The family way

As head of the worldwide SOS Children’s Villages, Siddhartha Kaul checks in on two of the organizations junior care facilities in Israel.

Siddartha Kaul (center) with staff and students at Kfar Neradim. (photo credit: KATERINA ILIEVSKA)
Siddartha Kaul (center) with staff and students at Kfar Neradim.
(photo credit: KATERINA ILIEVSKA)
Siddhartha Kaul may only have a couple of offspring of his own, but there are thousands of at-risk children all over the globe who have reason to be grateful to the 60-year-old Indian.
Kaul is president of the worldwide SOS Children’s Villages, an independent, non-governmental international development organization that has been working to meet the needs and protect the interests and rights of children since 1949. SOS runs more than 500 children’s villages in 134 countries, providing over 82,000 children with a roof over their heads, food, medical care, education and – most importantly – human warmth.
That gargantuan roster includes two junior care facilities in Israel: the Neradim village in Arad, which was founded in 1981, and Megadim, established in Migdal Ha’emek in 1997. The former caters to both Jewish and Beduin children.
A couple of weeks ago, Kaul headed this way to take a closer look at the organization’s Israeli outlets. The Jerusalem Post caught up with him in Jerusalem between the two local forays. Besides the visits to the children’s villages, his itinerary included a visit to a village in Gaza and one in Bethlehem, as well as an audience with President Reuven Rivlin.
Kaul has been at the SOS helm since 2012, but his association with the global support group began long before he joined the staff in 1978, when he was asked to establish an SOS children’s village in Chennai – the first such project in South India. One might also think that genes had something to do with it: His father was instrumental in founding SOS in India in 1964, and Kaul spent his early formative years living in a children’s village.
The organization president doesn’t see anything hereditary in his choice of profession, though. “I don’t think my father planned it that way,” he says. “It wasn’t anything like a family business.”
Still, Kaul’s childhood environment did have a lasting impact on his personal growth and on how he related to those around him.
“As a child, I was the oldest boy in the village, so I was like a big brother to the others there,” he recalls.
“Even when I was a student, I had regular contact with the kids, and we went camping together, and we went walking together in the mountains, and things like that. It was natural for me to feel protective. I felt at home in a sort of large, joint family environment.”
Even so, he was not contemplating following in his dad’s footsteps and was intent on carving a career out for himself. “I studied architecture and the social sciences. I had already been working for a couple of years after university, and then I just fell into it [SOS],” he explains.
“The first village in the southern part of India was due to be set up. Then there was no village in the region, and no program [for at-risk children and youth], and they were looking for someone who knew something about the field.”
He immediately offered his services – again, not as a result of his paternal backdrop: “I was asked – not by my father – if I would go down and have a look, so I did.”
The then-24-year-old was undaunted by the size of the task ahead and went for it with gusto. However, he is clearly not disposed to patting himself on the back, and he attributes his pioneering zeal to something akin to youthful hubris.
“You know, when you are young, you kind of think you can do anything and everything. So after a couple of days, they asked me if I would like to do it, if I could do it, and I thought, of course, I know everything about it,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I thought, what’s the big deal? That’s how it all started.”
Asked if he drew on his architectural training to give himself a head start in getting the new village off the ground, he says construction didn’t come into the equation.
“That was already happening,” he explains. “It was the other part – establishing the families, finding the mothers, explaining to people what SOS was all about – that needed to be taken care of.”
Kaul, whose long-term employment with SOS includes stints in Sri Lanka and Vietnam, notes that there is no basic format for the villages, and that the organization tailors each facility to local needs.
“It varies in each part of the world,” he explains. “I would say that in parts of Asia and Africa, we still have children where we can’t find the parents. They could be orphans, but they could also be children who have been abandoned and, despite our best efforts, we can’t locate the parents.”
The focus is very much on trying to recreate the family nest. While caring for the children’s physical needs, SOS does its best to provide parentless or homeless children with a familial framework that is as close as possible to the real thing. The SOS mother is an indispensable cog in the organization’s wheel, and in the lives of orphan children in the villages. She provides constant care, love and support for five to 10 children.
“These women, locally hired and extensively trained, provide children with more than a place to live – they provide a family,” states the organization’s website.
SOS Children’s Villages works to keep families together through its Family Strengthening programs, which help parents and their communities to protect and care for their younger members. Skills training and community development work help parents to become self-sufficient and prevent child abandonment. Even so, there are many children and youth who simply have no one to care for them. They generally end up in state-run centers, which may be able to provide the youngsters with the physical essentials, but are mostly ill-equipped to attend to the children’s emotional needs.
“Each country has different laws,” says Kaul. “If the state can’t find the children’s parents, they ask us to take care of them on a temporary basis. If they [still] can’t find the parents – in about 95 percent of the cases, those efforts are quite unsuccessful – the children then stay with us on a permanent basis.”
There are geographical and cultural differences, too, when it comes to reasons for SOS moving into the picture. For instance, he says, “in developed countries, like in Europe, we are generally talking about broken families, when the children have been removed by the state because of violence at home, maybe abuse, or for any reason.”
The children in the organization’s care range from literally newborn babies to around 12 or 14 years old.
Even though Kaul is a thorough professional and has been on the SOS payroll for most of his life, he has presumably witnessed his fair share of hardship and anguish alongside more rewarding scenes. Does he suffer from some degree of emotional fatigue? “I enjoy my work, mostly emotionally,” he declares.
“A lot of people talk about children having rights, but I think that someone needs to make sure that these rights are also lived, and that they are delivered to the children. When there are no adults to help the children, then these rights are not delivered. So there have to be some adults who must step forward and make sure that these children get the things that we take for granted.”
Kaul clearly doesn’t take anything for granted.
His whistle-stop visit here also included meetings with new local SOS director Neli Geva, who takes a personal approach to her work. Geva’s CV includes a stint as deputy director-general of the state’s program for at-risk children.
“My experience has taught me to look at every child as an individual,” she says, “and that in order to rehabilitate them, the care has to be tailored to their personal needs, and we have to give them a lot of warmth and love.”
She adds that the local SOS operations are investing increasing effort in ensuring that the children in the organization’s care get the best possible schooling platform.
“We are aiming to enhance academic support and to add remedial classes for the children, innovative study programs and enrichment activities,” she says. And it doesn’t stop there. Children, of course, grow up, and their needs change with them.
“We in the organization attach great importance to strengthening our graduates, and we give them as much help as we can to enable them to start civilian life from a respectable place,” continues Geva. “We provide them with accommodation, when they have vacations during their army service, and also before and after they do the army. We help them with their rent, furniture and career guidance, and with higher education.”
She says the goal is to reach out to greater numbers of families and children in need.
“Thus far, SOS has only operated community frameworks in the towns in which the villages are located – Arad and Migdal Ha’emek,” she notes. “My vision is to access many more communities around Israel and, with our know-how and the organization’s skilled staff, to support Welfare and Social Services Ministry activities, to care for the families themselves, so that they can overcome their difficulties and keep the children at home. The aim is to drastically reduce the number of children in Israel who are defined as at-risk.”