Blessy was a chirpy young girl of 12 who brought happiness to her family and had dreams of uplifting them from financial strain. But as she was growing up, she developed a patch on her skin that caused irritation. After several dermatologists failed to provide a successful treatment, it finally came to light that she had squamous cell carcinoma cancer.
Leo Akash Raj had met Blessy two years ago, and today, though Blessy is no more, meeting her inspired him to expand the scope of his NGO, Pretty Lil Hearts, to include work on eradicating infant mortality and promoting maternal health among the underprivileged. Blessy's mother had married a close blood relative, which Leo believes may have led to health issues in the child. Further, he is of the opinion that her family's social background prevented them from getting the right kind of medical help in time.
“When we were first called for help, Blessy’s family just said she was suffering from fever. Once we realised what she was going through, we helped her as much as we could by providing financial support. But within a month, she passed away,” Leo recounts. “Her death disturbed us a lot. That was when we started our initiative – Azhagu – under Pretty Lil Hearts, wherein we spread awareness about the importance of nutritious food, healthcare for pregnant women and so on, to reduce infant deaths.”
In the one-and-a-half years since Blessy’s death, Leo and his team say that they have helped over 350 women from diverse backgrounds. The team screens women whose infants are at higher risk, such as HIV positive women, women with disabilities, women from tribal communities and those who are homeless. Leo says, “These women come in the high risk category since they do not have adequate access to nutritious food and lack of nutrition also leads to problems. So, we provide counselling support, nutritious foods, timely vaccination, finances for required scans in private labs, and transportation support since the latter is what hinders many women from coming for regular check-ups.”
Leo’s core team also has co-founder Sri Keerthana, an occupational therapist, who stressed on not overlooking nutritious and balanced diets to lower infant mortality.
The team believes that innovative initiatives will help bring women to hospitals for regular check-ups. For instance, the team has started a photo booth at Thiruporur Government Hospital and aims to extend it to other government hospitals to encourage women to come for check-ups every month.
Leo says that one of their strengths is that they concentrate on the infant instead of just the mother. “We provide financial and nutritional support for the infants till the age of two,” he says.
Along with Azhagu, the team also runs Annam, through which it feeds 65 people on a regular basis, Leo says. “We are providing home-cooked food for the underprivileged. Even as a child, I used to distribute eggs for HIV patients – that, I think, taught me the meaning of hunger at a very young age which has now motivated me to reduce starvation,” Leo says.