Meet Maria Gilsen, who moved to India in 1993 and has been serving underprivileged children ever since
By choice or chance, the journey of life takes people to places that they would have never imagined. Little did I know that 2016 would see me shifting from Moscow to Chennai. And, as I found out here were many people making their new home in Chennai, just like me. Every story I have come across is a unique story worth dwelling upon and may be even written. I like to meet people and bring to light, from a journalist’s perspective, their life stories. These stories contain different perspectives and experiences, which make us realise the diversity, the challenges, the goals, faith and the beauty of the world. The story I would like to write about this month is one of finding meaning and purpose in life, lending a helping hand to those in need, no matter what background they come from, making a small difference in somebody’s life story; it is about humility and humanity.
Maria Gislen moved to Chennai way back in 1993 and has been living here ever since, for 25 years now. Several questions crossed my mind while driving down to her school located in the outskirts of Chennai. An hour or so later, I reached the Little Lambs School. A short, bespectacled lady introduced herself as Maria. Her warmth and easy-going style made me comfortable almost immediately. There were many children in the corridor of the multi-storeyed building. It was a school dedicated to underprivileged children and they caught me by surprise by greeting me in better-than-expected English. It was the first of many more surprises to come.
Way before starting to work in a charitable institution in Chennai, Maria had seen her parents taking the social welfare of the nation very seriously. She saw them helping people in the rehabilitation centres of Alcoholics Anonymous in Sweden. Growing up, as a teenager, when you would expect someone to spend the time partying, Maria already had the desire to make a difference, to help those in need; to heal the world by caring for poor children. And luckily for her, when she grew up and married, her husband shared the exact same views. He grew up in family of priests and saw his parents engaged in serving humanity. It was his idea to shift to India and start an IT company and support his wife with the initiative of bringing education to underprivileged children.
In conversation with Culturama, Maria talks about her journey in India…
Jane Kataria: Maria, several people have the desire to help those in need. How did the idea of a school germinate?
Maria Gilsen: Jane, close to my house in Chennai, in the nineties, lived three kids who were neglected. One of them also suffered from domestic violence. My efforts to do something meaningful for these children went nowhere. A day came when I could not watch their suffering anymore. When I adopted these three children, there arose a need for their schooling and that is when the Little Lambs School was born. I was teaching my two kids, my three adopted kids, and a few other kids together.
JK: How many children do you have?
MG: I have three sons and all of them studied in this very school that I run. In a few years, many other needy children joined the school. Feeding children from morning to evening, taking care of occasional illnesses, managing mentally challenged kids, and teaching was no longer possible in the small establishment that I had. Besides, more children were always knocking at our doors. I prayed for strength. I could no longer manage on my own. Not sure about knocking on other people’s doors for support, I prayed more. Good souls started bringing food and supplies. Volunteers started appearing to help with the teaching, too. At that time, my husband’s company was also in its infancy and several times, we would spend sleepless nights thinking where the money for the next day’s meals would come from.
JK: I see all your pupils smiling and happy, and I am sure that their smiles are a reflection of your happy attitude. What gives you inspiration and motivation on this arduous journey of life?
MG: Most of the students in the school are from very poor families which cannot support them. Many kids have nobody at all. We run four orphanages for children. We take care of their living till they complete schooling. Even later, we assist them in further studies and a career. More than a thousand have finished their schooling at the Little Lambs School. Many of my students are doing well in life. In their success, my staff and I find the strength and reassurance in our chosen path.
JK: I would imagine that it takes some financial support to run the school of this size and the orphanages. How do you manage that?
MG: I am not the marketing type. My husband’s IT business has grown and one of his customers donated funds for a part of the building. Several leading Scandinavian companies also support us. Volunteers in Sweden and other countries raise funds for us. They also come to help out with teaching. Some Chennai-based companies offer help as a part of their CSR activities.
JK: Do your children miss Sweden or do they feel Indian now?
MG: My sons are grown up now. My younger son feels more Indian. He has been with me in this school every single day from the age of 4 months (smiles). I just took him along with me to work. My elder one got married a few months ago in Sweden. And my three adopted kids, who are grown up and working, travelled to Sweden for his wedding. Considering the background they come from, I am really proud to see that they can now afford travelling abroad! They gained knowledge and education and are financially stable now. That is what makes me realise that the work I do has actual meaning in people’s lives.
JK: Really happy to hear about your sons. Belated congratulations on your son’s wedding. Was it an Indian style wedding?
MG: Thanks (laughs). No, it was a European style wedding. But my younger son wore a kaftan and a turban – traditional Indian wedding attire – and the boys who came from India performed a dance to a Bollywood tune! So, yes, there was a little Indian touch!
JK: I assume that many kids suffer from nutritional deficiencies when they come over to your orphanages and your school. Is that the case? If so, how do you manage?
MG: That’s a good question. We have a trained dietician working with us. We maintain developmental records of all our children. In several children, we observe nutrition-related challenges. We try our best to provide good food to kids. We also feed our children with supplements that we receive as a part of the CSR activities of leading companies. Some of our kids have suffered from severe malnourishment in their early years, which has resulted in long-term disabilities. Of all things, I am satisfied seeing so many kids have good meals at my establishment.
JK: And why did you choose Chennai, why India? I believe there would be many places where children need help and education.
MG: We found ourselves more comfortable in India because we spoke English. Chennai was very welcoming and I find that Chennaiites are the friendliest people I have come across. We stayed in China and we thought of starting a school there, but language was a real problem. I see a lot of scope for work here in Chennai. I come across different lives and fates, different cases; and people here are much more flexible in regard to legal issues compared to similar issues in Sweden, for example. We have a sister school in Sweden and our children communicate with each other through e-mail. We run exchange programmes where our teachers can receive training in Sweden and update their qualification levels. It is very important to us to provide good education to our pupils. For both my husband and me, the dreams we had as young people have come alive in India. I found the meaning of my life here in India and I have found true love, because children’s love is the most unconditional and genuine.