Coimbatore Woman Leaves High-Paying US Job to Launch Successful Social Ventures for Autistic Children and the Elderly
Vol 14 | Issue 51
Motivated by her mother, Saranya Rengaraj moved from her corporate role in the US to become a social entrepreneur in Coimbatore. Through Third Eye and her retirement homes, she has significantly influenced care for autism and the elderly.
Her mother, Vanitha Rengaraj, had quit her job as a history professor at Nallamuthu Gounder Mahalingam College, Pollachi, to set up Sharanalayam, a home for abandoned and orphaned children.
|Saranya Rengaraj started Third Eye, a centre for autism care in Coimbatore in 2013 (Photos: Special Arrangement)
Following her footsteps, Saranya left a high-paying job in the US and came back to Coimbatore, her home city, to help children with autism.
In 2013, she started Third Eye in Kinathukadavu, which is about 30 km from Coimbatore, with the aim of training children with developmental issues to enable them to join mainstream society.
"We provide ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) training and assistance for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, behavioural problems, speech difficulties, and developmental delays," explains Saranya, detailing the mission of Third Eye.
So far, the organisation has successfully helped 250 children to integrate back into normal life. This year, during the Vijayadasami festival, five kids who were trained at their centre rejoined regular schools.
Saranya is an entrepreneur with a heart for social issues, running rental homes for the elderly and building villas for them. But her main project is Third Eye, a centre for children with autism, which she is very excited about.
"Autism might seem like mental illness, where someone is very aggressive. But, autistic kids mainly lack social and communication skills, don't make eye contact, don't follow instructions, and struggle with coordinating their hands and eyes," says Saranya.
Apart from helping autistic kids and their families, Third Eye also works to make people more aware of autism.
|Saranya took several initiatives to promote awareness about autism
"We are pushing for more research into treatments and therapies to help these kids reach their goals. We also want to raise awareness about ADHD and other conditions that often come with autism," says Saranya.
Third Eye takes it one child at a time. "Our classes are made to fit each child's needs, with one-on-one support. We hold hourly classes from 9 am to 6 pm, different from regular schools where kids stay all day," she explains. Depending on the child's improvement, some may stay for the full day.
"We check on each child every day and plan what to do for each one. Every three months, we talk to the parents about the progress and challenges, and how they can help at home. Parents are taught to manage their child at home, as half of the support should come from them," she adds.
Saranya, who is now 39 years old and holds an MBA in HR, got married at 18 and was living in the US with her husband Babu Prasath. Her initial aim was to assist her mother.
After working as a recruiter in America for three years, Saranya and her husband shifted to the UK. She didn't take a job there, as she regularly went back to India to support her mother's work at Sharanalayam.
As its secretary and trustee, she observed that some inmates labeled as mentally ill seemed different. "I found out they might be suffering from autism spectrum disorder," she explains. "Noticing the lack of autism awareness, I decided to start a centre with specially trained educators. At that time, special education didn't really focus on autism.”
She founded the Third Eye centre in 2013, hoping parents would bring their autistic children. However, there was hardly any awareness, and many parents were in denial. Plus, it was difficult to find trained staff for the organisation.
"I decided to get trained first to care for autistic children and learned about ABA, a therapy that can help them with social and communication skills. But, I couldn't find such a course in India," Saranya explains.
Since India didn't offer ABA courses, she returned to the US in 2015 for certification and soon after, did her Master's in psychology.
|Saranya attended an ABA certification course in the US to equip herself for training autistic children
"Initially, doctors only knew about occupational and speech therapy for these children, and were sceptical about ABA. It was challenging to make them see the need for special training. Now, they are sending their patients to our centre," she says with a smile.
Third Eye has expanded to four branches now. The first Third Eye centre in Kinathukadavu functions like a proper school. Their trainers work with autistic children, including activities like yoga, and dance and music lessons.
This centre attracts children from far-off places like Dubai and Australia, as well as from different parts of India.
In Coimbatore city, their second branch caters to 70-80 children below five years old with training and early intervention programs.
Their third branch is at the Coimbatore government hospital, offering similar programs for free. The fourth is in Gobichettipalayam, a small city about 85 km away from Coimbatore.
“I personally trained my staff and there are 40 trainers now across centres,” says Saranya. They never label a child as autistic. Instead, they say that with some help, the child can get better at handling behaviour issues.
According to Saranya, every child is different - no two have the same symptoms or recover in the same way.
For instance, if four kids join their school today, after getting help, two might be able to go to a regular school. One might show average improvement, and the other might still be quite behind.
|Around 200 children are currently undergoing training at the four Third Eye centres
Saranya shares that the biggest challenge is making parents understand that they need to work with their kids too. "Most parents are in denial. We have to counsel them. It's tough to make them see that their child is not mentally ill and can join regular society with some help," she says.
In 2016, Saranya started public awareness campaigns in Coimbatore. She set up banners and gave out leaflets about autism at shopping malls and railway stations.
"We even lit up some city buildings in blue to represent autism and organised a walkathon with around 500 participants. These efforts got the attention of hospitals," she adds.
They currently train 180-200 kids across four centres approved by the Tamil Nadu government. The children excel academically and in activities like music and dance.
At Third Eye, the belief is that every skill taught should be practical for the child. The younger the child starts, the easier the training. The youngest at the centre is one year old, and they enroll children up to 18 years. An average child starts at 2 ½ years.
On fees, Saranya explains, "It varies, depending on the child's needs. We have high-profile and NRI clients, but also support those who can't afford much." She adds that they have plans to open new centres in Bengaluru, Chennai, and Tiruppur.
Saranya's husband runs Lavendel Consulting, an IT business in Europe. "He's my biggest supporter and helps financially when needed," she says. "We don't get to spend much time together because of my work at Third Eye, but we take vacations now and then.”
|Saranya with her husband Babu Prasath
Moreover, Saranya has established Preetham retirement homes. These homes offer 120 rooms with rents between Rs. 15,000 and 25,000, located on the Coimbatore Highway at Nanjegounden Pudur in Pollachi taluk.
"Additionally, we have Swasthya Retirement Homes, premium independent villas sold to senior citizens in Pollachi. The first phase sold for Rs. 20 lakh each, and in the current third phase, prices range from Rs. 50 lakh to 1.5 crore," she explains. They also run a restaurant in Pollachi.
Saranya's various initiatives reflect her commitment to creating solutions for different segments of society. - ©TWL