Michaela Cisney was so moved by experiences with disabled children in India that she decided to make their cause her life’s ambition. Today she runs Priyam Global, a foundation aimed at alleviating mother’s from the poverty cycle so they don’t have to abandon their children with disabilities on an orphanage step. Britt Ashley speaks with her
If there is one act which seems to capture Michaela Cisney’s dedication to her cause, it came perhaps in summer 2012.
Three years earlier she had spent six weeks volunteering at an orphanage for children with special needs in Chennai, India, and was preparing for a return visit. The then student, from Indiana, US, had decided to raise money to donate while she was there, and had emailed managers asking if there was a particular project for which they needed funds.
‘They sent back their annual budget,’ the 28-year-old says today. ‘And I realised I could pretty much cover half of it with what I was actually spending on my trip. So, I cancelled and sent them the money instead.’
She pauses for a moment, and then explains: ‘Of course, it would have been nice to see the kids but, I think if you’re truly trying to help people, you need to take a step back and figure out what’s the best action and not confuse that with what you’d personally like to do.’
It is a philosophy which imbues the social enterprise which she has since gone on to set up.
Priyam Global’s mission is to make life better for kids in India’s orphanages – by taking a step back and dealing not with youngsters themselves, but with their mums.
‘So many children with special needs are left at orphanages not because their parents don’t want them but because the family literally cannot cope with the physical, financial or personal demands of those special needs,’ explains Michaela. ‘You see so many parents in tears at having to leave their kids there – it’s heart-wrenching.
‘So, with Priyam Global, we started by saying: what can we help change to stop that happening in the first place? What can we do for families before they get to the stage where they need to consider the orphanage?’
The answer has been the creation of an annual year-long programme where selected mums are paid a living wage to attend classes in basic education, income-generating skills (such as in tailoring or jewellery-making), and health and wellbeing – all while their children attend a nearby specialist partner school.
‘The idea is that, by the time they finish the course, the mums are in a far better position to cope with the challenges they face – both of having a child with disabilities and of making an independent living in general,’ says Michaela. ‘It’s about trying to improve things at their root.’
And evidence suggests it’s working. The pilot year finished in October; and, of the seven women who attended, four have gone onto find proper employment for the first time since becoming mums.
Now, this year’s course has expanded to 18 women with plans, if all goes well, to grow across India from 2019 onwards.
For Michaela, it’s been quite some journey to get here.
Perhaps it all started with a little boy called Mani, one of the youngsters at an orphanage called Prema Vasam – where she first volunteered in 2009.
‘He had cerebral palsy and his parents had been unable to cope,’ she remembers. ‘But he was such a sweet beautiful child. He was so loving that all I kept thinking about was how devastating it must have been to leave him there; to not have a choice but to send your child away.’
Michaela was a student at the time, working towards a degree in dance at Indiana University Bloomington. But when she returned home and found a recurring injury ruled out a future career in that particular field, she again found herself thinking of Mani.
‘I came around to realising I wanted to work with childhood disability in what you’d call resource-poor settings, like India,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to do something worthwhile.’
She started over again at uni, taking a degree and Masters in public health; and then spent a year gaining experience working with an American state agency which monitored and helped vulnerable families in Indiana. Then, in 2014, she started putting together the foundations of Priyam Global.
She partnered up with Hope School, in Chennai, and spent time visiting Indian families to understand the challenges which come with a child with special needs – including cerebral palsy, severe autism and neurological conditions – and how an outside agency might be able to help. She started to put fundraising systems in place and spoke with experts in global health organisations to understand the difficulties that might lie ahead.
‘I was very aware that I was a young American woman trying to address an age-old issue in a timeless country,’ she says. ‘My priority was not to try and change things by myself, which clearly I can’t. It was to try and understand what Priyam Global could do, within existing structures, to systemically help alleviate the root problems these families were facing. The idea was not to just give hand-outs or create short-term solutions. It was to come up with a programme which would equip these women to reclaim their lives from poverty.’
‘I was very aware that I was a young American woman trying to address an age-old issue in a timeless country. My priority was not to try and change things by myself, which clearly I can’t… The idea was not to just give hand-outs or create short-term solutions. It was to come up with a programme which would equip these women to reclaim their lives from poverty.’
And, so, after drawing up the year-long educational course, hiring a programme manager and coordinator, and renting space near Hope School – where those mums who attended could send their children during the day – Priyam took in its first intake of seven women in October 2016.
Classes included basic literacy and numeracy, hygiene and nutrition, financial management and business skills. Experts from selected professions – such as tailoring, catering or jute weaving – were brought in to take classes. And dads and siblings were invited in for family counselling and well-being sessions. It all ran 10am – 2pm for three or four days a week.
‘We call it ‘gently intensive’ because it doesn’t take up the full week but we do push them,’ says Michaela.
And now, after that first group of women reported feeling healthier and happier – as well as three of them gaining full-time employment – a second course has now started with 18 new mums.
‘We’ve changed a couple of things because we’re still learning what works but the results are really encouraging,’ says Michaela. ‘Now, it’s our long-term goal that this course could not only be replicated by Priyam Global in other parts of India but by other organisations too. That’s the ultimate aim: to create something which can help alleviate women from poverty wherever it is implemented. It’s not easy but we’re sure we can make a real difference.’
To learn more visit the Priyam Global website here