her two adopted children as “so incredibly lucky”. Friends have suggested it may be “karma”; Wilkins spent almost 30 years working tirelessly to put a roof over the heads of thousands of street children in India.

Wilkins (55) first went to Calcutta as a young nurse to work with Irish NGO, Goal for three months. However, that three months became three decades once she met the street children who were to change the course of her life.

In the early months, despite threats from pimps, she lived on the streets with children as young as three who were being abused and trafficked. There were plenty of homes and orphanages in the teeming city, but they refused to admit children suffering from sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the horrific abuse inflicted upon them.

“The children were told, ‘come back when you’re better’. I slept with them on the floor of a school run by Sr Cyril Rooney until we opened our first halfway house, Amadir Bari, in 1984. Things just grew and grew from there,” says Wilkins.

Since then, she has helped change the lives of thousands of Indian street children. She has been responsible for initiating the building of maternity hospitals in remote areas. She has set up many residential homes, drop-in centres, night shelters, sick bays and awareness community programmes in the slums, on the streets and in red-light areas of Calcutta. During her time in Calcutta, Wilkins worked closely with Mother Teresa.

Almost 10 years ago, she shifted her focus to the North of Bengal and the border areas to try to stem the flow of children – many as young as three or four years old – being trafficked from Nepal, mostly for prostitution, slave labour or to smuggle drugs and other goods into the country. Wilkins says the situation was not being addressed by any other NGO in the area, so she set up the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation.

Through the foundation, she, with the the border police in the area, began to set up an infrastructure to care for these children. Wilkins and her team in Darjeeling have been responsible for hundreds of children attending mainstream schools and training schemes and have rescued many children from exploitation. Learning to trust that they will be cared about, the children have dubbed Wilkins the “Mother Teresa of the Hills”.

Over her years in India, Wilkins fostered 17 children, many of whom have progressed on to third-level education. In September of 2010, she and her two Indian-born adoptive children, Omer (19) and Karishma (11) moved home to Cork due to Wilkins’s ill health; during her time in India, she had picked up many illnesses including malaria, TB, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid. She also has chronic arthritis.

However, she continues her relentless work for the foundation from Ireland and was awarded the Rehab International Person of the Year award in 2011 for “her compassion, selflessness and unfaltering commitment to improving the lives of the people of India”.

“For me, the hardest part of my work in India was burying children who should never have died. That was soul-destroying and heartbreaking. You get kids who are so malnourished and have been so badly abused that you just can’t save them, they’re too far gone,” she says.

One such child was Joy, a boy with cerebral palsy who Wilkins took into her home after he was abandoned in a forest. Her large brood of children fell instantly in love with him. “When we came out of the chapel after Joy’s funeral, all of the street children were lined up outside with a rose in each of their hands. There was such honour and love for this child whose life was so short . . . We were so lucky to have had him in our lives, even for such a short time. He was the most incredible child.”

Wilkins describes her own children as the highlights of her life, her “two little miracles”. Although they all miss India, Wilkins says that the children have a better chance of getting a third-level education here, and both have been welcomed with open arms by their family in Cork and by the local community. She is also enjoying spending time with her parents, sister and five brothers.

While Wilkins managed to run the foundation and raise 19 children on a small stipend in India, she admits that it’s very different being “back in Ireland in your 50s without a euro in your pocket”. But she quickly dismisses her financial concerns, saying: “Sure, we’ll be grand.”

“Winning the Rehab award made a huge difference to our programmes in terms of fundraising, publicity and awareness” says Wilkins. “We feed, clothe, teach, house and provide healthcare to more than 600 children for about €10,000 a month. A little goes a long way over there, but we are in the middle of a recession in Ireland and we are so grateful to all of the people who donate to the foundation.”


For further information on the Edith Wilkins Foundation or to donate, go to edithwilkinsfoundation.org

The closing date for the 2012 People of the Year Awards, which honour Ireland’s heroes, is June 29th, 2012. Is there a hero in your midst? Perhaps an ordinary person who has done something extraordinary? Rehab is inviting nominations for this year’s awards at peopleoftheyear.com

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