The Times of India : Women of Substance. Domain: Social Service
Special issue focusing Women April 2004
Dr. T. Saraswathi Devi has spent her life for the under-privileged that generally affect the poor children. After her Masters degree in Political Science with two diplomas in Theatre Arts from Andhra University, she obtained special education and did an intensive study (or along with) in-service training in the field of mental retardation from USA and Germany. Her academic life was followed by the founding of ‘Lebenshilfe for the Mentally Challenged’ where the children are given round the clock care by 120 committed and dedicated staff. She integrated tiger dance, an old form of art of Andhra Pradesh into a therapy to control aggressiveness in the challenged children. She conducted a 4 year research project “Hug Them Tight”, with University hospitals of Geneva. “Snoezelen”, a Dutch therapy was another notable initiative by her to provide mental as well as physical comfort to severely mentally challenged with various behavior disorders.
Saraswathi Devi is an outstanding speaker too. She has been invited to present papers in over 20 international conventions. She was also invited to Montpellier, France to submit two papers during the 12th IASSID World Congress in June, 2004. As globe trotter she has traveled extensively and addressed many associations like the Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs to name two. Saraswathi Devi is the woman who has harnessed her abundant of talent to provide relief to those who have not been fortunate and lead a debilitated existence. She has crafted her unique mark in this world where more often not, one’s pain is another’s gain.
What inspired the founder, Dr. T. Saraswathi Devi to start Lebenshilfe?
Dr. T. Saraswathi Devi (“Sarah”) grew up in the village of Vegeswarapuram, West Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh, South India. It was here during her childhood that she first encountered a mentally challenged. Even as a young woman it distressed her to see human beings tied to the legs of a cot or window bars, or kept in a separate room dressed in rags and separately feed. Sometimes they would act aggressively and no one seemed to be able to control the situation.
Sarah wondered, “Why are come people born like this? Why do they look and act different from others?” She became preoccupied with these questions.
After completion of her High School studies she was sent to a reputed Catholic Institution, St. Ann’s Training School of St. Theresa’s Convent for Women at Eluru to receive teaching credentials. Psychology was one of her favorite subjects. But it was two unpleasant incidents she witnessed, one at the age of 17 and the other at the age of 32 that drove her to start Lebenshilfe.
In 1962 she was walking down the street to attend brunch in a hotel located opposite the Out-Patient Gate of King George Hospital, Visakhapatnam. There she saw a woman begging while holding a mentally handicapped child in her arms. A few weeks later she witnessed the same woman begging, but this time, standing in the hot sun drinking tea, the child sitting nearby. Upon enquiry, the woman told Sarah that the baby was not hers and that she had rented the baby for the purpose of begging. When asked why she was drinking tea herself but not giving at least some milk to the baby, her answer was quite surprising. The woman answered that she bought the tea from her portion of begging proceeds; the rest of the money had to be given to the mother of the child that evening. It dumbfounded Sarah that a child had been turned into a source for income for someone who carried nothing for the child’s welfare. At that very moment, Mrs. T. Saraswathi Devi decided what she wanted to do for her future.
After completing her teacher’s training, she was hired as a teacher at R.C.D. Hospital where she served polio stricken and mentally handicapped children for 20 years. It was during that time that Sarah came across a 75-year-old grandma and her 13-year-old severely mentally handicapped grand-daughter in the hospital premises. The lady was crying unbearably and said in a broken voice, “She is neither a dead person nor a used sandal. If I had found her in either way, I would have thrown her here itself in the river.” Banging her head with her hands, she continued, “I have nobody and no money. What should I do with this girl? I cannot take care of her. Who will help me at my age?”
For a very long time, these two incidents impressed upon her the unbearable pain faced by families of people with mental disabilities. Eventually, her understanding of these facts and realities gave rise to today’s Lebenshilfe, a pioneering institution engaged in offering free training to developmentally challenged children and extending assistance to their families, regardless of caste, creed or religion.