In the second part of a series of articles in celebration of International Women’s Day, Mary O’Brien interviews Sr Jesintha. This inspiring woman, adopted by the people of West Cork, has dedicated her life to helping street children in Southern India.
An inspiring, dedicated and highly educated woman, Sr Jesintha, age 50, runs a residential and educational programme for street children in Tamil Nadu, Southern India.
While her journey has not been an easy one, throughout the many struggles she has faced, Sr Jesintha has remained devout in her faith and in her commitment to the street children in her care.
Supported by the Children’s Charity Store in Bandon since 2006, Sr Jesintha’s programme has helped change the lives of many for the better.
With the help of the people of Bandon and West Cork, a large shelter for the children in Tamil Nadu has been built and education projects financed. Over the years various other projects were also supported, such as residential units, water installations, a medical dispensary and more.
Ten years on and many of the children helped by Sr Jesintha are achieving excellent academic and sporting results, with many going on to and excelling at Third Level.
Born in Madras, Sr Jesintha was a 10-year-old schoolgirl when she first started doing charity work with the Red Cross and the Legion of Mary.
After completing a Bachelor Degree in Commerce at the age of 20, she joined the Daughters of Wisdom, also known as the Montfort Sisters, a religious congregation of women located in Bangalore, India.
While in Novitiate, shocked and moved to see a little child eating waste food from a dustbin, Sr Jesintha was inspired to work with street children and started a project for street children, women lepers and cobbler women.
She completed a Diploma in Theology in Rome, and then returned to India in 1994, where she equipped herself with a Masters Degree in Psychology, completed several courses on counselling, mental health and different therapies and specialised in counselling for alcoholics and drug addicts. She says she then felt better able to serve the street children.
After leaving the Daughters of Wisdom voluntarily, in August 1998 she registered the Deena Seva Trust and a year later formed The Sisters of Christ, the Liberator Congregation (known as Deena Seva Sisters) in Vellore. Told by the Bishop and Council that she would receive no monetary help with her mission, Sr Jesintha used her own earnings from her work as a counsellor to maintain the Congregation.
For a year-and-a-half, she gathered the street children at the Government Park where, under the trees, she offered them counselling, classes and recreation.
Around this time, the Diocese appointed Fr. Jaya Prakash as a Consulter of the Deena Seva congregation. “On my request, he allowed us to take evening classes at the campus of Catholic Pastoral Centre. Later on, rehabilitation of the street children and rag pickers took place on the verandas of the pastoral centre. Things were going well,” she explains.
However when Fr. Jaya Prakasam was transferred, Sr Jesintha and her congregation were suddenly not welcome at the pastoral centre.
“I had no office to meet the people. No place for the children. For almost four months we struggled. Many of the candidates left. The Bishop was aware of all that was happening, but he was not able to do anything.
“But I trusted that I would be provided for.”
So again, Sr Jesintha met the Bishop and asked for a little place to give evening tuition to the school-going children until she was in a position to rent a house. “He finally convinced the new director to give us one room that we could use in the evenings.”
In 2003, an organisation agreed to give a small amount of funding towards the construction of a residence for the Deena Seva Sisters. “This was not enough to house the children and meet all our requirements but it was a start and with no hope of further funding from the church, I knew I would have to organise my own,” says Sr Jesintha. And so she did; with her indomitable spirit and using her own earnings, Sr Jesintha constructed the convent in Vellore.
It was at this stage that the people of West Cork heard about and got behind Sr Jesintha. “We met Mr. Hayward from ‘Shoes for Children’, now known as the Children’s Charity Store in Bandon, who promised to help us. With this support, we were able to rent the house and start the entire programme,” she says.
In 2006, Sr Jesintha met Brenda Mehigan, another inspiring woman, who spearheads the Children’s Charity Store in Bandon. Brenda told me, “Don’t worry, I will support you as long as I live. I felt the assurance of God through her motherly care and concern towards me and our children.”
At present, Sr Jesintha and her Congregation work in 21 rag-picking areas in Vellore diocese and house 90 children in their shelter. Most of the children are street dwellers who were either picking up rags or begging when she found them. “If I don’t educate the children, they’ll end up on the street and some of them might end up in child labour or worse,” she says.
Recently appointed a member of the District Child Protection Committee, Sr Jesintha says that things are slowly changing in India. “The Government has now organised different groups in order to take care of the children… I am happy to be a member of the Child Protection Committee, the purpose of which is to propose suggestions, raise questions, problems and issues to the committee regarding child trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of women and children.”
In May 2008, Sr Jesintha visited Bandon for the first time. “I feel at home when I come to Ireland. I feel a part of the family and at one with the group (Children’s Charity Store). I regain my stamina in order to do my mission.”
A person who enjoys every moment of life, Sr Jesintha says, “Wherever I am, I live according to the situation and adapt to the culture without giving up my convictions.”
She hopes to extend her work to other parts of India and the world – where she is needed, with the poorest of the poor. “Educate more children, rehabilitate rag picking women and alcoholics, eradicate child labour and illiteracy. Houses for the homeless. Starting a vocational training centre. Empowering women by training them in different trades in order to eradicate poverty. These are all my hopes for the future.
“Because of the dedicated work of Brenda and her team members in Bandon and the generosity of the Irish at large, many children now have a better future in Vellore and other parts of the country.”
Other projects supported by the Children’s Charity Store in Bandon include Aid Bandon Children; Penny Dinners Cork; Simon Cork and Sr Marie Hawks.