A teacher of Our Lady's Convent Girl's Higher Secondary School in Thopumpady, Kochi, is on a campaign to raise a roof over the heads of her needy pupils.
The project, named House Challenge, is on for the last five years and over 100 houses have been built so far with public contribution and the support of her students, both present and past.
Sister Lizzy Chakkalakal, a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary congregation, is the principal of Our Lady’s Convent for the past three years. The vision of the school’s management is "Education for Social Transformation”. True to this, the project aims not only to provide houses but also bring about positive changes.
What spurred the nun to launch the project was what she saw at first hand. Earlier she was the English teacher at the same school. During her teaching years, she used to visit the houses of her students and found that most of them, especially those from West Kochi, came from a poor background and put up with pathetic housing conditions without basic facilities.
The children coming from such backgrounds automatically experience a dip in self-esteem and self-confidence. And often their inferiority complex overtakes their personality. Sister Lizzy soon realised that until they provide a safe roof for such pupils their integral development would remain incomplete.
For this situation to change one has to start at the grass roots, the nun reasons.
The nun also noted that in Kerala many have enough food and clothing but are short of proper shelter. The perfect opportunity to create a change came across when the school celebrated its platinum jubilee and it was decided to do something meaningful. Sister Lizzy suggested the school should shelter at least one homeless family. But the management was lukewarm to the proposal, but it decided to give a try as Lizzy laid out a blueprint.
The maiden house
In 2012, Clara Benny, a student in Sister Lizzy’s class became the first recipient of the house gift after her dad, a mason, expired.
It was her father's dream to build a house for themselves, but unfortunately he died without fulfilling his wish. Sister, after seeing that the family of four lived in a single room, made the decision to help them with the support of the deceased's mason friends. Sister then successfully channelised the emotions of his friends into something useful, and within four months the house was completed.
The completion of the first house gave Sister Lizzy the confidence she required and from then on she never looked back. As of now, about 110 houses have been built for the needy under the house challenge.
How does she garner money for the housing project? Sister smiles and recalls that she literally went from house to house and shops begging for this cause.
"The current and former students of the school, teachers and neighbours initially helped. Now, the struggle to raise funds is less tedious as we receive donations from businessmen and public," the nun said.
The quality of the houses that have been raised so far is also a factor in the enduring success of the noble initiative.
Houses ranging from 500-600 sq.ft are built and they cost Rs 5 lakh each.
“We have to teach the new generation that when we give something to the poor, we should give them the best, not something that we don’t want,” Lizzy reveals the motto of the housing project. With it she also aims to promote the values of sharing and sensitivity. The involvement of a school is apt in this regard.
The beneficiaries are mostly school students. Children of single parents, widows and differently abled are given preference. Out of the 110 houses, 68 were constructed for the students from the school itself and the rest to a few poor people in Kochi. A few beneficiaries belong to Trivandrum.
The government provides the children uniforms and books, but to use these one must have a secure house. Moreover, safety is necessary.
“Security is very important especially for a girl child,” says Sister Lizzy, "because when the father drinks and comes it is the woman and the children that undergo emotional and physical abuse. In a single-room house the safety of the vulnerable is nearly impossible."
Sheltering is not just about providing a roof over the head, but it goes a long way in preventing a society from becoming a pathological one. It is proven that children experiencing adverse conditions at their homes either turn out to become the same or emotionally disturbed and even their growth is often stunted.
The students who got new houses won't actually believe that they belong to them. Some even feel that staying in the new house is like staying at a hotel.
'The House Challenge' has helped to curb alcoholism among members of poor family backgrounds. It has been found that the ambience at the gifted houses has been transformative that alcoholic fathers of some students stopped drinking and subsequently their elder sisters could be married off to good families.
In this regard Lizzy stresses that reducing the gap between the rich and the poor will help to maintain the equilibrium of the society.
Kerala should take the lead in taking the poorer class forward, Sister Lizzy remarks.
Another thing the Sister insists on teaching the children is to know the difference between reaction and response. “Kerala is great at reacting; we react to anything we see especially through social media but reaction does not provide a productive change. What we actually should be teaching our students is to respond. Response helps you to find a solution,” she notes.
She has proven that her missionary activity is not about promoting bookish education. To the members of her congregation, education is about empowering the society in myriad ways. Sister's works do not stop with just building houses. She organises awareness campaigns and encourages eco-friendly activities. Under a programme called the 'Friend of the Friendless', her team visits and helps people who are terminally ill.
Hibi Eden, the new parliamentarian representing the Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency, is the one who inaugurated the house challenge. His own initiative, called Tanal, to provide shelter to the homeless after the 2018 Kerala Floods is inspired by the house challenge. He too will be supporting Lizzy's cause hereafter.
She appreciates the media for its support. In fact one of the first promoters of this cause was Malayala Manorama through its 'Nallapadam' initiative.
Sister is also grateful for the contribution of T. A Joseph, the MD of the Confident Group, E. P George, the MD of Novelty Textiles, Dr. P. J Abraham, the MD of Divine Developers, developer Paul Alukkas and numerous anonymous donors who helped her with this dream project.
She also strongly believes that the good wishes and prayers from families help them do further good in the society.
The laying of the foundation of a house is celebrated with people from all sectors. This helps to spread awareness about the concept of simplified houses. “It has become a part of our lifestyle to include the homeless in our celebrations. Even if their contribution is Re. 1 it counts,” says Sister Lizzy.
For those of us who are wondering if this affects the academics of the school, here is the answer: her school has been doing extremely well with students passing out with flying colours and the institution receiving the Best School Award in Ernakulam district several times.
On how she manages to juggle between her profession as a teacher and the house project, Sister notes one is her profession and the other is her mission, and if one has the passion to do something, one will always find its way around.
People who would like to contribute to this cause, can donate to the House challenge charitable trust.
“The greatest charity the people of Kerala can do is to provide a shelter,” says Lizzy Chakkalakal.