My name is Tricia Tyler and in November 2019 I returned home after a 2-week visit to South India. I am still trying to process all we saw and did during what was probably the most amazing trip I have ever been on!

A group of ten of us from Rushmere Church, Ipswich, went to visit 'Reaching the Unreached' (RTU), a charity in Tamil Nadu which our church has supported for many years. The charity was founded by Brother James Kimpton (a member of a Roman Catholic lay teaching order) in 1974 to care for the very poorest and marginalised people around Kallipatti in Tamil Nadu State. A group from St Andrews Church, Rushmere standing in front of their minibus at RTU

We flew in to Kochi in Kerala state and had a day to acclimatise before setting out on the long journey in a minibus up and over the Western Ghats to Tamil Nadu.

The Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

We had an overnight stop en route as it would have been too arduous in one day. Some of the roads were awful so progress was often slow - deep potholes, diversions where there had been landslides, lots of terrifying hairpin bends and then overheated brakes in the van! We began to think we would never make it but we did, arriving after dark to the guest accommodation which was very basic but clean and adequate. The food was better than we had expected, curried something at every meal but lots of fruit, eggs and even toast at breakfast! The expected weight loss did not occur! We ate vegetarian for the whole trip.

It is hard to find words to describe what we saw and the emotional impact it had on us. We had four full days seeing all the projects and work that RTU does. Tamil Nadu is a very poor state and does not have tourists like Kerala so we were a constant source of interest wherever we went and we received wonderful welcomes everywhere.

The main focus of RTU's work is in the care of children - mainly orphaned or abandoned but also those whose families cannot afford to care for them. From the age of 6 to 13 (12 for boys) they live in family groups, up to 8 children with a foster mother, in four children's villages. At 12 or 13 they move into single sex hostels with a warden and learn to be more independent. They have to do their own laundry and care for what possessions they have themselves. They all attend RTU primary schools then move on to RTU's secondary school. All of them then progress to further education of some sort, still funded and supported by RTU. They return 'home' for holidays.

Hostel boys taking part in an exercise class.

Brother James' philosophy was that if a need is seen it must be addressed and the funding will follow. The work has spread out into the local villages in many ways. Every Friday about 140 'pensioners' either come to RTU HQ or are visited in their villages to receive their 'pensions'. These are people with no other means of support - they get either 100 or 150 Rupees (approx £1 - £1.50) each week and can also have a hot meal each day. We went to see the pension distribution which was a very humbling experience and the elderly people welcomed us and enjoyed having their photos taken with us.

At the main campus as well as the administrative offices there are a lot of activities. The kitchens produce 2000 meals a day, providing hot meals for all the schoolchildren (many come from local villages) as well as the elderly. Everything is cooked by steam produced by burning wood and coconut husks. There is a clinic with three nurses and a doctor who visits weekly. This provides medical care for all the children at RTU and people from the surrounding area. There is also very busy physiotherapy department, a building yard which makes blocks, doors and windows for the house building programme, a sewing room where six-month 'tailoring' groups learn to sew so that they can support themselves and a textile area with huge looms where they make fabrics of all types.

A visit to one of the mobile trailoring training classes.

As well as the primary and secondary schools, they have a day care centre for the under 3's and then nursery school for the 3 and 4 year olds. There are three mobile science vans filled with equipment and these, with teachers from RTU, go to 90 government schools in the area and do science lessons with the children. This is a hugely appreciated service and we saw the results of their work at the science exhibition at the school when over twenty schools brought their science projects to show and we were asked to present the prizes and medals!

Another large part of their work is building houses in surrounding villages for the very poorest people. Widows and people with any type of handicap are prioritised. At Rushmere we have raised money for ten houses so far and we were able to visit them all and meet the people who lived there, another very humbling experience.

A visit to the 3rd house we helped to build.

RTU has also initiated over 100 Women's self-help groups. We were able to visit a couple and were given an amazing welcome. They are so proud of what they are achieving and how they are able to support their children and improve their health.

One of the highlights of the trip was spending an evening with one of the foster families in the children's village. The family I went to were delightful. We had a meal - all sitting on the floor, no table or chairs. I was lucky in that the foster mother spoke a little English and the three older girls could speak and understand quite well. We all took gifts for the families, notebooks and pens and small items that they were over the moon about! I had some balloons too which were very popular. We had been told that about half to three quarters of an hour would probably be enough but the family and I were having such a good time that I forgot the time and only left when it was the children's bedtime! 

An evening with one of the foster families in the Children's Villages.

A group of UK visitors with the staff at Jeevan Jyothi Hospice

When we left to return to Kochi and home we made a very special visit en route to a hospice that cares for patients with HIV and AIDS. It is run by an order of nuns, The Presentation Sisters. It was begun in 2003 and has four nuns living there. The one in charge, Sister Anastasia, is an amazing person. We discovered that we had both qualified as nurses in the same year (1964!).

They have 42 beds which seemed fully occupied and also run an Outpatients department and visit people in local villages, supporting patients with their antiretroviral drug regimes (the drugs are supplied by the government ) and supplying nutritional supplements. All this work is done on a budget of £3000 per month! They do have a separate charity raising money for them but RTU also provide support. Quite a proportion of the RTU children are HIV+, whose parents have died of AIDS. We met three of the RTU young people who are studying near to the hospice and who live there and have their treatment monitored, because they are not allowed to live in the college accommodation halls. Thankfully the incidence of AIDS is decreasing, so the hospice is beginning to care for patients with TB and cancer as well.

When we returned to Kerala we spent one night on a river boat on the Kerala backwaters which is a very lovely area.

Staying overnight on a houseboat on the Kerala Backwaters

We cruised until dark, moored up overnight then headed back to where we had started from in the morning. It was good to have a little time to relax after the very busy programme we had.

This Christmas all the adult family members are foregoing presents between ourselves and we hope to be able to fund a 'Tyler StAR' house to help a family who has so little when we are blessed with so many material things in life. I don't think any of us who went on the trip will ever be quite the same again!

PS. StAR stands for St Andrews Rushmere!