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Trust in HER

Author: admin

Dr Radhike Khanna has traded in her proverbial silver spoon to offer a life of dignity to the mentally challenged. The National Award-winner speaks to Rachna Virdi about her path-breaking approach

The lane near Famous Studios at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai leads off a sea of chaos. As you turn into the narrow, winding road and step inside the gates of Om Creations Trust at Anand Niketan, located inside King George Memorial Compound, the sounds of Maximum City begin to recede.

Here, new sounds take over. The cottage we are about to enter resonates with infectious energy; in the veranda, a number of women dressed in red uniforms are engaged in a flurry of activity. Around one table there’s a group busy making floral garlands, gift bags and pottery, while another table has others rolling out puris, and preparing confectionary.

With the festive season approaching, work has doubled and the women are clearly going the extra mile. As their gaze meets ours, they break into a welcoming smile and glance at us with curiosity. It’s a mixed bunch. The women are of varying ages and social backgrounds but they work as a team. At the end of the month, there’s a pay-check to look forward to.

Well, times are tough and who isn’t putting their nose to the grind, right? But the women at Om Creations are special, truly special. They suffer from mental disabilities, mostly Down’s syndrome, but are gainfully employed, productive citizens who hate to miss a day’s work. That says a lot for Om Creations, a non-profit that has changed the lives of its members.

Helmed by Dr Radhike Khanna, 54, Om Creations welcomes women of any age from any social strata. Some have been with the NGO since its inception. “Working for the mentally challenged is my inner calling and I chose to help them instead of hanging out with my peers. I was born with the proverbial silver spoon but my parents taught us to also look at the have-nots and help them. I always wondered why people with special needs lagged behind in spite of their tremendous potential. I guess my search drew me to them,” says Dr Khanna, a trustee and co-founder of Om Creations Trust and Shraddha Charitable Trust, both pioneering projects in the rehabilitation and integration of mentally challenged women and men, respectively.

Om Creations trains women in diverse skills that are used to create 200-odd products such as bread, chocolates, made-to-order meals, paintings, gift bags, wallets, scarves, etc. These products are sold through sales, exhibitions, seminars and corporate orders; the women get a fixed stipend in return. Like any other employment structure, there are fixed working hours, lunch hour, paid leave, bonus and an annual performance-based increment. Unique among NGOs working with mentally challenged individuals, Om Creations provides the women a structured work environment. This model facilitates their inclusion into the mainstream and greatly impacts the way they perceive themselves.

Helping someone acquire a sense of dignity and self-respect, more so individuals with special needs, is tough, especially in a country where 7.5 per cent of people suffer mental illness and struggle to get a job. Dr Khanna has been doing this for 35 years. An affectionate, kind-hearted woman whose zest for life is obvious, Dr Khanna walks into Om Creations and all the women immediately vie for her attention. They are eager to talk to her and show her the work they’re doing. She gently hugs them, gives them a patient ear, appreciates their work and issues instructions, if necessary, before moving on to the next table.

Radhika Kasat, in her mid 30s, used to work in a bank. She lost her memory and working skills owing to a stroke and joined Om Creations last year. In only a few months, she started showing signs of improvement and gaining inner strength and confidence.

Her colleague Varsha, 65, can barely wait her turn to speak. The smartest worker in the food department, she is happiest donning her bakery cap and gloves; the oven is her domain and she doesn’t allow anyone to come near it. “I make breadsticks, cookies, snacks, mango pickle, etc,” she says with pride. “I want to come here 365 days a year.”

“I joined in June 2005,” shares 35 year-old Nikita. “Under Radhike Madam’s guidance, I have learnt crochet, embroidery, silk painting and pottery. I travel on my own by train and bus. After returning home, I cook for my dad and work in the house.”

Nikita, Radhika and Varsha are among 70-odd women with special needs who are benefitting from Om Creations, the emotional and psychological support it offers, its training that helps them meld with the mainstream, and quite simply the joy available in abundance.

Beginning of a journey

All this has been made possible because a young and talented woman with academics and a social mission on her mind passed up marriage as a life choice. “Coming from a Punjabi background, it was a setback for my family,” Dr Khanna confesses. “My mother told me, ‘You’re so young, you can’t do this’, and my father said, ‘Do this after you are married and have two kids’. But once they realised my unwavering focus, they relented and encouraged me.”

