Wellington Author's Work In India Flourishes - And Continues To Grow - 10 Years After Her Death

Published: Sun 14 Apr 2024 04:12 PM
In 1984, a Wellington novelist made a decision that has impacted the lives of thousands of children - 10 years after her death, her legacy lives on, and the ripples of her kindness continue to reach those who need help.
Jean Watson is not a name many in New Zealand may be familiar with, but in a small rural town in Nilakottai, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, she is known as the woman who started the Karunai Illam – initially a small orphanage for children who come from families who are unable to financially support their children.
As articulated in an article by Margie Thomson in the New Zealand Herald: “it's not often we get to see how an individual, through fate and empathy, can make a real difference to so many lives.”
From a conversation with a man, which led to Jean deciding to help him start an orphanage, she unknowingly sowed the seeds that would have impacts on the lives of the most vulnerable, far beyond what she could have imagined at the time.
Over the years, the Karunai Illam has grown to reach the fruition of Jean’s dream- a productive piece of land where vegetables, fruit and flowers grow- on four acres of rural land, which Jean purchased in 1989 after selling her Wellington home in Aro valley.
Now, the Illam provides a home away from home for about 50 young girls and boys. They reside at the Illam during the term time and are fully supported with their schooling, residential and extracurricular activity costs met by the Karunai Illam Trust, which was set up to support Jean’s work.
“On the tenth-year anniversary of Jean’s passing, we want to specially recognise the impact her work has, and continues to have on children, who otherwise would have had few options,” explains Sankar Ramasamy, the Trust’s Chair.
Completely run by volunteers, the Trust continues to raise funds for the Ilam through fundraising and generous donors.
In partnership with the DHAN (Development for Humane Action) Foundation, the Illam is a sustainable operation with local support and management, but funding is needed to ensure its longevity.
“The money we raise through donations and fundraising goes to the Illam for the children. We are proud of what has been achieved at the Illam over the past 40 years and recognise we have to look forward to ensure that Jean’s legacy lives on,” explains Sankar.
In recognition of Jean’s 10-year anniversary, the Illam will be running a special screening of Aunty and the Star People- a documentary about Jean’s work at the Illam on 1 May at the Penthouse Cinema at 6.15pm.
“Jean’s focus was always on the children. She didn’t want to be famous, she quietly worked at ensuring that the children had what they needed and that she found a way to raise the money. When one reflects on what she was able to accomplish, it is humbling. Jean firmly believed that people who could help, would find the Illam and we are hoping with our fundraising and anniversary activities this year that we will be able to find new donors, volunteers and sponsors who feel a connection with the Illam, and want to help.”
Throughout the year, there will be other fundraising events including a cookbook, an art show, a preloved clothing sale, and a special visit from a DHAN representative.
For more information on the Illam, stories of the impact Jean’s work had, and the events planned this year, please visit

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