People - Pat Atkinson, missionary - March 2010
SANDIE SHIRLEY meets ‘Pat Mother’, the Norfolk woman who has spent years helping to transform the lives of some of India’s elderly and destitute women
In Mavelikara, a picturesque rural backwater 3,500 miles from Calcutta, a local volunteer has nailed a sign over the front door of a building nearing completion. It reads: “Son Behold Your Mother.”
The words of Jesus on the cross to his disciple John, have issued a practical response in this part of the Third World. A long needed Christian centre for elderly women – many abandoned grandmothers – has opened. It provides food, shelter and medical care, but most of all, love.
“It is a fulfilled dream but it is only the sponsors who have made it possible,” says Rev Canon Pat Atkinson, affectionately known as ‘Pat Mother’, the driving force behind the centre and the Vidiyal Trust, a charity registered both in India and the UK.
“Without money the dream would never have happened so they are the heroes in all this,” says Pat, who has seen lives transformed through regular, monthly financial commitments.
Pat’s vision for the elderly came during her initial call to the country’s slums 19 years ago. She learnt that 500 old and destitute women rake through the city rubbish tips for scraps to survive.
She recalls the plight of two particular women: “One walked two miles to the local hospital with a chest infection and headache to buy one antibiotic and one painkiller. Returning home with all the medicine she could afford, she divided the tablets into four so it would last longer.
“And Saari would spend hundreds of hours looking for discarded old combs to wash and sell for less than two pence each. It did not take much for me to buy her two boxes of combs to sell, but I was questioned why I had bothered by the man who had watched her hardship for years.
“After replying that she was old and poor and I wanted to give her love, he promised to take care of her,” says Pat.
She soon made sustained efforts to help women like these. While organising picnics and key financial support for a growing number, she visited another with Lupus (an auto-immune disease) on her deathbed.
“Love is the key,” says the MBE recipient who has gone to extraordinary lengths to help the frail and ailing and watch two generations of children grow up in the Trivandrum orphanages she inspired. Pat has also seen the opening of a care home for the elderly who lived on the streets in Madurai.
The cost has been high. She has worked in restaurants and gave up her full-time chaplaincy at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital nine years ago. She also suffered from sunstroke, two bouts of dysentery and malaria left her close to death in a sub-standard Indian hospital.
“I have a love-hate relationship with India. I love the people but hate the poverty,” says Pat.
The Vidiyal Trust is heralded as a lifeline for the women in their 50s and 60s who were close to starvation. The paddy fields that provided work all their lives were no longer viable after salt water contamination from the tsunami. With no hope and little food, they were left alone and wasting.
The centre can provide daycare for up to 25 elderly women with visiting support and meals for those who are too sick to attend. It also doubles as a children’s home for up to 250 boys and girls. Generous supporters from Norwich diocese have fundraised and adopted a granny tens of thousands of miles away.
Said one elderly recipient: “All of our lives it has been so hard, but now God has sent people to love us in the last days of our life.”
For more details visit: www.vidiyaltrust.com or call (UK) 01603 635777