She Has Built 100 Houses In Last 5 Years For The Homeless, Widowed, Differently-Abled & Underprivileged In Kerala

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Over the past five years, Sister Lizzy Chakkalakal has built over 100 houses for the homeless and underprivileged in Thoppumpady, Kerala. The principal of Our Lady’s Convent Girls Higher Secondary School, Sister Lizzy is a true inspiration and messiah for the masses.

In a conversation with Efforts For Good, Sister Lizzy shared how she achieved the impossible sheerly through widespread community integration and love for everyone.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

How the first home happened

As per Sister Lizzy, the responsibility of a teacher is not restricted within the curriculum, textbooks and the four walls of the classroom. She always felt it was important to ensure that her students are having a healthy upbringing and wholesome education, even outside the school quarters.

“Ours is a girls’ school, and a lot of the students come from very humble backgrounds. It was my habit to regularly visit the girls’ homes and interact with their parents. I used to notice the hardships many of them were battling. Some did not even have a proper roof above their heads which they can call home,” she narrates her experience.

Around five years ago, she found out that Clara Bini, one of her 8th standard students was homeless. “She had recently lost her father, who was a mason. It was his dream to have a house of his own someday. His untimely death drove the family into extreme poverty. They were staying in a tiny, shabby room, sharing their kitchen with three other families,” Sister Lizzy reveals.

Moved by her distress, Sister Lizzy thought about building a house for her. Raising funds from the school teachers, students, neighbours and many other well-wishers, she succeeded in building a beautiful 600 sq. ft. home for the girl and her family. That was the beginning.

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Sister Lizzy’s journey for the next five years

It was the school’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations that year. To commemorate the event, a golden idea crossed Sister Lizzy’s mind. She decided to start the House Challenge Project, through which they would build houses for the homeless and helpless of the area. In five years, the number of completed homes stands at 100, while another five are under construction at present.

The amazing lady has also initiated Project Hope after the devastating floods in Kerala in 2018. “Within the ambit of this project, we have adopted 150 houses which were severely affected. Through fundraising and tireless efforts, we are currently renovating, repairing and in some cases also rebuilding these homes,” she informs.

The darker side of Kerala’s development

To an outsider, Kerala might seem to be a very developed state, which she indeed is, but in reality, there lies a darker side of this fact. “Food and clothing are not so scarce, but a shelter is. The living conditions for the poor and marginalised communities in Kochi are deteriorating day by day,” Sister Lizzy remarks.

She believes that the presence of decent living space is an utmost necessity, as it can have a drastic effect on a person’s mindset, especially for moulding a child’s personality. Poor standard of living is driving more and more adults into drug or alcohol addiction. The stark difference between the rich and the poor is painfully evident in the dingy alleys and dark, damp rooms. The people spend their days in despair while dreaming about owning a quaint, airy home with windows and yard one day.

From young widows to cancer survivors

So, does owning a house really have such a drastic effect on a person? The real-life stories shared by Sister Lizzy bear evidence.

“We had built a home for a mentally-challenged woman, who was widowed at a young age. She faced isolation from the in-laws, which slowly led her towards mental instability. It is almost impossible to believe that the same woman started going to work and sending her kids to school after she got her own home from us.”

Through the House Challenge Project, a former student of Sister Lizzy’s school has got a home. She is paralysed waist-down and faced a lot of harassment before her marriage. “Look at her now, all happy with her family in her new house, because we have customised an accessible home for her, with wheelchair ramps, improvised cooking facilities and everything,” she shares.

23-year-old Rahul is another beneficiary. Being a specially-abled person, his parents faced a lot of discrimination wherever they went. They were unable to stay peacefully in any rented home for more than a year or so and had to switch places frequently. Their joy knew no bounds when the key to a brand new home was handed over to them by Sister Lizzy.

The stories are endless. Among the other beneficiaries, there are as many as four cancer survivors, who have defeated the disease and restarted a happy life in their new homes. “We prioritise the most distressed and overlooked people in the society. From young widows to accident victims’ families, from differently-abled to the poorest of the poor, so many people have benefitted from the project,” she reveals.

Peace and happiness automatically percolated in many families after they got their new homes. Many quit drinking and other habitual addiction after settling in their new houses.

A compassionate community

“For every house that we built till date, we have received immense help from the local residents, businessmen and each and every member of the community. While some supplied with free building material, others offered free labour in construction. We could complete a perfect house within 5 lakh rupees, which would otherwise have cost no less than 15 lakhs. Without their contribution, this mammoth achievement would never have been a reality,” expresses Sister Lizzy.

Sister Lizzy clarifies that the capped expenditure does not translate to any compromise on the quality and amenities available in a house. All the houses are 2 BHK with a proper kitchen, washroom and other facilities. In fact, most of these houses were built disaster-resilient, so they incurred minimal damage during the floods. “It is due to the quality of the houses that people have complete faith in us. This is why they come forward with so much help,” Sister Lizzy asserts.

Women empowerment through building homes

“We speak about women empowerment and liberation. But, do you think our women get the respect they deserve? In small, sharing homes, they are always struggling to protect their modesty. There is no proper washroom or dressing room for them. Don’t our sisters deserve this much dignity? That is why we keep emphasising on the need for a proper home. A house can completely change a person from all aspects,” Sister Lizzy remarks.

Her aim is to build a society where nobody stays homeless. “It’s not about just handing over a house. It is a whole transformative process in itself, towards a better life,” she signs off.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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