Mansi Opens ‘Happy Feet Home’ Doors For Ill Kids To Breathe Joy In Their Last Days
- IWB Post
- March 16, 2018
Imagine you’re attending a session where you’re given two activities to complete.
In the first one, you need to write word to word of what the instructor says. But the words in the passage are too complicated and the instructor is too arrogant to care. Without completing this one, you are said to move to the next task. Using old newspapers, you got to make as many loops as possible. But the instructor goes around targeting active members of your group either blindfolding them, tying their hands, not letting them speak. How would you feel?
Helpless? Angry about not being given an equal chance to win?
These are the kind of sessions that Mansi Shah, the founder of Happy Feet Home, arranges for volunteers willing to join India’s first hospice for children with life-threatening diseases. The goal of these sessions is to make the newcomers understand the feelings of these children.
Mansi says, “These kids are born with an illness which is not their fault, and they will have to live their entire lives protecting their identity as the illness becomes their second self.”
In a candid conversation, she shares her belief in the universe, her beautiful bond with children, and why she doesn’t fear death. Excerpts:
What are the fondest memories of your childhood?
My childhood was great. I was the first grandchild in my family. So you can only imagine all the attention. I’m 30 now but I’m still pampered by everyone. When power cuts occurred, my dad used to take me in the auto around the town as the cool breeze used to make me fall asleep. The first thing my uncle did when he came home was lift me on his shoulders and go around the place.
Coming to my college years, I was a complete brat and I had zero self-confidence along with a horrible fashion sense. I didn’t plan anything as such just thought I’d complete the three usual norms-study, marriage and kids. But one day all that changed.
Tell us more.
Once I completed my post-grad degree in Early Childhood Care and Education, along with a couple more courses, a friend of mine suggested to be a counselor at Akansha foundation. I opted for the position of a teacher and later went on to work in 4-5 departments. I spent over 8 years at Akansha. It became my second home. Meeting so many different people changed my personality completely.
On the last day, the CEO came up to me and said ‘It doesn’t feel like you’re leaving. It feels like you’re just going for a stroll and then you will come back.”
Then why did you leave? And what was next?
I wanted to do something different. Akansha had become my comfort zone. I wanted to push my limits. So, I joined St. Jude India Childcare Center that provides shelter to kids with cancer. I was in charge of taking care of their emotional state. My task was to keep them happy, engaged, and motivated. This is because your state of mind can make or break your health. Cancer is such that on day one it might look perfectly normal but the next day your condition can worsen.
However, you had worked there only for a couple of months. Why?
There was a child who had been staying at the centre away from his parents for more than 2 years, and one day he succumbed to his illness. When the father came to collect the body, the hospital refused due to the pending bill of 60,000 rupees which he was asked to pay. It pinched me that for money, they were not letting the parents’ grieve their son’s death and give him a dignified funeral.
What further crushed me was when people who fund children termed this as a ‘lost case’ and refused to help. That’s when I left because I wanted to do something to change it.
Is it around this time you met Abhishek, the former co-founder of Happy Feet?
I met him through ‘Sing a Smile,’ a group of friends that used to visit remand homes and red light areas and sang all kinds of songs from ‘Muni Badnam Hui’ to ‘DamaDam Mast Qalandar’.
And how did you guys come up with this idea?
Abhishek had also quit his corporate job and we both wanted to start something of our own. While speaking to many people, I realized that there is no hospital for palliative care. And I couldn’t sleep the entire night because I was so fired up with this idea. I couldn’t wait to meet Abhishek and tell him about it.
He agreed and for one and a half year we were just doing shameless networking. We contacted plenty of doctors and nurses. They used to find loopholes and ask how this will be possible as we were very young, had no funds, no place and no medical background. But instead we kept coming back with new updates and progress, and that’s when we met Dr. Manglani, from Sion Hospital. With her help, Happy Feet Home was started in 2014.
Did your family support you?
Well, they were concerned as to how I would handle it. I’m over emotional and so sensitive. If anybody dies, I keep crying and stay depressed. But I told them that only because I’m able to feel so much, I will be able to understand their pain and do something for them.
How was it like in the beginning?
First, the kids used to just come and play for 3-4 hours straight. We had no food facility so we requested them to go home for lunch, but they used to lie saying we had eaten and all. And food is very important for these kids, so we made use of a microwave and for 3 months all we had been making in that was khichdi.
I finally got fed up and said if I see khichdi one more time, I will puke. We bought an induction stove and started making simple pulao and chola. Now in the new centre, we have a full-fledged kitchen. From bananas and milk to fruits and boiled eggs, everything is provided.
Describe a regular day at Happy Feet.
So we’re a team of six, out of which five are women. From 10.30 to 12.30, the nurse and the art based therapist spend time with the kids. On Mondays, we usually bring our dog to play with the kids. We also organize dance lessons. The dance workout helps push all negative energies away. There are also art and craft classes where kids make art with simple things like salt and shaving foam.
Having a dog at the Home must be fun!
Yes, of course. The kids love Bolt. But I’m very afraid of anything that is not human. Now after months, I have kind of adjusted myself to being in the same room with the dog. Otherwise before I would go lock myself somewhere till the dog went away. (laughs)
What is your biggest belief?
I believe in the universe. Everything that happened in my life was for a reason and brought me to this day. For example, the first hospital I ever entered was the Sion hospital. The Home is also bang opposite my college. Before I couldn’t connect the dots. But now I’m so grateful when I look at the bigger picture.
How do you address the matter of death?
When I was little, a man who stayed in the adjoining building got murdered over a simple quarrel. He was about to have his lunch and that’s when the murder took place. What stuck with me was that he couldn’t have his last meal.
My father’s cousin had also passed away when I was little and I overheard my elders saying that a few days ago, he told his family about all the savings and investments he had. I believe that even I will receive signs when I die, and for me death is just a culmination of the life. I wonder why it’s a taboo to talk about it. I’ve already given instructions as to what to do when I die to five of my closest people.
What are those instructions?
Donate my organs. But not my things. Please burn them with me. I’m very possessive about them and even after death that will stay the same. (laughs)
How do you explain death to the kids?
When anyone dies, we tell the kids about it. We take them to the funeral as this provides them with closure. On Thursdays, we have reflective art for the kids where they can express themselves and vent out what they feel about their friend’s death.
And how do you deal with death?
Well, I don’t get any alone time to feel depressed or stay sad. My family at home is always there keeping me company. (laughs) That’s why, I spend most of my money in cab rides so that I don’t have to talk and I can ponder over things in peace.
Describe your bond with the kids.
At the centre, I’m a Hitler. But the kids know that I love them the most. If I go away for a week, they literally scold me and say ‘Aise kaise aap gaye’. Before boarding a flight, I have to meet them and after coming back, directly from the airport I have to visit them.
How do you de-stress?
I love dancing, and once a friend of mine saw me going crazy at a club and couldn’t believe it’s the same Hitler Mansi at the centre. He seriously thinks I’ve a split personality. Well, I hope not. I love both my sides. (laughs)
What is next for you?
I want to help other setups in their work and also start support groups through which our kids can help other kids. Also, we’re planning to start ‘work from home’ opportunities for parents who miss a day’s salary if they come to visit their kids.
The conversation with Mansi was lingering with me long after I hung up the phone. Each day, Mansi makes sure that these kids live their life to the fullest without having to worry about anything in the world. Listening to her story, a quote by David Goleman comes to mind, ‘True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved enough to help relieve it’.
This article was first published on October 10, 2017.