Philanthropy is greatest when it comes from the heart. Aida Margaret D’Cunha is now the chairperson of the Federation of Konkan Catholic Association, the vice president of Abhay, an NGO working toward creating awareness on education, scholarships and minority beneficiaries, and is a national executive member of the Prison Ministry India. For her, though, the desire to help those who need it most began when she was six years old.
“My father owned a store and I would ask him for pencils and books to give to the poorer children in my class,” said Aida. “I was only six then.” By the time she was 10, Aida had taken to visiting the sick and the elderly in her village, on her way home from school each day, giving them the companionship they so badly wanted. Aida went on to become a teacher but gave that up to took after her child, who was one year old at the time.
It wasn’t long before her philanthropic instincts resurfaced. She joined a number of organisations including the Prison Ministry India, New Dawn Rehabilitation Centre and the Bangalore Multi Purpose Service Centre, where the Bishop serves as president. Through the Prison Ministry, Aida began work with underprivileged children, women, orphans, prisoners and juvenile delinquents.
“They have so little interaction with the outside world. Every day is a struggle both physically and mentally,” says Aida about the prisoners she meets at Parappana Agrahara prison. “Many are victims of circumstance, some have committed crimes, others haven’t. The people who don’t have any money will not make it out.” Aida helps them reunite with their families — many prisoners are not just ostracised from society but are estranged from their own kin as well. “We counsel families and it’s hard, but it helps them interact with each other.” Along with facilitating paper work for releasing prisoners, they also organise entertainment and social activities both within and outside the prison.
“There are 41 HIV-positive patients living there,” she says, along with cancer patients and diabetics. The prison has only one doctor. “We bring good food to these people and are also helping them find a doctor. There was a programme in the prison on Saturday and 4,200 prisoners were given a shirt and a pair of pants from Louis Philippe,” she says proudly. Entertainment programmes, games and medical camps are conducted to bring a touch of humaneness to the prisoners’ lives.
Their stories range from pathetic to disturbing to horribly unfair and there’s little that can be done about it. Ramu (name changed), who has been in prison for four years, learned that his mother was on her deathbed and wasn’t being allowed entry into a local cancer hospital. “She had throat cancer, was on her deathbed and all she wanted to do was see her son.” It took a great deal of running around, but the task was complete. “We took her to the prison and when she heard her son’s voice, she wept.” Ramu was given permission to be with his mother and he spent her last two days on this earth with her.
Stories from the juvenile prison are no less heart rending. From drugs to theft to sexual harassment, the horrors these children have seen defy description. When a young girl from a neighbouring village was kidnapped, right out of college by a local gangster, things seemed hopeless. “Even the police weren’t willing to help and the man, who had kidnapped this girl when he was on parole, was back in prison. She called us and I went there with her mother to bring her home.” The girl had been forced to marry the gangster and was even pregnant with his child by the time she was found and rescued. “I was scared to help her because it would put my family in danger, but luckily, nothing of the sort has happened yet.”
As if all this doesn’t already make for an impressive portfolio, Aida talks happily about the families she has reunited, the young people for whom she has found jobs, the children she has helped. “Some of the people who come to me looking for a job don’t even have one set of decent clothes to wear for an interview,” she remarked. “I’ve given them my children’s clothes.” Also a marriage counsellor, Aida has organised marriages for orphans and blind people, helping them find homes on rent and helping them set it up. Philanthropy isn’t a job, it certainly isn’t a career, it is a way of life. And for those who truly care, every moment is a good one to reach out, even if it is in the smallest way.