“The best part about dad is he helps us with everything. He scolds us when we are wrong and loves us unconditionally. He’ll never keep us away from himself, and will always keep us close.”
– Suraj Thapa, 16 years old.
In the past, Culture Machine’s lifestyle channel Blush has brought us thought-provoking and commendable films, such as Kalki Koechlin’s bold and rhythmic poem ‘The Printing Machine’ and the inspiring Geeta Tandon who fought all odds to become one of bollywood’s only stuntwomen. The latest addition in their Blush Original series is an ode to a seemingly unconventional parent. This Father’s Day, Akanksha Seda honours Pastor Reji Thomas, an ordinary man to some, but also an unconditionally-loving and caring papa for twenty two children affected with HIV who his wife and him have adopted.
“Every time someone asks me how many children I have, I say I have twenty four kids,” says Pastor Reji Thomas in the film. The 43-year-old lives in Navi Mumbai with his family of twenty six, and started the Bless Foundation which provides shelter for HIV positive children. Pastor Thomas is an extraordinary man, giving up his government job he now gives these children, abandoned by their parents, a safe place to call home.
It all started with a simple request from a young girl for some noodles. After he had moved with his wife and two children to Mumbai from Kerala, he visited Nerul’s D Y Patil Hospital where he encountered a young girl who he says “looked like a skeleton.” “Upon enquiry I found out the girl had HIV/AIDS. Her parents had passed away long back…The girl asked us if she can have noodles. We couldn’t find noodles anywhere. We assured her we’ll get noodles for her the next day. But, the girl died the same night. That hit me really hard,” he says. “I prayed to God that if i ever got an opportunity, I’d like to work for HIV positive kids.”
The Bless Foundation was set up in 2009 as a small one bedroom establishment rented by Pastor Thomas despite his own financial problems. “…our finances weren’t good, we did not have any facilities, no mats, no bed-sheets. We decided then that we’ll provide them with whatever facilities we ourselves have.” Today, the family of twenty six live together under one roof. As church-goers heard of the Pastors endeavour and their poor living conditions, slowly people banded together, donating whatever money and goods they could in support–one man even donated sixteen beds, says Pastor Thomas. “In the beginning, the kids didn’t know who we were. We introduced ourselves as their parents. I told them ‘you can call me papa. She is like your mother you can call her mummy’…We never thought that so many kids would be HIV infected.”
While most people would shy away from any kind of contact with a person they hear is infected with HIV–due to lack of awareness and understanding–Pastor Thomas never had any fears. “I was not scared about contracting HIV. I was educated about the disease earlier on,” he says, and he makes sure to pass on this knowledge to all his children, whether HIV positive or not. As Dr. Divya Mithale, an HIV/AIDS specialist, points out it is a “chronically manageable disease,” that can be stabilised with Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) medication, which under the National AIDS Control Programme has been made free by the government of India.
There is a lot of stigma attached to HIV and AIDS in our country, and while the parents of these children refused to accept them, when their infection is no fault of their own, Pastor Thomas stepped in, and along with his wife, has so far rehabilitated ninety percent of the children who were brought under his care. Taking care of their medical treatment, daily living expenses and education with the support and help of public donations, Pastor Thomas is truly a knight in shining armour, and we stand in applause, and respect, to celebrate this incredible man and devoted father.
Papa Reji aims to move into a bigger home, house more children and be able to take care of more children above the age of 18, and can do so with your support and donations. Click here to contribute towards this incredible initiative and you can know more about the Bless Foundation on their website.