When I attended a talk by Pedro Medina, the former head of McDonalds in Columbia, little did I think that the highlight of the evening would be meeting Cristelle Hart Singh. While mingling after the session, held in quaint David Hall, I got talking to a lady who was clearly not an Indian. My first thought was that she must be a tourist and as with all tourists, my first question to her was,’How long have you been here ?’. All my pre-conceived notions came tumbling down when she quietly told me with a twinkle in her eye, that she’d been in Kochi for the past 14 yrs. That’s a longer time than I myself have been here, was my immediate thought. Now I was really interested. The rest of the evening was an eye opener for me as well as my friends. We found out that Cristelle has been running a home for pregnant teenagers and teenage mothers called Tejus Home. A very friendly person, she talked in quite a matter of fact way about the work that she was doing. I was stunned because here was a person who was doing so much with her life, who was making an enormous amount of difference in peoples lives and yet who was so unassuming about the whole thing. In an age where every small action is projected disproportionately, Cristelle talked about her work only after much prodding from us. In fact she said that she found it difficult to speak eloquently in front of people. She was already involved with DIL SE, an NGO she started with a friend, which among other activities runs a foster home for orphans and children from very poor families.
Tejus Home was formed in answer to a call for help from one of the children who had been a part of DIL SE. Gayatri was left at DIL SE by her rag picker parents when she was a small child. After a couple of years when they took her back she was 13 yrs old and at that young age they got her married. Immediately she became pregnant, but the physical and mental abuse continued. One day she took matters into her own hands and ran away. Picked up by authorities from the railway station, the only person she wanted to contact was Cristelle. By that time Dil Se had been converted into a home exclusively for boys and so there was no place to bring Gayatri. The Child Welfare Committee had to send her to a home for destitute women since there weren’t any homes for pregnant teenagers. Gayatri gave birth to a healthy baby boy in 2012, called Tejus. Tejus Home is named after this little bundle and it started functioning in November 2012. Teenagers themselves are at a very sensitive stage of life, so a pregnant teenager has special and specific needs which has to be handled with a lot of care. It’s a natural conclusion that teenagers do not get pregnant by choice. Most of them are victims of abuse and the perpetrator is usually a family member or somebody whom she trusted. So, with pregnant teenagers, a whole lot of specific issues have to be addressed – professional guidance on how to cope with such a trauma; counselling to help them heal and look forward in life; advice on how to cope with the enormous changes happening in their bodies; knowledge of and help with the legal issues involved and also love and affection during this troubled phase of their lives. All this is what Cristelle provides at Tejus Home. Birth for Change another NGO propagating safe and natural birthing practices has partnered with Tejus Home and they take care of all the pre-natal and post-natal care and also the actual delivery of the babies. The girls have the right to take their decision regarding the future, whether they want to keep the baby or give him/her up for adoption. They are supported wholeheartedly, no matter what their decision.
I visited Tejus Home on a sunny morning and it was with a heavy heart that I went, knowing that I would be meeting children who were going to be mothers. I expected a silent, sad atmosphere with sombre faces and an atmosphere of despair. Yet again Cristelle caught me on the wrong foot. Tejus Home is situated in a cosy house tucked into a tiny bylane off a quiet road. I was enveloped by the warmth and positiveness in that house when I walked into an airy room with a lot of light. Four girls were sitting around a makeshift table learning to make cloth dolls under the loving tutelage of Anna, a retired nurse and currently a volunteer at Tejus. They greeted me with smiles and went back to their dolls. The fragrance of the noon meal being prepared wafted out of the kitchen where a smiling cook was busy with preparations. I also met Tara, the dedicated social worker who is employed by Tejus to help the girls cope with their emotional issues. The girls’ artwork was displayed on the walls which added to the feeling of colour and life in that room. During all my conversations with Cristelle, what struck me was her uncompromising stance on the welfare of the girls. There is no cost cutting when it comes to their well being. That does not mean that they were living in luxury, but that their emotional and physical needs were given priority above all else. Other than the cook who is is present the whole day and who also cares for any babies in the house,there’s another carer who stays the night and looks after the comfort and care of the girls. Cristelle spends an enormous amount of time trying to raise funds for meeting the monthly requirements of her girls. Currently there are 9 girls staying at Tejus Home, some of them below the age of 15. I spend a couple of hours at Tejus Home. The girls were in a secure, peaceful place where they were treated as survivors rather than as helpless victims. Rather than smothering them with sympathy, they are encouraged to look forward and build a life. They are helped to handle their emotional issues by a certified counsellor who visits regularly. The girls are also encouraged to continue their studies. Its not easy to manage pregnant teenagers, but with determination and love, Cristelle has created a safe haven for them. As she mentions in her blog,”A child-mother needs coaching on how to manage her own life, let alone two; she needs professional advice to help her heal from her traumatising experiences; she needs education, life skills and help to become a good mother; she needs physical, mental, emotional and financial support. She needs a hug now and again. She needs a little bit of love.”
Tejus Home‘s administrative office is currently functioning from Cristelle’s house. Her future plans include having a proper centre, which would house the office, as well as a section which offers support and counselling for children subject to Sexual Abuse. Along with psychological support, she also wants to provide help with legal aspects like filing a police report and other such formalities. She plans to have a full- fledged social worker who will spearhead a campaign in schools to spread awareness for prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. I came away from Tejus Home with a mind strangely at peace. The loss of childhood of these children was heartbreaking but there was a definite sense of hope that with the support of Tejus Home, they could rebuild their fractured lives and dream of a better tomorrow. Tejus Home’s requirements are many and any assistance is appreciated by them.
For those of you who would like to help, the details are as follows : Financial support can be send to DIL SE, ICICI Bank Ltd. A/c number : 001005009735
For any other kind of support that you would like to do, please contact Cristelle at +91 98-95-031123