This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Dr. Michelle Harrison, the founder of Shishur Sevay, says, “There was a moment where I said to myself, ‘So, you’ve always been a critic, see if you can do any better.’”
After visiting Kolkata, she repeatedly heard that there was a category of unadoptable girls for whom nothing could be done and short, miserable lives are all that they could hope to experience. Harrison couldn’t believe that “nothing” was the best that could be done and set out to prove it.
Her home, which she describes as “non-institutional,” suggesting a smaller scale and more homelike atmosphere, now houses about 15 girls, about half of whom have a significant disability.
Watch the full interview with Harrison in the video player at the top of this article.
A few were so completely disabled that they had no means of communication. Harrison felt that finding a way for these young women to communicate would improve their lives more than anything else she could do.
Harrison found the Tobii Eye Tracker that enabled two of the girls who previously had no ability to communicate to be understood for the first time. The system runs on an ordinary laptop equipped with an eye gaze monitor that tracks the vision. When the user holds her gaze on a menu item, the computer recognizes that selection, allowing children without fine motor control to speak.
“And so a child who in essence has no way of speaking is able to talk to visitors when they come, is able to say, ‘I’m hungry.’ Is able to say, ‘I had a bad dream last night.’ Is able to say, ‘I’m worried about something.’ Where I want to go, what I want to be doing,” Harrison explains.
This success almost didn’t happen. With her tiny annual budget, there was no room to risk funds on a technology that didn’t exist anywhere in India and so couldn’t be tested in advance. She used her own funds to buy the Tobii system and planned never to tell any donors about it if it didn’t work. Instead, she considers it one of her biggest successes.
Children’s Hope India, a $1.2 million nonprofit based in Albertson, New York, provides a significant portion of Shishur Sevay’s annual $75,000 budget.
Dr. Dina Pahlajani, co-founder and president of Children’s Hope India, says, “The kind of care the girls receive under Dr Harrison is truly exemplary. They thrive on her loving care which only a ‘mother’ would provide. In India, not much exists in terms of care and support for such children. They are often shunned by society and left in poorly run Homes. Using different modalities, she and her staff work towards helping these girls reach their maximum potential.”
Mr. Nayan Kisnadwala and his family visited Kolkata and asked at their hotel for an orphanage focusing on girls and “where a large proportion of the donations are spent on children—and not administration.” The concierge guided him to Shishur Sevay. Today, he considers himself an ambassador for the organization and helps raise money in India, the UK and the US.
He says, “We spent only a few hours at the orphanage but were totally impressed with the selflessness of Dr. Harrison and her team. Every child gets individual care and attention by experts, and raised in a very positive, and family environment.”
There is still much to learn about how to replicate Harrison’s success with Shishur Sevay, but one thing is certain: she has proven that “nothing can be done” is not the best that can be done. Fifteen happy girls are evidence of that.