Cyclone Vardha had landed on Chennai’s coast on December 12 and we were 180km away in the holy town of Tiruvannamalai, where the effects of the storm were visible. Cyclical winds, rain in the air, one could feel that some major turbulence had hit land nearby. In Tiruvannamalai, it was an auspicious day—Maha Deepam—when more than two million people from all around the world descend on Arunachala Hill and witness the ceremony conducted on the hilltop. It is also customary to go around the 14 km periphery of the hill. It was on this day when a friend took us to meet a soft but strong soul, Preethi Srinivasan.
Preethi had just come in on her wheelchair after feeding the needy at Yogiram Suratkumar Ashram nearby. We all sat in a circle in silence. It was raining outside but Preethi had a bright smile on. “Why isn’t anyone saying anything?” she nudged us on, before sharing her story.
It was just a regular day, almost 17 years ago, when Preethi was at a beach with a few friends. While playing in the waves, she stumbled a little and fell face first. Nothing major if one looks from the outside but in that instance, her life changed. “A kind of thunder passed through my body and I just couldn’t get up. I tried but just couldn’t get my body to move. I stayed there holding my breath till my friends pulled me out,” says Preethi recalling that traumatic moment. She was taken to a hospital in Pondicherry but was wrongly diagnosed. After a critical four hours, she was taken to a hospital in Chennai where doctors were able to diagnose her serious case of paralysis.
Preethi's life changed completely. Everything she cherished and held so dearly vanished. She was the captain of the U 19 women’s cricket team of Tamil Nadu, she was also a champion swimmer and, on top of all this, she was performing great in her studies. But suddenly, all this became non-existent. “I started losing my friends; I was not given admission to a college since the classroom was on the third floor. There are close to zero considerations for people with a disability in India,” says Preethi. It is distressing to note the state's apathy, in that till very recently, the government didn’t even consider spinal-cord injuries as a disability.
It has been a long journey since that fateful day for Preethi. She has had two more near-death experiences, where she left consciousness for minutes but something brings her back. Maybe her mother and grandmother’s will, maybe the good wishes of people or maybe the universe has some plans for her. A few years ago, looking at the situation, Preethi’s mother encouraged her to do something about it. The medical facilities for patients with spinal-cord injuries are terrible and most people lose hope after suffering from this major setback. This is how SoulFree was born.
Soulfree is a public charitable trust that has been established to help the severely-disabled live a life of dignity and purpose. Soulfree aims to expose the plight of the severely disabled in India, especially women, so that society can become sensitised to their needs and help create a more inclusive and accessible India. Awareness is one of the most important tools to prevent future spinal-cord injuries from taking place. Therefore, Soulfree aims to spread knowledge on spinal-cord injuries to every school, college possible and amongst the general public so that people will understand the gravity of the condition. On top of this, Soulfree strives to provide a support system for people with disabilities and their family via donations, education and employment opportunities.
Soulfree has a monthly stipend programme, where a sum of Rs 1,000 is provided monthly for a period of one year, as an incentive to those with spinal-cord injury and struggling to survive without an income. It also has a wheelchair and mobility aids donation programme, along with medical treatment for those in need, as well as awareness campaigns. Preethi is also a popular motivational speaker and she donates all her earnings to the working of the trust. “We have been working very hard and are proud that our trust will be donating a para-Olympic sports wheelchair to a talented athlete.” This wheelchair costs Rs 3.5 lakh on its own but a success story like this goes a long way in motivating others with disabilities.
Soulfree has also given a new lease of life to people by invigorating the entrepreneurial spark. From taking up farming in a small piece of land to starting a tailoring shop, people supported by Soulfree have done wonders for themselves and the world. “The idea is to do whatever it takes to give people financial independence, wherever they are. Purchase of laptop, seed-funding for farming, setting up of shop, purchase of sewing machine for those trained in tailoring, purchase of popcorn machines, dosa dough grinders etc.,” says Preethi in an email interaction after our meeting.
Going forward, the dream is setting up a rehabilitation centre where people with disabilities find a home. This centre is envisioned as a small island where people with disabilities find support and have access to means that make life more meaningful. Soulfree had sought land from an NGO but the government hasn’t approved it yet because of which things are on a halt. Till that happens, Soulfree marches on with whatever resources it has and invites one and all to join hands with them on this journey.