Jahnavi Sarma meets Priya Virmani, a political and economic analyst, who uses her savings to add colour to the lives of abused children through her NGO, Paint Our World.
At first glance, Priya Virmani, Founder and Director of Paint Our World, looks like any other young career-oriented woman. But dig a little deeper and you find that through her charitable trust, dedicated to empowering the lives of abused children, she has changed the lives of over 200 physically and psychologically abused children. Armed with a PhD from the University of Bristol in Management Strategy, Priya follows what her heart says is right and has fun doing it.
Bursting with energy and positivity, Virmani, who is based in the UK, spends a major part of the year in Kolkata and travels across India to be with her children playing games, participating in fun-filled activities, conducting workshops and, in the process, helping them to overcome the distresses and fears of their lives. “We have physiologically verified activity therapy classes like dance and music, art, story-telling and more. We have psychiatrists on board who have vouched for these activities. These activities help the children in first articulating, then accepting and finally releasing their trauma,” she says. Children are given clay to model anything they like or even just play with it. They are given pen and paper to express themselves through art. These activities wean the children away from their traumatic past and open the door to a hopeful future. Cakes on special occasions and parties are a part of their life. ‘Didi’, as the children call Priya, does everything within her means to give them a normal childhood.
According to Priya, the urge to do something for society has been a part of her since childhood. In fact, her parents got a glimpse of things to come when she was just four years old. Walking to school one rainy morning, she saw some street children rummaging for food. That night, she asked her parents why these children can’t sit on a table and eat like everybody else. This incident stayed on her mind and she started carrying food packets for them from home. As the years went by, she began volunteering at Mother Teresa’s home and soon the time came for her to leave the country for higher studies. She went to the UK, completed her PhD and started working. But at the back of her mind was the constant urge to come back to her own country and do something for underprivileged children. The childhood incident never really left her mind.
But Priya knew that to do something she had to have money. So she started saving up and when she had a decent amount, she returned to India on vacation to work with the children of Sonagachi, Kolkata’s notorious red light district. She conducted workshops for abused children and very soon, received invitations from NGOs across the country to work with their children. But all this needed money and she had to return to the UK to pursue her career. “I can earn more in the UK than in India and I need the money to fund my work in India,” she says. “Donations do trickle in but it is not enough.” A Political and Economic Analyst, she also writes for The Guardian and The New Statesman.
Other than a shortage of funds, Priya has also had to deal with people’s attitude, patronising comments and condescending views.
“Once, during a meeting, a prospective donor actually asked me why I don’t get married instead of doing what I am doing. It was ridiculous.”
But she does not let any of this get her down. “I live an ordinary life,” she says, “I work, go out with friends, party and do all the things that a normal person does.”
Paint our Life recently started the ‘Sponsor a Child’ drive, where one can pay Rs. 500 a month for a child, which includes their schooling expenses.
Though this drive has seen only friends coming forward to sponsor a child so far, Priya is hopeful that more people will pitch in. “This will make a big difference in the lives of these children,” she says.