Dr. Priya Virmani

The Empowering Healer

Dr. Priya from a young age was concerned about the welfare of street children. Having lost her father tragically, she worked hard to earn her PhD and was determined to do something. Today, she is the founder of a humanitarian art project that works with underprivileged children.

My 'POW'erful story began when I was all of four years old and on my way to school. An image of a street with children rummaging for food among detritus in monsoon puddles left an indelible mark and a question. I returned home to ask my parents that night, "Why can't these children sit and eat on a table and chair just like me?" Little did I know then that, that question would become a resolve, a resolve to use my life - my earnings, my intellect and above all my love to emPOWer our most vulnerable children.

As a young girl I volunteered with an orphanage in Kolkata. Then I went abroad for higher studies. While I was pursuing my doctoral studies in the U.K., I lost my father prematurely and tragically. Overnight my life changed. My greatest emotional and psychological strength, financial stability and my greatest love went so suddenly, without any notice. The noise that followed, of negotiating the consequences of his demise, was deafening.

What helped me through my PhD with flying colours was my tutor's unfailing faith in me and the memory of my father's love and words. He would say, "People can take 'things' from you but they can never take the knowledge in your head.” So, I used what was 'in my head' to work my way towards financial stability.

I graduated with a PhD and got several awards in the university such as 'The Life Honourary Award’ which is the highest honour awarded for an exceptional and outstanding contribution to self-development and contribution to university life. I worked as a university lecturer and then went on to pursue my role as a political and economic analyst.

All the while I was determined that the challenges I faced in the aftermath of my father's passing would be my strength to become a better not a bitter person. It was my conviction to resurrect beauty from the ashes of tragedy. With this conviction; with savings I was accumulating each month from my salary; a solution finding mindset and a resolve to reach out to our most imperilled children - I began working with the children of Sonagachi, Kolkata's most notorious red light district in 2008. I would hold expressive art therapy workshops and over time this began making a visible, positive difference in the children's lives. These workshops were the precursor to Paint Our World (POW), now a registered charitable trust in India, working to emPOWer underserved children who have been through trauma like sexual abuse and rape.

Using activity therapies like narrative therapy, game therapy, play therapy, expressive art therapy, zen painting and dance and movement therapy; and special events. We work with the children to enable them to externalise, release, overcome and heal from their traumas. We have reached children in Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore. I am humbled and proud to share that today each of our children is going to a good school and is living a childhood marked by fun, imagination, love and learning, and this gives them the best chance at a purposeful adulthood.

Throughout this process I have often been asked insensitive questions - why I am choosing to be a social entrepreneur when I have a PhD - why am I not working in finance, for example? Derogatory questions like "why is a pretty face like you doing this work? Why don't you go get married to a nice guy?" have been common questions. Yet now I can gradually see people coming around and more and more people are coming forward to be associated with Paint Our World's work. For example this summer, I had experts, friends and professionals running activities for the children without charging a fee. It was heart lifting to see.

As for me, I know why I am doing this work. When a seven year old tells me "Priya Didi, I did not know what love and care is. I was always scared. Now I know what it is. And I know there are people who love and care for me and it makes me smile. And I don't feel scared anymore. I will also grow up to become just like you - I will help children like me.”

I tell the children, in Rumi's words, that they are not a drop in the ocean but the ocean is a drop in them. For each of us, it is our caterpillar struggles that give us our butterfly wings. So we learn to take strength from, and pride in, our 'caterpillar struggles' that have given us opportunities for self growth so we can develop our uniquely beautiful butterfly wings. It is time we thank our 'caterpillar struggles' for making us the beautiful people we are.

Thus far, the methodology we are using at Paint Our World is bringing about a measurable and visible emPOWering change to India's most vulnerable children. POW's model is both cost-effective and scalable, and by reaching an increasing number of children together we can alter the face of next generation India by giving our most marginalised children tools to create a happy life.

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