The Rio Olympic may be over in Brazil, but its spark continues to generate excitement 14,000 kms away. In a shelter home in Bandra that houses 41 children affected by AIDS, 14-year-old Vridhi, who lost her sex-worker mother to AIDS, never showed interest in anything until she watched Usain Bolt’s sprint towards gold. After the Olympics got over last month, Vridhi participated in a school race for the first time and surprised everyone with a silver medal.
“I am a fan of Usain Bolt,” the shy girl says. She does not talk much with other children, but racing has encouraged her to overcome the disappointment she faced in academics due to her low intelligence quotient (IQ). In the large common room of Ashray, the shelter home, the children share a common soft-board where newspaper cuttings of Bolt, P V Sindhu and Sakshi Malik now cover the entire canvas.
Sports such as underwater swimming, gymanstics, football, racing and badminton are the popular topics of conversations among these children now, most below the age of 12.
Vridhi was brought to the shelter home when she was one, as her mother could not look after her. When NGO Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT) was probing the possibility of rehabilitating her back, her mother passed away. That was years ago, but with no other family member to look after her and her low IQ, the girl lived a reserved life until Bolt placed a smile on her lips. In a shalwar-kameez and short hair, she says she wants to become a teacher but has started liking running after watching the Jamaican athlete.
“These children have limited contact with the outside world. So we decided to show them Olympic videos, the countries participating, its logo, and increase their knowledge,” says project officer Vilasini S.
On the sole computer meant for the 26 girls and 15 boys at the home, they were showed downloaded videos of underwater swimming, racing and badminton since the children could not stay up late to watch live. “We made them watch the badminton semi-final and they know who Sindhu is now. When they see racing, they shout ‘Bolt Bolt Bolt’,” smiles Mary Ann Fernandes, the education program coordinator.
In the common room, Vaishnav (9) stands in a slightly torn T-shirt. He has seen videos of the London Olympics too. “Bolt… He is my hero,” the Class IV student says. Other children claim they often spot him running non-stop in the tiny backyard of the shelter home. In school, he takes to running during breaks. “I won the first prize in the running and balancing race this year,” he says.
These children are either orphans or have been abandoned by relatives due to the social stigma attached with AIDS. About half of the children are on anti-retroviral treatment to fight the virus. But medical condition does not deter them from playing. They have been taught to cover bleeding immediately in case they injure themselves. ART and regular screening at Sion Hospital help keep up their immunity.
Rupali plays short put, football and hurdle races. The 14-year-old is one of the 14 children who have enlisted for football training at Ashray. “In school we have a football to play, but not here,” she says. With limited space, lack of funds for sports shoes and no coach, the shelter home has not been able to provide football coaching.
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“They keep asking us when they will be able to play football. But once we explain our constraints they understand. Acceptance in these kids is high and they make the best of whatever they get,” Vilasini says.
She is now trying to fix a coach to train the children in a nearby ground. “Shantanu plays really well,” she points. Shantanu (12) was brought here after his parents succumbed to AIDS three years ago. His elder brother lives on streets and comes to meet him frequently. “He took time, had to convince himself that this is his home now,” Vilasini says.