Taking Norfolk Christian love onto the streets of India
Rev Pat Atkinson is an ordinary person with an extraordinary legacy of taking Norfolk love onto the streets of India over almost 30 years, helping transform the lives of thousands of street children, destitute elderly people and those facing cancer and leprosy. Jenny Seal reports.
Rev Canon Pat Atkinson, from Brundall, visited India for the 54th time last month, almost 29 years since she made her first trip. Since that initial visit she has set up a charity, the Vidiyal Trust, which has saved lives and changed the future of thousands - but don’t call her a hero!
In the 1990s, when Pat first fell in love with the people living on the streets of Madarai in Southern India’s Tamil Nadu, she encountered prejudice as a Christian. Because of her faith people regularly threw stones at her, abused her on the street and assumed her good deeds were a ruse.
Now 71, and looking forward to her 54th trip to the city, things are different. “Now, wherever we go we’re welcome. In fact it’s an overwhelming welcome really,” she said.
“Now I know that for our part of the city, where we work, the word Christian is honoured. A lot of barriers have been broken down.” This was confirmed to her recently when the police brought a dying, old lady from the street to her charity’s residential home. They said: “we knew to bring her to the Christians”. “This is one of my favourite things that have ever been said,” Pat recalled, smiling.
The change, she believes, has come about simply by giving unconditionally and showing God’s love. Over almost three decades her charity, the Vidiyal Trust (Vidiyal means new beginnings) has grown to encompass multiple projects enabling her and her team to show love to thousands living in abject poverty.
Pat’s work in India started with street children. Today the charity’s tuition centres provide 150 street children with extra tuition morning and evening, a good breakfast, evening snacks, weekend activities, clothes and the opportunity to go on to higher education or vocational training.
Through this, 140 former street children have now gained university degrees including a dress designer, a global IT specialist and two of Vidiyal Trust’s full-time staff who have Masters qualifications.
This alone is a massive achievement but the charity has also built its own 42-bed residential home for elderly people who would otherwise be living destitute and with health problems on the street. They run a lunch centre for street elders, a food bag scheme and look after a small colony of people with advanced leprosy.
They also work closely with a cancer charity in Kerala’s Trivandrum, funding two ambulances with drivers that, along with doctors and nurses from a regional hospital, have made over 500,000 trips providing palliative care to adults in rural areas and more recently enabling 100 children with cancer to access treatment.
“It’s just sort of all happened somehow,” said Pat. “It’s been quite amazing how it has.”
She is quick to point out that it couldn’t have happened without considerable support from Norfolk individuals and churches. “We are a Norwich charity,” she said. “We always have been and always will be and I’d say 95% of our support comes from Norfolk.”
As she shows me photos of the projects, she points out the water supply funded in memory of a lady from Meadow Way Chapel, the hall walls decorated by young people from Brundall, the new fridge donated by a Norfolk URC and a football team of street children who wear Blofield United’s old strip. “See what I mean?” she said. “It’s all Norfolk!”
“We can look after an elder or child for £12 a month. For elders that’s food, clothes, medical care, outings, a bedroom everything. But that money doesn’t come out of my pocket – it’s come from someone’s pocket in Norfolk and that to me is the key to it.”
Pat has deliberately kept overheads very low and has funded her own travel and expenses personally and through the legacy of a good friend.
She has vowed that the charity will not take on further projects - she admits that everyone laughs when she says that - but will focus on the sustainability of existing projects to safeguard its future and its ability to provide care long-term.
As part of this strategy they recently set up a free-range, organic farm with solar panels and a growing number of cows and chickens. “Our chickens have gone from 250 to nearly 700,” said Pat. “We’ve got enough eggs and chicken meat to feed all our elders and children. The next thing is we are trying to grow vegetables.”
It is not such an easy task when the region suffers from intense drought. They are however finding creative ways around it, such as using a hydroponic system to grow grass to feed the cattle, a method Pat discovered on holiday in Disneyland.
As she heads off to India again, she will encounter slums experiencing an outbreak of swine flu and dengue fever. She is no stranger to disease having suffered from Stills Disease as a teenager, multiple episodes of dysentery and almost dying of malaria.
“It’s not been easy,” she said. “But I’m very, very lucky. I’ve had a fantastic life. Just please don’t make me out to be some sort of hero, because I’m not. I’m just an ordinary person.”
If you could sponsor a street child or elder for £12 a month please write to the Vidiyal Trust at 32 Berryfields, Brundall, NR13 5QE. You can also donate online at https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charities/vidiyaltrust
Photo: Rev Pat Atkinson with some of the street elders in India.