EVERYONE was joyful at Mithra, St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace Year 10 student Henry Joseph said after returning from an immersion to India last month.
Henry spent 14 days in India as part of his Year 10 immersion.
There, he discovered India’s friendly and spiritual people living many different ways of life and was confronted by the stark poverty and challenges the country faced.
And while he said 14 days was not enough to experience life there; he had a taste of the living conditions of the less fortunate.
Part of his immersion was spent at Mithra, a rehabilitation centre for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities drawn from Chennai’s poorest quarters and cared for by religious sisters.
“It’s confronting… seeing these people who are physically and mentally challenged,” Henry said.
“But everyone is so happy and you go there and… they say the prayers and they sing songs, and you do a bit of physio… everyone’s laughing and they’re really happy.
“You completely forget about all the bad things and you’re just in the moment having the best time.”
Henry was related to the Brisbane nun who founded Mithra in 1977 – Sr Mary Theodore.
Sr Mary Theodore’s niece Helen Mahoney, who has supported the work in Mithra since it started and continues to through the organisation Friends of Mithra, loved that Australian students were getting involved in the work.
“These are children from the slums, so probably for 80 per cent of them, Mithra is their home, that is where they live,” Mrs Mahoney said.
“Usually there is a mother, sometimes there’s no one, but there’s very rarely a father, so for a lot of them that’s been their home for decades.
“Sr Mary Theodore started it about 43 years ago because she could see a need for liberating those children who are mentally and physically challenged, liberating them by care and love as she put it.
“It was the first of its kind in India.
“People said it just wouldn’t work but it did.”
Alongside the Terrace students were 8 students from Edmund Rice Education’s four flexible learning centres.
Flexi schools, as they’re known, are places where young people who may be facing challenges in their own lives can come to work for a hope-filled future.
Flexi schools principal Paul Flanders said his students had tough lives but going to India was a life-changing experience because of the relative difference.
“When they walk the kids home to the slums in Delhi… and they walk see what they live in, they come away with a new perspective on life and poverty,” he said.
“So, the relativity of it is brought home to them.”
It provoked internal transformation.
“Our attitude is we can’t fix and save kids… we walk beside them for a short period of their life… and assist them in their decision making process,” Mr Flanders said.
“But the change has to be made by them, if they’re going to change their lives and get an education and get out of that generational poverty and move to a better standard of living, then they need to make that decision themselves.
“Our schools simply provide them with a very supportive, nonjudgmental, inclusive environment where they can make the decisions and choose their educational and future path without judgment and at their own pace.”
Mr Flanders said the Flexible Learning Centres were a good modern representation of what Edmund Rice’s early schools were in Ireland.
Mithra was a call to action.
“Those 8 lucky kids had a wonderful and life changing experience, the challenge then and this is what we’re doing now, is how do you give that back?” he said.
“What can you tell our communities?”
Mr Flanders said most of his students had not travelled overseas before.
And while there had been significant preparation, Mr Flanders said the trip had been an “abrupt awakening”.
“Firstly to confront the cultural impacts of India, the assault on the senses from the noise and the colour and the smell and the heat and all the others things,” he said.
“And then to walk into that Mithra school is quite challenging for them.”
But once the students engaged, Mr Flanders said they took a lot from it.
The children at Mithra cherish their time with the overseas students.
“The nuns said to me when I was there, they love the Australians coming, especially the Australian students who come, because they come uninhibited – a lot of them do the chicken dance and the kids just love it,” Mrs Mahoney said.
While the overseas students were a welcome source of fun and joy for the children, it was the religious sisters and teachers that made Mithra what it was.
“The nuns for example, they do so much, and they’re always making sure everyone’s okay,” Henry said.
“It’s the environment they set is really nice – it’s really comforting.”
Spending 14 days over there was also a chance for Henry to take stock of what he had at home.
“One thing that hits you straight away is you’re extremely privileged,” he said.
“You’ve got all these basic needs for living, I don’t have to worry about anything, our parents have brought us up really well, we have enough money to have all the basic life needs, and also coming back from India I always want to help people.”
He said if he sees a need, he doesn’t wait for someone else to do it anymore; he just does what needs to be done.
To find out more or to donate to the ongoing work at Mithra, visit friendsofmithra.org