THIS CHARITABLE SOCIETY IN DEHRADUN HAS TIES TO THE ARMED FORCES THAT DATE BACK TO ITS INCEPTION.
The life of Leonard Cheshire follows a near-hagiographic trajectory. Born into a wealthy family, the son of barrister and influential writer Geoffrey Chevalier Cheshire, he was educated at Oxford, and as a young man acquired a reputation for daredevilry as well as an utter disregard for authority. He went on, like most young men and women of his generation, to fight for England in the Second World War, eventually leading the celebrated Dambuster squadron and becoming one of the RAF’s youngest commanding officers. In 1944, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. In 1945, he was one of two British observers at the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. And after the war, when all were grappling both with its aftermath and the horrors they had helped to inflict, Cheshire was seized with a desire to give back.
Catalysed by the predicament of a terminally-ill ex-serviceman with no place to go, Cheshire said, “I was just concerned with him as an individual, but it grew from there … I became involved and it was a long time before I realized that a home was needed, and then another one.” This is how the very first Cheshire home came into being.
In the beginning these homes were hospices, plain and simple, but that focus, on palliative for the terminally ill, soon shifted to physical and mental disabilities as well, and following on from there, extended its reach overseas. In 1951 the first Cheshire home was set up in Bombay. By the time of Cheshire’s death in 1992, that network extended across 50 countries, from Australia to India.
Sometime in the mid 1950’s Cheshire met his wife, Sue Ryder. They were married here, in India, and spent their honeymoon setting up a home for destitute lepers in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, which, in 1959, became the Raphael Centre. “Somehow I felt this was the beginning of a new life for me”, Cheshire had said (in a clip that’s available to view on the Raphael Ryder Cheshire website), “one I’d never suspected.” And this baton, of ex-military personnel dedicating their post-retirement lives to social service, has been passed on to the current caretakers of Cheshire’s projects. Today the Raphael Centre is helmed by its Chairman, Air Marshal Brijesh Dhar Jayal, an ex-test pilot in the Indian Air Force. His predecessor, Major General Bakshi, looked after the Raphael Centre for nearly 35 years following his own retirement from active service, when he was recruited into the role by Cheshire himself.
Is it a forgone conclusion, we wondered, this transition from one service to another, from serving your nation in the military into work that has a social impact, i.e. social service? “I cannot speak to that link”, Air Marshal Jayal said to us, “but it is my belief that the military is not a profession. It is a calling.” He continued, “Which other profession can you think of where your contract is ultimate liability? I cannot think of any other where I would consider it part of my job to sacrifice myself.”
All organisations depend on two things to fulfil their missions: money, of course, and leadership. Candidates qualified to lead are much, much scarcer than big money donors, and just as vital. Raphael’s governing council stars at least four ex-officers, and they receive additional support from the Chief Medical Officer and the Commandant at the Dehradun military hospital (both still in service). Most of the governing council also hold mentorship roles, extending an influence best articulated by Jayal himself: “It is this idea, this mindset of unlimited liability, of giving of oneself entirely, that the military has in common with the social sector.”
At Raphael, a rehabilitative centre helps those dealing with leprosy and its debilitating aftereffects; there’s medical care for those suffering from the disease, and those who have been cured continue to receive care, enabling them to live with their families, while their children, often shunned by society, attend local schools and receive vocational training.
The campus also includes a 26-bed hospital, the first in Uttarakhand to treat drug resistant tuberculosis patients (free of cost), and elsewhere, individuals with mental illnesses, ranging from autism to cerebral palsy, receive support and care. All those supported by Raphael are encouraged to participate in production activities; at the weaving unit, the most able of the leprosy-cured make tablemats, runners, and shawls of silk, cotton, and wool, while at the crafts unit, the intellectually disabled work under the guidance of special educators, making candles and paper products.
The Raphael Centre is widely supported by volunteers from all over the world. If you’d like to support the organization, with your time or with your donations, visit www.raphael-ryder-cheshire.org