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It is still difficult to talk about that morning in 1971 when the psychologist told me that my four-year-old son was mentally challenged. Devastated by the diagnosis, I fell into deep depression. I was shattered. I felt life had finished for all of us. There was no happiness, no looking ahead, and everything was in reverse. Instead of taking care of my child, I needed care, and it took two years of medication and the support of my husband and family to realize that life had to go on.
Then began the long search for a school for Nikesh. It took months to find first a kindergarten that would accept him and then an integrated school which had a small corner for such children. But I knew my son needed something more specialized. Nikesh seemed to be losing interest, and I felt that if I could be with him in school, it would make a difference and I would also be helping the other children. So I volunteered to help out in his school. Building on my psychology background, I also signed up for a short course in special education. This gave me new ideas and insights and, more importantly, the motivation to start something on my own.
In July 1983 I took the “plunge.” When schools reopened after the summer vacation, my little school began in my study in our house in New Delhi with just one teacher and two children—Nikesh who was then 11 and his friend Shailender. Two months later two more children enrolled. These children are very special and each child who enrolled meant yet another challenge, and I was doing this more as a mother than a teacher, to fulfill the needs of my son and others like him. Soon the number had gone up to 13, and it was obvious that if the school was to grow, I would need more space and funds. But I didn’t know where to begin, having no contacts, no great experience or resources.
related article Tackling HIV/AIDS by David Le Page Inspired by the Buddhist principle of "transforming poison into medicine," David Le Page conjectures that HIV/AIDS presents an unparalleled opportunity: that if the continent's people turn squarely to face the pandemic, it could prove a massive catalyst for building what SGI President Ikeda has called the Century of Africa. Even as I agonized about the future, a stranger invited me to a meeting of the Bharat (Indian) Soka Gakkai. The year 1983 was a truly special one in my life. I started my school, and I took faith in Nichiren Buddhism. And after that it was as if the mystic powers had come before me and said “Asha, tell us what you want.” Until then I only had the support of the parents. Now at every turn there was someone to lead me, to guide me, to help me. Within a month the school was formally registered. The land price was slashed to a 10th of the original cost, and total strangers came with offers of help.
Today, the Navjyoti Institute has 60 students. Until the age of 18 they follow a special education program, after which they receive training in weaving, tailoring and other skills. Their products are marketed, and profits are shared among the students. Small though the amounts may be, this gives meaning to their lives and hope to their parents. And when they leave at 30, every effort is made to find them placements. Nikesh, for instance, is now an assistant trainer in the school, while 22-year-old Sugandha is teaching embroidery in a rural education project.
My Buddhist practice has helped me grow and rise to all these challenges. From being a simple housewife who could barely manage her household, I now head an organization. I feel younger and more creative, and there is no situation, no matter how negative, that I cannot deal with, no challenge that I cannot cope with.
I now dream of providing lifelong care for these children because, as parents, we worry constantly about what will happen to our children after us. Of course it will be a struggle, but it is a struggle I look forward to.
[Courtesy July 2003 SGI Quarterly]
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