Around 40 years ago, Ongole-native P Rajyalakshmi and Yerragondapalem-resident SMD Khasim met for the first time in their college during graduation. They were classmates at CSR Sarma College, Andhra Pradesh, and by the end of the three-year course, they fell in love and decided to spend the rest of their lives together.
It was after two more years that they chose to get married. But their families were against this union, stating religious differences. However, the duo were not ready to give up.
“We never cared about our religion when we fell in love but we knew there would be issues between families. However, since we had jobs, we managed to start a new life,” reminisces Rajyalashmi, a retired state government employee. She adds, “It is tough to overcome losing family all of a sudden.”
Moreover, they found it difficult to find a place to stay as some people denied Muslim occupants.
“In the following years, our only son grew up without meeting his grandparents. All this time, we thought of children who are in similar situations and how everyone should be loved unconditionally by their family,” she says.
Years passed and soon the duo were just 10 years away from retirement. That’s when Rajyalakshmi felt she couldn’t handle the “lonely, retired life” and thought of ways to be engaged. She also wanted to contribute to society and decided to use their savings for children’s education.
Without a second thought, she came up with the idea to start an organisation for abandoned children from underprivileged families. “I wanted to provide an atmosphere of being with a family and arranging quality education as well as health care for children,” says Rajyalakshmi.
In 2014, she launched ‘Manalo Manam’, a non-governmental organisation with three homes – Bommarillu for boys, Jabilli for girls and Podarillu for the elderly. The duo used all their savings as well as Rajyalakshmi’s monthly pension to set up the homes.
“We used our five-acre land to build these shelter homes,” she says.
“We hoped to create our own joint family. Fortunately, it worked out well,” says Khasim, who retired as a state government employee in 2021.
He adds, “We started by rescuing a five-year-old child in 2014. Today, we have 80 children within the age groups 8-19. There are 53 girls and 28 boys at the home. We also have five seniors living in the elderly home, which was started last year.”
Starting ‘Manalo Manam’
In the beginning, the couple contacted the Women and Child Development department and child helpline numbers to spread the word about their organisation and adopt the children they rescued from the streets. Slowly, well-wishers and friends contacted them whenever they spotted an underprivileged/ uneducated child from marginalised groups.
Almost 90 per cent of the children at the home are from scheduled castes/tribes communities. All of them are orphans, children of interfaith parents or kids of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) patients.
What the couple has done for these kids is nothing short of exemplary.
While 30 kids are pursuing secondary/ senior secondary education from Kendriya Vidyalayas, one of the boys attends law school and another one is about to complete his BTech studies. There is also a state carrom champion within the group.
Anand, a 13-year-old resident of the home, says, “I’m a student of Kendriya Vidyala in Class 8. I lost my parents at an age I can’t even remember. I was staying with some neighbours in the village. In 2018, a team from Bommarillu home came to our place for a free medical camp. Rajyalakshmi ma came to know about me and brought me here. Now I have lots of brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents, too.”
There are three different campuses for girls, boys and the elderly but they have regular gatherings in the common area.
Rajyalakshmi shares, “My salary and pension are being used to run the homes. We also receive help in the form of food grains from like-minded people and sponsors too.” She adds, “An average of Rs 2.5 lakh is spent per month on the residents.”
Krishna Priya, a well-wisher and sponsor of the home, says, “My husband and I are from Kurnool and happened to come to Ongole on transfer in 1998. We’ve known the Rajyalakshmi and Khasim bhai family since then. Ours is also an inter-religious marriage and we believe in humanity. When they mentioned a home for kids, we were so happy and wanted to lend all the possible help.”
Krishna is a former lecturer at the Department of Technical Education, Andhra Pradesh, who took voluntary retirement to focus on social service. She adds, “I’m a teacher by profession. My husband passed away six years ago and that’s when I got involved with Bommarillu. I usually guide and counsel the kids and sponsor three girls for their stay as well as education. I visit the place regularly and can’t be more satisfied with the work of the couple. Spending time with children makes me happy too. To me, they are family.”
For the children, Rajyalakshmi and Khasim are no less than parent figures. The elder kids take care of the younger ones as in a family and the seniors are also solicited for their advice on raising the children. “It gives us so much pleasure that we are a big family of 88 now,” says Rajyalakshmi with pride.
As our discussions come to a close, the couple share that they are now religion agnostic. “Religion is only dividing people. By providing education to children, we are hoping that they become the torchbearers of change,” says Rajalakshmi.
She also adds that her wish is to uplift the SC/ST communities in any possible way. “They are ill-treated and abandoned in many places and this should end,” she says, adding, “Most of the kids were 5 or 6 years old when they first came here. I am sure each of them will reach great heights in the future and give back to society.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao
Photo Credits: P Rajyalakshmi