J. Saleem does not remember how he landed in Chennai. He was around six years old and spoke no Tamil.
All he can recollect now is that he was identified on the streets, and brought to the Seva Samajam Children’s Home. But, that was 21 years ago. Two decades after he landed at the Home run by the Guild of Service, he has returned to where it all began — the Guild.
“They are my only family,” said the hotel management graduate, emphatically. Not only did he study and grow up there, he also went on to pursue hotel management with the Guild’s support. When he had some health problems, he decided to quit his job as a chef at a five-star hotel in the city and get back to work at the Guild.
The story of the 90-year-old Guild of Service, one of the oldest service organisations, is one that can be told not just through numbers, but through innumerable lives such as Saleem’s.
It was started by Mrs. Waller, wife of the then Bishop of Madras, and a group of European ladies primarily to work for refugee rehabilitation, welfare of the armed forces, and child welfare, and care for the handicapped, among other areas.
In 1936, several Indian women joined the guild. The turning point, however, came when Mary Clubwala Jadhav took over the reins of the organisation. Himani Datar, honorary secretary, Guild of Service, said Ms. Clubwala wanted to make social work systematic and not just something which people did when they had time to spare.
Today, it works in the areas of education, disability, health and welfare, and has close to 20 projects in and around Chennai. Among these is a family counselling centre for women prisoners and undertrials at Puzhal and Bala Vihar Training School for Mentally Challenged Children and Adults. They also have 16 affiliates across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. “Today, we have around 7,000- 8,000 beneficiaries just in Chennai,” Ms. Datar said.
One of the biggest challenges they face today is the lack of committed volunteers for their projects. “Many people are willing to donate money, few offer their time,” said Ms. Datar.
Seventy-six-year-old Saraswathy Gopalakrishnan, vice-chairperson who has served in all the Guild’s projects, agrees. She recalled a time when some of the women they were trying to reach out to were not allowed to talk to them. Today, it is much better, she noted. “They know their rights, and want to be economically independent,” she said.
One of the biggest achievements of the Guild, she feels, is in the field of education.
“And, by that I do not mean just school education. It includes education of old people on nutrition, fisherwomen on their rights and such,” she said.