Udayan Care: Turning tragedy into triumph

How an NGO was born from the ashes of a mother’s grief

By Nina Badwal | May 21, 2024

Picture of Kiran Modi

Founder of Udayan Care, Kiran Modi. (Photo: Udayan Care)

As a big believer in higher education, Kiran Modi saw her son Udayan, off to college in the United States — far from her home in India. While studying at George Mason University in Virginia, he met with a deadly accident in September 1993. He was 21 years-old.

At the time, Modi was in the middle of running a community newspaper called the Neighbourhood Star in Delhi. Now, her son had become a news story — a tragic one. The proud mother’s world was shattered into a million pieces and irrevocably changed.

While going through Udayan’s personal effects, she discovered that he was fundraising and sending money to help underprivileged children in Africa. She had no idea. In her grief, Modi took inspiration from her son’s philanthropy and wondered why she hadn’t thought of doing it herself. From that moment on, she knew what lay ahead in her kismat.

In the beginning of her own philanthropic journey, Modi wasn’t exactly sure which charitable cause she wanted to pursue. But she managed to get other like-minded people on board to support the idea of starting a charity.

“All we knew was that we had to do something which is going to serve people; it should be transforming their lives,” Modi said. So she visited several orphanages and NGOs to educate herself and try to “understand the ecosphere — where the need is.”

In February 1994, Udayan Care was born. Although she was still heartbroken and devastated by her son’s untimely passing, Modi felt driven to create an NGO that advocates for child rights in India — a tribute to her son’s memory.

“I just thought I have to carry this flame.”

According to UNICEF, India has about 30 million orphaned children. Many of them have been abandoned or their parents have died. Some are runaways trying to flee abuse in their homes. Poverty is a huge factor in the number of orphaned children in the country — many parents cannot properly care for their kids.

Determined to change this reality, Modi’s venture started out as a small dream of housing about ten children. “In India, at that time we didn’t have foster care. We only had institutionalized care — those very big organizations with 200 children. And I thought, in such a faceless place, a child will never find his or her roots.”

So she conceptualized the small group home model, which Modi calls the LIFE model: Living In Family Environment. She wanted smaller residences where the youngsters could feel like family. In 1996, the first home was set up for orphaned and abandoned children.

Udayan Ghars (homes) are located in communities where other families live so the children can feel a sense of belonging. Each residence has a group of around 12 kids. Every child grows up in a loving, caring and nurturing family setting with Mentor Parents (long-term volunteers) guiding them. There are now 13 homes spread across India.

The NGO has 23 Information Technology centres created to empower youths in underserved communities through digital literacy, improving their livelihoods and opportunities for employment. Women’s empowerment is also a top objective at the organization which offers a post-secondary studies program called the Udayan Shalini Fellowship for disadvantaged girls who want to strive for a higher education. This initiative has expanded to 34 chapters around the country.

‘I used to marvel at their resilience’

Kiran Modi was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), and raised in a traditional Marwari family where a woman was expected to get married at a young age, bear children and take care of the household. Despite the conventional values, Modi said her parents were sensitive towards women’s empowerment and equality.

“We were always treated equally with my brothers. That was something which was ingrained in us — that you also deserve the same things the boys deserve.”

So the 18 year-old made a pact with her grandparents: she would settle down only if she was married into a family who valued education and allowed her to pursue her studies. And that’s exactly what happened. Her husband’s family wanted their daughter-in-law to be university educated. Eventually, Modi went on to graduate with a PhD in American Literature from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi. She had two children while she was studying. One of them was Udayan.

After Udayan’s passing, Modi found hope and joy from the orphaned children she rescued and looked after at the Udayan Ghars (homes). “To lose one’s parents, I think for a child this is the biggest loss. I used to marvel at their resilience: how they can smile and how they can look forward to a different life. I learned so much from children.”

Kiran Modi flanked by young female students

Kiran Modi flanked by young residents of Udayan Ghar in 2022. (Photo: Udayan Care)

Groundbreaking initiatives

Udayan Care — headquartered in Delhi — is celebrating its 30th year and in all of her tireless work, Modi has always been a big proponent of evidence-based policies. The organization’s Advocacy, Research and Training department has delivered some groundbreaking initiatives.

“Alternative care and family strengthening are two programs really near to my heart,” she said. “It is so clear to us over the last few years, children are best if they are with their families. But if their families are dysfunctional then children need alternative care or family strengthening.”

Udayan Care works directly with families in cases where children are reintegrated back into their households, offering them a whole range of support services. To keep stakeholders informed about the important research done by the NGO, in 2014 Modi founded the international bi-annual journal, Institutionalised Children: Explorations and Beyond (ICB) which covers family strengthening and alternative care.

In 2019, Udayan Care did a study supported by UNICEF called Beyond 18, Leaving Child Care Institutions – A Study of Aftercare Practices which addressed the challenges young people face after turning 18 years-old and having to leave child care institutions.

“I think this study really became a big game changer…making an impact just about everywhere,” Modi said. “Our work is becoming popular in India; almost all the states have started developing their own care leaver’s networks.”

Udayan Care also started BICON Asia – the Biennial International Conference on Alternative Care for Children in Asia. It’s an inter-agency cooperation of eight international NGOs including Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages, focused on alternative care for children. Modi said she is extremely proud and grateful to have partnered with some of the world’s top child rights based organizations.

“It’s good to get their support. Alone we couldn’t have carried it to this level.”

She explained that volunteerism is also an important aspect of Udayan Care and the organization leverages its support in a variety of ways for every program. This has resulted in significant cost savings and has generated tremendous value for the NGO.

Modi said, “Sitting in Delhi, I can’t do everything; it’s not possible to have that kind of oversight. So it’s very important to have volunteers who are committed and who are driven.”

I was one of those volunteers. I started volunteering as a content writer for Udayan Care remotely from Toronto, Canada in July 2023. I was so taken by the mission of this NGO that I decided to start the Canadian chapter in 2024. I felt the need to tell Kiran Modi’s story because not only is it inspiring, but it’s a testament to the resilience and perseverance of a mother who turned tragedy into a ray of sunshine — and a brighter future for children who may otherwise have perished.


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