February 28. That’s Reena’s birthday and ever since she started working, she has formed a new habit on that day. A gift for her mom. It’s something she did unfailingly ever since she started her teaching profession.
At times it was a bag, sari, or a pair of reading glasses—usually gifts that are tailormade for her mom. And till the summer of 2017, her mom Philomena was alive to receive them with a gentle smile. This is the story of that unique gift a daughter built for her mother after her death. This is perhaps the best gift any daughter can give her mother. Or something that reminds her of Philomena’s presence every single day of her life. Philomena’s Paradise located at the Delhi-UP border’s SLF Vedh Vihar is one such unforgettable gift.
The minute you step into that ‘Paradise’ you are surrounded by smiling faces of elderly women. They warmly welcome you with folded hands and a beautiful smile guaranteed to make you instantly at home. There are also quite a few elderly men who reside there, the ones who consider themselves as the caretakers of these elderly women.
But that wasn't their story before. Till they entered this ‘Paradise’ they had forgotten how to smile, and their lives had drifted into grief and loneliness. Some were found from the streets of Delhi, discarded like kittens, left desolate and hungry. They had come from various places in India (from Kanyakumari to Kashmir) and found themselves left alone in the streets of Delhi. Most of them don’t even remember where they come from.
For these abandoned, unhappy souls this was literally ‘Paradise found.’ This little shelter offered them a ray of hope.
Much before the house was rechristened ‘Philomena’s Paradise,’ it was where Reena and her family lived. Born to Kollam-based Military Nurse Alphonse Isadore and Nurse Philomena, Reena was born and brought up in Delhi.
In 1994, Reena who was teaching at Delhi’s Rosary School started a program for children with the help of the school authorities. The project, which started in 2001 was called ‘Ek Ehsaas’ (or Awareness). Every child was supposed to bring one rupee with him/her and hand over the same to their class leaders. By the end of the month, the collection would be used to fund students of that school who hailed from poor backgrounds. Reena's programme, which reached various classes, became a cause for realisation to the students as well.
A house for rent
Reena’s house in Delhi consisted of 5 bedrooms and 2 large halls. Even then Reena decided to hunt for a rented house. Her friends were bewildered. That was the time when one of her friends who resided in the US was planning to rent out her place in Delhi. Reena wanted to know if she could rent that place though she couldn’t promise a huge sum. Her mission was to offer shelter to homeless people. Near Gurudwara, she found three people and offered them home. Reena fed them and gave them clothes and they, in turn, started calling her ‘Pyari aunty and Babaji.’
Though she started the shelter home, Reena hadn’t disbanded the ‘Ehsaas' project.
Her student years at St Stephens's College and twenty years as a teacher gave her life, direction, and perspective enough to turn her into a popular motivational trainer. She gave motivation training to students and teachers in India and abroad and also offered them the right direction to move forward. That’s how she was offered the post of headmistress and later Principle in Delhi’s prestigious Presidium School. Despite having her hands full taking charge of School administration, Motivational classes, Counseling camps, Reena never forgot the three desolate souls in the rented house. She would visit them daily and organize their food with the aid of hired help.
My house is also theirs
By then more and more homeless people had found their way into her rented house. At Delhi Model Town, she brought a house on loan, and also with the money she had saved during her stint as school principal as well as the salary she earned as part of the Kerala school project. Reena and her family moved to the new house and shifted the inmates of the rented house to her bungalow. She also hired a few people to take care of them.
Then came her mother’s death in July 2017. In the same year, her friends advised her to officially register the Ek Ehsaas Foundation. In February 2018 on Reena’s birthday, she announced the Paradise Philomina project as part of the Foundation. Meerut Bishop Francis Kalisth officially inaugurated it.
Different people, different stories
There is a story behind every person who found shelter at Paradise Philomena. Some had reached Gurudwara in search of food and shelter and were brought here by the Gurudwara Committee. They once came with a mother of twins who were mentally challenged. She was loitering around the streets of Delhi with them in search of food. There was a mother from Kerala, abandoned by her children and came to Delhi in search of Reena’s shelter, after hearing stories about her kindness. She somehow found her number, hailed a train, and reached Paradise Philomena. It’s been two years now. There is another man who lost his mental balance while studying at IIT. When his brother and family abandoned him, the 58-year-old came to the shelter. Even to this day, he rises early morning to “prepare for exams" and still writes letters to his dead mother and hands them over to Reena.
Leaving her job
In 2018, Reena left her job and a comfy salary of Rs 1 lakh to focus fully on Paradise Philomena.
There were no objections from her family. In fact, her husband Charles Issac, Senior News Editor at Hindustan Times, was very motivating. He said - 'Do what you love.'
During this time, Reena was also invited to be the Chief Education Officer of a newly opened English medium school in Kerala. Since she had some loans to repay, she decided to join them.
For seven months, she supervised the project making only occasional short trips to the shelter.
However, when she was invited to head the school, she declined the offer.
Reena began the shelter singlehandedly. Her husband did his part by offering a share of his salary to Reena and her shelter home. Even her father also gave some part of his pension towards the running of the home. But the Pandemic turned things upside down for her. In 2020 March when the nationwide lockdown was announced, Reena packed her bags and shifted to Paradise Philomena. She stayed there till September. Her motivational classes also met with a roadblock with schools and colleges shutting down. Unfortunate, considering that was the main source of income to run the shelter home. It further added to her woes when she had to do away with the helpers at the home. Currently, Reena and her helper Naveen look after the operations. She also got some help from her children—son Alan and daughter Ankita.
When friends offered to help, she requested them to contribute groceries for the home. Sure enough, they were so many who came forward to help as they believed in her. For a lot of people, the location was difficult to access as it was situated on the outskirts of Delhi. That’s in fact another dream of Reena—a house with a sprawling garden, swings, and fountains for her favourite people.
Not just this dream home, motivational academy, a hunger-free campaign called Samthripthi, a Literacy project called Vidya, Poshak which helps in providing clothing for the poor and a free counselling project called Marham are some of her independent projects. A kind word is all that is required to combat troubled times—that’s Reena’s magic mantra for life. If you need a kind and empathetic word, feel free to call 9818104084.
Space where her mother lives
The first thing you notice as you enter Paradise Philomena is her mother’s picture. Under that you can see one of her favourite Bible quotes inscribed—They were buried in peace. Their name will be remembered through generations. Next to it, you can see a lot of her mother’s stuff—an almirah filled with her mother’s memories, her mother’s saris, the vessels she used, Mother Mary’s figurine, and her mother's comb, soap and hand mirror. How blessed is that mother who is still revered and cherished lovingly by her daughter!
Reena is also a disciplinarian in keeping the house spick and span. The house stocks every kind of religious book, including the Sikh’s Holy book. And no one will ever get bored here. There is TV, Carroms, Chess, plenty of books in the almirah and above all infinite love to give.
There is a chart paper on the wall with birthdays of all the inmates written on it. And most of them don’t even remember their birthdays. Reena got it from their Aadhar Card. Some others were gifted their birthday dates by Reena. Coming June 5th another mother will celebrate her birthday here, with cakes, balloons, music, and plenty of food. Reena’s mother might be smiling from the heavens, watching her angelic daughter spreading love and happiness on earth.