shared visionThe Long Walk to Belong

By Geeta Mondol and S Ramanathan

Vision combined with action can spearhead transformational change that may seem impossible. Timaben was a resident of a state mental health institution – she ended up there somehow, when she got separated from her family, and somehow reached a place far away from where she belongs. Keystone’s Family Reunification Team, committed to finding and reunifying institutionalized persons with their families, interacted with her whenever they visited, and eventually, they built trusting relationships with her. She confided about her family and confessed that she was longing to belong. It was with her mother and siblings that she felt belonged. The Family Reunification Team learned that her family was in Ahmedabad, Gujarat and left no stone unturned to locate them.

They eventually succeeded in tracing Timaben’s family and then made a visit to her family home. When the team met with her family, they came to know that Timaben’s mother was in the last stages of cancer; she was delighted to know that Timaben had been found and she desperately wanted to be with her daughter before she died. Finally, on 24 March 2023, Tima was reunified with her family, after a 5-month long separation. Her brother and sister came to the institution to receive her. The Family Reunification Team noticed that her brother was not wearing any footwear, which aroused their curiosity. When asked about it, he said that he had vowed he would not wear footwear until he met his sister, Timaben. The intensity of emotions that was visible among the siblings when they were finally together is a testimony of the strong bond they share and the belongingness they feel with one another.

To be stripped of the experience of belonging and being forced to be in a place where one doesn’t belong is one of the most recurring predicaments confronted by people with vulnerabilities, including disabilities. Timaben had to endure that unfortunate situation for nearly half a year, but it was also a blessing in disguise, as her underlying mental health concerns were understood and were getting addressed, albeit medically. Several questions came to the minds of the Family Reunification Team – Why did Timaben leave her family in the first place? Have there been instances in the past when she left her family? Would it be possible that she would leave her family again? Are there mental health services near her residence that are accessible? What was Timaben’s life before she left her family? What could be done to make her post-reunified life better than before?

The quest to find answers to these questions led the Family Reunification Team to make a post reunification visit. The team had in-depth discussions with Timaben and her family members and together they devised plans to address the issues they faced and the kinds of support the family required. They realized that the immediate support the family needed was toward healthcare needs of the mother who was fighting cancer and more sources of income to meet the expenses of Tima’s medication. The family was provided with a pedal cart, which Tima’s brother could use to transport cargo and earn additional wages. Support was provided for the healthcare requirements of their mother; she passed away a few weeks later, although her last wish to be with Timaben was fulfilled.

From staying in a hopeless situation at the institution where there seemed to be little hope of getting out, to being with her family where she belonged, donning robust, valued roles as mother (of her 5-year-old son), a sibling and daughter, a hostess, and a cook, encouraged the whole family to support and take care of each other. Each step is significant, and all the steps worked together in synergy to make one more family strong and complete.