The 41 boys of Sanmati Bal Niketan keep a lamp burning all the time in their home. They believe that the flame should never be extinguished, for as long as it burns, their “mother” will be hale, hearty, and healthy.
Their mother is Sindhutai Sapkal, a beggar who has used her earnings to raise 1,042 orphans over the past four decades.
As a young pregnant woman in rural India, Ms. Sapkal was abandoned by her husband. She turned to begging for a living, seeking refuge in cowsheds, cemeteries, and train stations. But despite these hardships she found her calling as a mother to hundreds of children.
Today Sapkal runs four homes for orphans and others in need across India’s state of Maharashtra, currently caring for more than 400 children and 150 women abandoned by their families.
“I have experienced what it feels like to have no one and nowhere to go. This [work] makes me feel like someone is dressing my wounds,” Sapkal says.
Four decades ago, when she would sing at train stations and beg to earn a living, she noticed the large number of orphans who made the stations their home. She had been grappling with thoughts of suicide, but instead she felt a strong call to care for the children.
The more of them she looked after, the more vigorously she begged. “It never occurred to me to not do this,” Sapkal says.
After a few years, with the help of supporters, Sapkal set up her first orphans’ home in Chikhaldara, a town in rural Maharashtra. As word about her work spread, people from other villages began to approach her with orphaned children. Eventually she also set up homes in the towns of Manjiri, Saswad, and Wardha.
Her main residence, Sanmati Bal Niketan in Pune, where 41 boys and 25 girls reside, is a five-story structure with dormitories, an infirmary, a study room, a playroom, and a computer room. Her innovative idea of having women abandoned by their families live in the same home as the children ensures that the children are cared for and the women have a family, too.
Talk to the children and you realize it is Sapkal’s focus on loving them selflessly, educating them, and raising them to feel like equals in society that endears her to them. The children at Manjiri, the 100 girls at Saswad, the 200 girls at Chikhaldara, and the 125 boys at Wardha are all sent to nearby private schools or colleges to pursue an education. Sapkal, who travels between these homes, has worked with a network of nearby schools, colleges, and hospitals that offer their services free of charge or at a reduced rate to her children.
That is perhaps why the children proudly carry her name as their middle and last name. Kapil Sindhutai Sapkal, age 18, one of the youths at the Manjiri home, says Sapkal is closely involved in their lives.
“I have never missed having a so-called normal home” because of Sapkal, he says.
In the early days she would simply take an orphan she found at a train station home with her. But more stringent policies on adoption and admission of a child into a home have changed the process.
While cities have some procedures for admitting orphans into orphanages, rural India still lacks them. During Sapkal’s travels, children without parents or immediate family are passed into her care by a village’s headman or well-wishers. Sapkal carries a signed letter from the local district administration asking the person to clearly state that the child is being passed into her care.
Sapkal’s success is also a result of the support she receives from the people she has raised. The day-to-day operations of her homes are run by her “children” and their families.
Dipak Gaikwad was 11 when relatives handed him over to Sapkal. When as an adult he inherited his ancestral home, he sold it and gave the money to her to carry on her work. Today he manages her Saswad home.
Nearly 50 of her other children also work with her. Women she raised who are now married and their husbands are closely involved in the work. Others contribute part of their monthly salaries.
“But despite all this I am still a beggar,” Sapkal says, because “it is my words which get us money even today.” A gifted orator, she travels extensively across India to speak about her work and life.
Vinay Sindhutai Sapkal, who has been with her since he was 2-1/2 months old, is trained as a lawyer. Instead of setting up a practice, he has made it his life’s mission to take care of Sapkal. He schedules her programs, travels with her, and attends to her daily needs. “For her, there is no question of stopping. If she doesn’t deliver speeches, there are no donors. If she stops, there will be no money,” he says.
“We need money for light and water bills, groceries, school fees, bus passes, doctor’s bills, and the like,” Sapkal says. “There are still days when there is scarcity.... But whatever we get is divided between all homes.”
Nothing has demonstrated her commitment as much as when she sent her own biological daughter, Mamata Sapkal, to be raised at the Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati Charitable Trust home in Pune. Today Mamata is raising a 12-year-old girl and works with her mother. She understands how hard it must have been for her mother to have made that choice.
“But no one can really understand what power keeps her on this path,” Mamata says. “If she says she is going to do this to her last breath, I know she really will.”
Sapkal’s aim now is to make her homes more self-sustaining. Mr. Gaikwad manages a jute bag and sack manufacturing unit run by the women who live there. This provides employment and brings in money. “But this money doesn’t suffice as we want to educate the children, and professional courses in finance and computers cost a lot,” Gaikwad says.
Sapkal’s decades of work have won her more than 750 awards and accolades. She has been honored by presidents of India and even has had a movie made about her life.
But her greatest achievement is undoubtedly the individuals she has helped to raise and the children she still continues to care for.
An employee volunteer group at John Deere India, which manufactures agricultural equipment, recently donated computers to the Manjiri home.
“We are inspired by her work that has clear development and social impact metrics – and that is what differentiates her. We at John Deere feel very connected with her work,” says Meenakshi Priyadarshi, a representative of the company.
“She is fascinating not just because of what she has accomplished but by choosing this path over even [raising] her own child,” says Moreshwar Gokhale, a local social worker familiar with Sapkal’s work. “She was adrift in the ocean with a piece of wood and has crossed the ocean with that.”
Neha Sathe, a children’s rights advocate and assistant professor at the Karve Institute of Social Service in Pune, echoes that thought. She considers Sapkal a role model for anyone who is socially conscious.
“She proves that everyone has the potential for transformation, that it is everyone’s responsibility to care for the society and [that it is] not just an elitist’s task,” Ms. Sathe says. “She is from the lower echelons of society for whom life is still a struggle.
“But look at what she has been able to achieve despite that. What is important is [her] commitment to humanity, and that is the lesson that she is passing on to people.”
Every year on Nov. 14-17, Sapkal’s birthday is celebrated at each of her four homes. Along with the children under her care, this year 287 adult sons-in-law and 25 daughters-in-law were at the celebrations. They may be her truly enduring legacy.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help people in need in India:
• Made In A Free World seeks to abolish slavery. Take action: Support the Safe Villages India field project by helping children stop working in illegal mica mines and go to school.