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Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Mumbai sisterhood of Santas


Forty of the 60 Make A Wish Foundations volunteers,who play genies to children with life-threatening diseases,are housewives 

Sharmila Ganesan-Ram | TNN 

DREAM GIRLS From getting simple things like balloons to setting up a meeting with Shah Rukh Khan,Sunita Katra (L) and Kavita Sainani endeavour to make wishes come true 

Last Friday,when the 200-kiloheavy WWE superstar Khali set his size-18 foot into an upscale hotel in Bandra and met a roomful of eager kids,one of them asked him,Aap kaunsi chakki ka atta khaate hain Another young boy wanted to know how he could attain the seven-footers height while yet another enquired seriously about his fitness regime.
As Khali tackled each question in Punjabi-sprinkled Hindi,Kavita Sainani looked around the roomful of ecstatic kids she had handpicked to meet the wrestling giant and made a secret wishthat some day they too would be fit enough to answer the same questions.This was ambitious,she knew,given what the kids doctors had told her.But after 13 years in the profession of granting desiresranging from a five-star hotel stay to a tete-atete with the Presidentno hope seemed too unrealistic for Sainani any more.There is great power in a wish, says the 57-year-old housewife.
Sainani is among the 60 Mumbai volunteers of the Make A Wish Foundation,a global NGO that attempts to fulfil the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.Thirteen years ago,when the job was explained to the shy,hitherto virtually housebound homemakerthat of visiting hospitals,talking to doctors,taking down the wishes of seriously ill kids and seeing to it that they were fulfilled by staffers of the NGOit seemed like a daunting task.But Sainani decided to go ahead anyway.
The first few encounters with suffering,disease and death had the housewife routinely bursting into tears on returning home.Till a 12-year-old Ranchi boy,one whom the doctor had given only ten days to live,came into her life.When asked what he wished for,he refused to answer,saying that he knew he was going to die,and there was nothing she could do to change that.But Sainani was persistent.On her third visit,the boy conceded his desire to meet Shah Rukh Khan.SRK agreed to come late at night,spoke to the kid for almost half an hour and even told him he could accompany him on shoots when he got better, recalls Sainani.Four months later,she got a call from which she is yet to recover.The same boy called me from Ranchi,asking me to accompany him to a shoot.I couldnt believe my eyes when I saw him.He looked slim,fit and nothing like his previous frail self. 
It is stories of such transformations and the resulting happiness on parents faces that not only makes volunteers like Sainani glow with joy but also,in turn,does what the gifts do for the wish kids lend their dreary life a purpose.For,almost 90 per cent of Make A Wishs volunteer base comprises such middle-aged housewives who have learnt about child psychology,unheard-of life-threatening illnesses and the vagaries of poverty all on the job.Weve all cried initially, says Phiroza Abraham,a jolly volunteer in her 60s,who broke down once on learning about the death of a ward before she could fetch her a fairy dress.But eventually such experiences have made us stronger. 
After being referred to a kid by a doctor,volunteers like Abraham approach the parents with identity cards and a wish identification form,in which three wishes of the kids are noted.Parents arent always forthcoming,and convincing them is half the job,says volunteer Lakshmi Jayaraman.Some dont trust us,some ask for money or medicines and others prompt their kids, she says.We make sure that the wish is the childs alone by asking further questions like why and how. Often,when the volunteers try to probe the innermost desires of kids with ice-breaker gifts like colouring books or chocolates,they come away surprised by how specific (a computer monitor) or simple (eating a water melon) their expectations from these real-life genies are.It makes you realise that we take for granted a lot of things that others dont have, says Jayaraman,as her fellow volunteer Sunita Katra cites the examples of a rural kid who wanted a balloon and that of the 16-year-old girl undergoing chemotherapy who wanted a wig.
Although the voluntary work is emotionally fulfilling,it can often be painful.Katra,who was working towards fulfilling the wish of a child who wanted a music system,recently went on a two-month vacation after three years of continuous work.When she resumed and found the wish was still pending,she picked up the receiver and dialled the parent.Can I hand over the gift to your kid tomorrow she asked cheerfully.If you can reach heaven by then,please do, he replied.A deeply disturbed Katra says a part of her died that day.
Evidently the NGO needs many more volunteers to prevent such tragedies,a fact that Sameeya Shaikh,programme coordinator of the NGO that celebrated World Wish Day last week,concedes.But its difficult to find dedicated volunteers, she says.Most of the applications come from working people who cannot afford to give time on weekdays. Shaikh says she needs more committed housewivesshe feels some guilt about depending on the current lot,who are ageing and working for no tangible benefits,besides maybe conveyance.
The veterans,however,show no signs of tiredness.In fact,the service seems to have instilled in them not just uncommon strength,confidence and,as Sainani declares,road sense,but also a sense of humour about their age.Where theres a will,theres a way, says the spirited sexagenarian Abraham.Thats true.So,have you made your will yet ribs a fellow male volunteer.I'd have to go to the Make A Will foundation for that, Abraham shoots back.

For more please visit the website of Make-a-wish Foundation of India.

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