Dr. Nandita De Souza: Champion of Children

by Eugen Hanley and Hilary Lapedis

Trailblazers of Goa: Passionate People Who Make a Difference

Goa’s Top Advocate For Children’s Mental Health Helps Build A Village Around Each Child

Nandita de Souza’s Infectious Zest For Life Enriches Youngsters’ Lives

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Goa Streets series, “Trailblazers of Goa: Passionate People Who Make A Difference” features awesome photos and revealing interviews with those who break convention, obliterate barriers, seize new opportunities and inspire the rest of us. We have asked each of our Trailblazers the exact same questions, including what they’d change about Goa if they could be King or Queen, who’d they’d invite to a party if they could invite any 5 people, alive or dead, and what their secrets are. This week’s Trailblazer is Dr. Nandita De Souza, Goa’s top professional in the field of children’s mental health – whose tireless efforts have enriched the lives of countless young people who might otherwise have faced extreme adversity. Trailblazers of Goa pictures have been taken by noted photographer Eugen Hanley, with words by long-time writer and world traveller Hilary Lapedis.

Dr. Nandita De Souza is no stereotypical doctor.   She doesn’t wear a white coat.  She doesn’t parade her status with medical icons and she doesn’t stomp around demanding respect. Rather, she respects others and is more than worthy of the respect she receives. She is adorably bouncy, dedicated to her child patients and their parents; exuding love and passion for her work.

As developmental paediatrician and director of ‘Sethu’ Centre For Child Development and Family Guidance, Dr. Nandita is the powerhouse effecting development in this unsung medical field. Yet she is so modest that she sees herself as just a cog in the wheel. But the truth is one would be hard pressed to find a person in Goa who has done more to promote the cause of children’s mental health in Goa. That she also happens to a delightful human being – big-hearted, open-minded, fun-loving and deeply empathetic – is an added bonus.

In the twelve years since Nandita co-founded‘Sethu’, she and her team have worked with children, parents and schools in multi-disciplinary ways including behavioural issues, language development and autism. Sethu is Sanskrit for ‘bridge’, Nandita explains. “We want to be a bridge between children and the rest of the world.” She describes Sethu’s work as “building a village around every child” and being the bridge between that child and anybody who lives with, cares for or teaches that child.

The daughter of Goan parents, Nandita was an army child.Born in Kashmir and then living all around India, she came home at 13 when her father retired. Her medical career began with working as a paediatrician in very busy Goan government hospitals until she became disillusioned with “assembly line” paediatrics. She felt there wasn’t enough time to work deeply with her patients. She could only assess their symptoms, prescribe and move onto the next one, often having to see some 60 or 70 kids in 4 hours. “I’ve always loved talking to families and finding out more about the child”, so, in 1992, she took on the challenge of finding courses that would help her to learn more about developmental paedriatics. Finding nothing to help her in Goa, she went to NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) Bangalore for two months and spent her time visiting child guidance centres wherever she found them.  Resigning from government work, Nandita was re-born. Her dedication to advancing her own learning so as to help that of her patients is phenomenal.

‘Sethu’ was born in 2005 with 6 women: Nandita, a special educator, a speech therapist, and three trustees. While waiting for my appointment with Nandita, I’m amazed at just how busy Sethu is. Actually, they’ve grown so popular that they are raising funds to move to a larger location. Their funding comes from a variety of sources: some people pay the fees themselves (although no one is ever turned away if they can’t pay), money from companies via the Corporate and Social Responsibility levy, and individual donations. So far, Sethu has helped over 6000 children and families. The organization has trained and reached out to a wide range of educators and professionals, ensuring that every person working with a child is fully included in the treatment programme and his or her input is respected.

Speaking about some success stories, Nandita tells me about one child who was utterly lost in the world at the tender age of 5. He was restless, getting into trouble in school and severely disciplined by his teachers. After his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Dyslexia diagnosis and treatment, he’s now at university doing quite well for himself, and making sure to keep in touch with Nandita.

Nandita is inspirational with a wonderful ‘can-do’ attitude to her life and that of the people she helps. In ‘Sethu’, she and her team work tirelessly to build bridges between children who have development, behavioural, learning and emotional challenges and their support network. “Never give up hope.  Every child has great potential to develop,” is her mantra. Her vitality and commitment to help each child reach their potential is truly uplifting.

Dr. Nandita de Souza, champion of children and passionate promoter of mental well-being, you make a difference!

What inspires you about Goa?

Dr. Nandita de Souza: Goa is home to me. Though I wasn’t born here, I have been bred (and buttered!) in Goa for over 40 years. I love almost everything about my life in Goa – waking up to birdsong, breathing the fresh air, walking in the early morning quiet, the sense of safety and acceptance that I feel. In the Goa that I inhabit, I am not judged by the life I lead or the car I drive.  I can live life on my own terms. I believe that we still have time for each other (though I am sure that if any of my family or friends are reading this they are going Ha! Ha!), to relate with people without any agendas – overt or covert. Despite all the inevitable changes that come with the passage of time, there are some things in Goa that have remained immutable – the peace, susegado way of life and genuineness of people.

 If you could become King or Queen of Goa, what would you change about it?

I would hate to be King or Queen of anything. BUT if I could become a democratically elected leader in Goa, I would give top priority to planning right at the panchayat level, education, the environment, agriculture, health and livelihoods. There is so much good work already happening – it needs a voice and space. For example, I would make sure that the Goenchi Mati Fund was established. I would appoint a committee of language experts and educators to develop a policy and approach for multi-lingual education in schools. I would try to ensure that all development was sustainable and people friendly. I would make universal design compulsory, so we could have barrier free environments everywhere.

If you could throw a party and invite any 5 people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?

Elizabeth Kubler Ross because I would love to converse about death, as she has done such interesting research in this area.

Oliver Sacks because his approach to understanding the brain and how it works is so unique and compassionate.

Vir Das because he makes me laugh so much that I can count it as the day’s workout (and hence eat more for dinner).

James Taylor because his music reaches down into my soul and I would insist that he bring along a guitar, so that we could sing together.

Jamie Oliver because his passion for down to earth wholesome food is so infectious – plus I would get him to cook the food for the party!

What drives you in life?

I love that life is so simple and yet so complex. Human beings fascinate me and I feel compelled to learn more from the people I meet everyday. There are so many unheard stories of love, determination and resilience and this is a big driving force in my life. Since I work with children and disabilities and behavioral challenges, I encounter so many miracles of courage on a daily basis, which are hugely inspiring.

What are your hopes and dreams for Goa?

I hope that we can create a clean and green Goa, with planned development. Compelled by my work with children at Sethu, my dream for Goa is a state-of-the-art child development centre so that every child is enabled to develop to his or her full human potential.

Please tell us a secret or some secrets about yourself.

I am a sugar junkie and am hopeless at controlling my intake of sweets. I am terrified of losing my mind and whenever I cannot remember something, I immediately worry about getting Alzheimer’s disease. I think quite a lot about the end of life and at one time wanted to start a monthly informal discussion group to talk about various aspects of death and dying – I think this would be a great way for people to come to terms with their own mortality, overcome their fear of death and prepare for the inevitable, universal leveler.

For more information about Sethu Goa, click here.

To read about our previous Trailblazers, click below.

Vandana Naik

Clinton Vaz

Ruth Walsh

Prince Jacob

Victor Rangel-Rebeiro

Yolanda de Souza

Mark Seagraves

Santiago Lusardi Girelli

Maria Isabel de Santa Rita Vas

Subhodh Kerkar

Shilpa Mehta

Colin D’Cruz

Diviya Kapur

Photographs Copyright Eugen Hanley

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