Blessed with an artistic bent, Dr Khanna first graduated in textile design from Mumbai’s Sir J J School of Art and joined Sophia Polytechnic for a foundation course. She also acquired a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Mumbai, followed by a double doctorate in management studies from Mumbai University and Gujarat University.

While at Sophia, her principal Krishnaswami Bhatt asked her to volunteer with the mentally challenged students at S P J Sadhana School, which operates out of the same campus. Her first student was a young adult with Down’s syndrome and autistic traits, 15 year-old Vasudha Jain, daughter of Durga Jain, the trustee-founder of S P J Sadhana School. “The doctors in the US had suggested intervention for my daughter,” shares Jain. “That is how I got in touch with Dr Khanna, who came home to help Vasudha.”

It was tough initially. “I would sit in front of her and she would scream, shout and get aggressive,” remembers Dr Khanna. “However, as 80 per cent of mentally challenged individuals are speech-impaired, I knew art was the medium to connect.” Being an artist, her strong belief in the philosophy of ‘art meets soul’ helped Dr Khanna forge a bond with Vasudha. “One day, she observed an embroidery pattern on my kurta and began replicating it on paper. I encouraged her. Six months down the line, she drew my face while I posed for her. It took me three years to forge a bond with Vasudha, with the help of art,” says the National Award-winning educator and vice-president of S P J Sadhana School.

Slowly, more parents approached Dr Khanna and she trained their wards together in a small room in the S P J Sadhana School premises. When the number rose to four, Dr Khanna and Jain decided to shift base to the latter’s home at Carmichael Road. Together, they set up Om Creations in 1991, as a centre that adopted a holistic approach towards rehabilitating differently abled girls. “I wasn’t satisfied with providing only skills training,” says Dr Khanna. “I aimed at making the women active members of society and giving them a fruitful future by finding employment.”

Jain, trustee and co-founder-patron of Om Creations, adds, “With more students coming in, it was difficult to operate from my house and Om Creations was eventually established as a separate body in Mahalaxmi. I have seen the centre flourish. Although I lost my daughter Vasudha some years ago, I have continued my work here and wish the best for it.”

A dream takes wing

From here on, the non-profit grew from strength to strength. When it moved to Mahalaxmi in 1996, it initially operated out of a small, garage-like place. “With a view to providing sustainability and a livelihood to the women, we started taking tiffins on order and supplying meals to mill workers,” recalls Dr Khanna. “But, then, the mills shut down; with nothing to do, we trained the women in preparing gourmet and art items.”

In 1999, the non-profit set up a full-fledged arts section and the women started making creative art products. “Under the arts section, we have 13 different varieties like pottery, embroidery, tailoring, glass painting, canvas painting, tie-and-dye, crochet, ceramics, etc. We were thrilled to receive our first corporate order of 5,000 bags.” In 2004, the centre employed a chef for confectionary products and bagged its first order, for 300 kg of chocolates! The kitchen now produces all kinds of snacks, sauces, cakes, pastries, puffs and other baked items that are ISO-certified but chocolates remain their forte. Today, Om Creations has three departments—Om Foods, Om Visual Arts and Crafts, and Om Flowers; products are sold in a shop in their premises or at sales and exhibitions.

The art of teaching

All through the expansion, Dr Khanna was searching for a way to enhance the experience for the differently abled. In 2007, she acquired a PhD in special education from Knightsbridge University in the UK. After returning to India, she created the first and only polytechnic course for people with special needs, which guarantees employment.

The programme, which offers courses that range from office procedures to visual arts and crafts, was later implemented as a five-year course at S P J Sadhana School. Now the flagship of the school, it offers students in-depth training in a variety of activities that allow them to follow their passion while preparing them for the job market. Dr Khanna also conducts workshops for special educators, in India and overseas, including Israel and Africa, while conducting special programmes to train teachers to become special educators.

At Om Creations, our change-maker is constantly sensitising the teachers and upgrading their skills in various areas of special education. The best part is that it’s working—the women enjoy coming to work every day. For instance, when a strike drove the BEST buses to a standstill some months ago, the women sat down to pray and meditate for the bus service to start again! “This place grows on you,” says Arnaz Sanjana, coordinator with the art department for over four years. “I’ve seen Dr Khanna tirelessly encouraging teachers to manage the women, to give them an opportunity to express themselves in a creative and non-verbal way. Undoubtedly, the members have become smart, capable and attentive.”

