Sindhutai Sapkal is no ordinary mum.
The 68-year-old is known as the ‘mother of orphans’ in her hometown of Prune in India after devoting the last 40 years of her life to raising over 1,400 children.
Now, Sindhutai runs five orphanages, two for boys, two for girls and even one for cows.
She explains, ‘my family is very big. I am a mother of thousands of children and a mother-in-law to 282 sons-in-law. I am 49 daughters-in-law, I am a mother to 175 cows.’
‘I’m a mother to those who have nobody.’
Despite having only a basic level if education herself, Sindhutai has always maintained the importance of education to the children she raises. And it’s certainly paid off, as many of the orphans have now gone on to become doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Unlike conventional orphanages the children don’t have to leave as soon as they turn 18. Instead, they are welcome to stay until they find jobs or get money.
Sindhutai says, ‘I help establish their family. The government says, ‘the child is 18, now ask them to leave’. Just because they’re 18, doesn’t mean they’re wise. In fact, that is the time that they need more love and support.’
Similarly to the children she has adopted, Sindhutai has had to overcome challenges throughout her life. By the age of 10 she was married, she had given birth to 3 children by the age of 20 and was cast out by her husband when she was 9 months pregnant with her daughter.
It was then that Sindhutai’s resilient nature really shone through, as she delivered her daughter alone in a barn and managed to survive by singing for food on trains.
She says, ‘Hunger taught me about the world, hunger sent me to the needy, hunger taught me how to live, hunger gave me strength to stand.’
‘Learn to overcome obstacles. My struggles gave me my life, gave me a name. It gave me development, it taught me how to be a mother to people.’
Thanks to her incredible work, Sindhutai has won many awards, and even been granted honorary degrees. But the orphanages currently have no government funding and they rely entirely on the generosity of private donations. Because of this, and in spite of her age, Sindhutai still maintains a grueling public speaking schedule.
‘I have to give speeches to earn our rations. I may have 750 awards but I can’t make bread from that.’
Looking to the future, Sindhutai hopes that her legacy will live on, not just through the orphanages that her and her family run, but also through her example. Inspired by her kindness, some of the orphans she adopted are now training to become social workers.
Sindhutai says, ‘these are kids who have seen unhappiness and sadness and have now come so far. Tomorrow, they will do even better work than I am doing, that I’m sure of.’
‘When a river overflows and clashes against a rock it doesn’t just keep hitting itself against it, it slowly finds a way around it and keeps flowing. Rocks of challenges will come, learn to find a way around it. That is what I always say.’