AIDS is leading cause of death of African children and second most common killer of adolescents globally, UNICEF says.
Navi Mumbai, India – Reji Thomas has adopted 19 HIV-positive boys.
His home echoes with the laughter of these children. His wife, Minnie, and two biological children, Justin, 19, and Jenny, 17, are part of this large family where love knows no bounds and life is simple: every day is cherished and thanked for.
Thomas recounted the day in 2008 when his life changed after meeting a 12-year-old orphan at the DY Patil Hospital.
“She was a little Nepali girl. She was a bag of bones and there was no flesh in her emaciated body. She had Aids and was dying,” Thomas told Al Jazeera.
The girl looked him in the eyes and begged for a bowl of noodles. Thomas promised to bring it for her. The next day he returned with food – only to learn she died during the night. The incident touched him deeply and helped him find his life’s mission: to help HIV-positive children in India.
Thomas’ journey started in 1989, when he arrived in Mumbai from Kerala. He worked at various odd jobs for a few years before quitting to take up theological studies. He became a pastor and got involved in social service. He helped street children and took sick people living on the streets to hospital. Thomas ensured they were treated with dignity and received proper care.
In 2009, he received a desperate call from an Aids centre for women requesting him to find homes for four HIV-positive children, as it lacked sufficient space and resources.
Since there was no children’s home willing to take them in, Thomas planned to start a centre with a caretaker in charge. But after learning of the children’s disease, no one came forward to help run it. It was then he decided to bring the children – three boys and a girl – into his home. That day, his family as he knew it changed forever.
Abandoning HIV children
According to the National Aids Control Organisation’s India HIV Estimations 2015 Technical Report, 138,456 children under 15 live with HIV.
Thomas said HIV-positive children are one of the most vulnerable groups of abandoned kids. Many are orphans who have been thrown out of their homes by family members who fear infection and social stigma.
On the streets, they are exploited and abused, have no access to healthcare, and are discriminated against and stigmatised.
As his family started growing with more children coming home, Thomas took a tough decision to only care for boys between the ages of 5-16 years.
His wife, Minnie, is a pillar of strength and constant support. A nurse, she monitors the health of the children and ensures their antiretroviral therapy drugs are administered regularly. She also cooks their meals and is their emotional crutch. The children call her “mummy”.
One of the older children is Suraj, 16. “Papa Reji is our papa. He cares for us and we love him. He never pushes us away.”
Thomas’ rented house is modest and neat. Foam mattresses for sleeping double as seating arrangements during the day. When Thomas took the first group of children, he had no money and furniture. The family was sleeping on mats on the floor. One of the children, who had tuberculosis, required a low bed.
Friends and visitors began making contributions with mattresses, cots, chairs, and food.
While Thomas manages the home through these contributions and donations, he wants to move to a bigger dwelling to give the children more space.
Joy, 5, came into their lives when he was 18-months old. His mother, a sex worker, had abandoned him on the street. He was underweight, listless, and withdrawn. No one knew his name. Thomas brought him home and named him Joy. He was nurtured back to health and has blossomed in the loving environment.
Ask the active boy his name and with a big smile he replies, “Joy Reji Thomas!” He gets anxious, however, if someone playfully suggests there is no food in the house. Having lived on the streets, with only hunger to remember it by, he has to be reassured he will always get a meal.
‘Calm and committed’
Dr Divvya Mithale, an HIV specialist, has known Thomas from the time he brought the first children home. She checks on their development every month, monitors their treatment and nutritional intake, and prescribes supplements and vitamins if required.
“Pastor Reji is such a compassionate man. He is always calm and so committed to the children. He and his wife ensure the children get the right treatment,” Mithale told Al Jazeera.
“It is a humungous task looking after these children. Other than the health issues, some have emotional and behavioural issues. If a child must consult a psychiatrist, Pastor makes sure that the child is taken to the right doctor. He never, never gives up on them.”
Other than the monthly check-up, the children are tested every three months. X-rays, the child’s viral load, CD4 count tests, and other blood tests are done routinely. Every child has an individualised therapy. ART drugs are provided free of cost by the government of India at specialised centres.
Trophies are proudly displayed in their home that the children have won in different competitions, such as karate and art.
All the children have been made aware of their HIV-positive status and taught to take precautions. As the antiretroviral drugs are strong, some children suffer side-effects, which include delayed physical and mental development, loss of hearing and vision, and blackened teeth.
“This is their home,” said Thomas. “There are no rules, like in a hostel or a care home. When I go out, I take one or two of them with me as it is difficult to take all of them. On the way, they would want to eat vada pav [a popular vegetarian dish]. I buy it for them. They are happy and it makes me happy, too. When I go to Kerala, I take some of them along. They argue on whose turn it is to go next.”
He also takes the children for birthday parties and social visits in the community. Before, there was fear and social rejection. Now, there is greater acceptance of the children. This unconventional family is changing perceptions and attitudes towards HIV-positive children in the larger community.
Asked about the work he does Thomas replied, “I am just an ordinary father taking care of his children. I want what’s best for them.”
He said his strength comes from his deep and unshaken faith in God. “For me, it is a blessing to do this work. I want to help more and more children.”
He said he prays that no child should die in his home. Unfortunately, however, he lost one last year to drug-resistant tuberculosis. Thomas finds it difficult to talk about and takes the conversation forward, focussing on the positives.
In India, an estimated 74,220 children require antiretroviral drugs. Though there has been a decline in the Aids epidemic in recent years, Thomas realises there is a huge need to help affected children get the right treatment. He has established the BLESS Foundation to reach HIV-affected children and give them a home.
“My papa treats all of us the same way,” said his daughter Jenny. “Ask him and he says he has 21 children. I have so many younger brothers. I don’t think I can do the work papa is doing. He is very special.”