The Om Creations model fosters a regular employer-employee relationship between the centre and the women, whose progress is assessed through their production. Depending on their skill and responsibility, they earn a stipend between ₹ 4,000 and ₹ 10,000 a month. Not surprisingly, their favourite time is the end of the month, when their pay cheque is deposited into their personal bank accounts.

Purvi, 40, is an all-rounder who makes floral garlands and shops for the raw materials at Crawford Market. “I travel from CP Tank to Mahalaxmi on my own. I like getting my cheque every month,” she says with pride. The earnings help them pay for their daily expenses, so they are not com pletely dependent on their families. Ilawani, the daughter of domestic help, walks all on her own from Mahalaxmi railway station to the centre, every day. The money she earns goes into her kitty that is aimed at buying a house one day. Sushma, 30, is the daughter of a bus conductor. After her father passed away, she became the breadwinner of her family.

Dr Khanna explains that, for the women here, earning a livelihood is important far beyond its monetary value. At the end of each day, they return home, where they are treated with more respect and dignity because they are employed. “It greatly reduces the probability of being abused or targeted, something that generally happens with challenged people at home,” she adds. “Further, the productive work they do keeps them fruitfully engaged and their brains active. We have a lot of play time and go out for movies, parties, lunches as well as vacations.” Jyoti, a volunteer with Om Creations for 18 years, agrees. “Dr Khanna’s efforts have given them a reason to live. They go home with a sense of self-worth. They are happy souls and don’t feel the need to bottle up their emotions.”

From challenges to opportunities

Dr Khanna’s journey with Om Creations has not been free of challenges. Often, people didn’t see why it was important to offer these individuals a quality life; customers were wary of buying products prepared by the differently abled. There were other fundamental issues such as low awareness of the NGO, need for volunteers, lack of space and difficulty in arranging funds, which hindered the sale and growth of the business aspect of the non-profit.

Further, there are behavioural challenges while dealing with differently abled individuals, many of whom experience mood swings. “There’s a ‘talk hour’ held every afternoon so they can share their problems and find solutions. Usually, work is the best therapy as it gives them a sense of pride. Dr Khanna intervenes only when it is absolutely necessary,” says project coordinator Archana Mehta, who joined as a volunteer in 1992.

“My biggest personal challenge was to battle perceptions and prejudices,” says the indomitable Dr Khanna, who has a habit of turning every challenge into an opportunity. The programme she designed called FACE (Facing Autism through Communication with the environment) helps special educators and parents engage the autistic through mediums like communication and behaviour modification techniques. “The workshops enlighten parents to treat their ‘special’ children as assets rather than liabilities in society.”

Spelling success

Given the research—and the heart—that has gone into creating and building Om Creations, it is little wonder that everyone at Om Creations is content. “Everything is so beautiful here; the way these individuals learn and earn, and the way they love and support each other as a team,” says Ranjana Mahadevia, a trustee of the NGO. “The centre is their lifeline, their comfort zone.”

In its 26th year, Om Creations now holds exhibitions and seminars, gets bulk orders for corporate gifting throughout the year, and has an ever-increasing clientele—all this has helped it expand. “We’ve had a 93 per cent employment-placement rate, which means almost every member here is employed either at the centre or in the mainstream,” says Dr Khanna. To take the non-profit to the next level, she is now starting a skills training centre called Om Abode, for which 12 acre of land was recently purchased in Karjat. The project will have five buildings for residential accommodation and a skills training centre; work is already underway.

“Dr Radhike Khanna has touched so many lives and made a huge difference to mentally challenged people,” says Aarti Gandhi, director of The Nalanda Foundation, an NGO in Mumbai that addresses the educational requirements of children with learning difficulties, who’s a colleague of Dr Khanna and well acquainted with her work. “She’s doing a wonderful job of rehabilitation and doing it whole-heartedly. She has good management skills, great business acumen and a soft heart to manage the students and get them employed too. I’ve visited Om Creations and seen how happy the women are there. It’s a win-win situation as it’s a commercially viable place as well as a rehabilitation centre. Om Creations is like an entrepreneurship model for other NGOs to emulate.”

Awards and accolades come thick and fast for Dr Khanna but she remains one of the most grounded people you will ever meet. “My work makes me feel so good and helps me maintain my stability,” she says. “I sleep very well every night. What’s more, this is my family.”

Photos: Haresh Patel
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
October 2017