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India Chooses You


Photo by Chandler Wieberg

I never expected to be in India. And without a doubt, I never thought once I had been I would return, again and again.

It wasn’t the exotic beauty that drew me back. It wasn’t the warmth of the people, their gentle and inquisitive nature, their open hospitality. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure, and I have grown to love them all. But they were not what seeped into my being and pulled me close, becoming a part of me that I missed with a strange emptiness when I left.

It was the children.

They are everywhere. They fill the railway stations, the cities, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. I had no way of knowing just how much they would change my life.

From the moment I arrived to volunteer at a Miracle Foundation orphanage, I found India to be everything I had imagined – only more so. More colors and smells, more noises and people, more everything. It was an assault on all the senses at once. There seemed no still or quiet space. Instead there were throngs of people everywhere, living and working and sleeping; hundreds of street vendors lined every available inch of sidewalk, while mangy dogs and cows nosed at piles of trash around them.

Rickshaw drivers pedaled through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. The smell of curry and incense hung thick in the air along with soft chanting from nearby temples. The dusty roads peppered with potholes were filled with a constant stream of buses, bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows and rising over it all was the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns. It was the most alive place I had ever been. India is too big to describe adequately, too big perhaps to absorb in a single lifetime. The country simply wrapped itself around me and refused to let go.

Shelley Seale with Miracle Foundation children in October 2010.

And in the children this beauty seemed to come alive, almost making me believe it was a living entity I could capture in my hands. They are what bring me back to India over and over – to volunteer at the orphanage that was home to over a hundred kids. When I arrived for the first time in 2005, I had expected it to be a sad place, an emotionally wrenching experience. But those expectations had been turned on their head. Yes, there are stories behind each of the children – many of them painful and tragic. Stories of death, abandonment, abuse, poverty. They all have a past.

Yet their hope and resilience have amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspire me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give – for nothing more than just showing up.

As I sat in the courtyard on my last night with them, I felt everything I loved about the place converge together inside me in that moment.

The smell of the chai, its cardamom and ginger and cinnamon drifting up to my nose, the sound of bare feet slapping against the ground as children ran. The soft breeze that whispered through the trees and caressed my skin while the fading sun bathed everything in an orange and pink light. The colorful painted elephants who seemed to watch over us from their places on the surrounding walls. The vibrant blue and yellow and purple sarees of the house mothers as they passed by and the bangles on their wrists that clinked melodically against each other while they worked. The occasional monkey above us in the trees, or a calf or dog that wandered into the courtyard before being shooed away by the staff. Most of all, the familiar faces around me that made me feel I had come home.

The very existence of these children had forever altered both the person I was and my view of the world. In some ways I felt more familiar to myself here, like I was now the person I had been brought to India to become. I had arrived, that first time two years before, not really knowing what to expect. I had not come to India to change anything about it; instead, the country and its people had worked a transformational change in me. They had allowed me into the real heart of the place and by doing so spared me from viewing it with the eyes of an outsider.

India simply cannot be approached with anything but fully open arms and a willing heart. And it will embrace you in return with an exhilarated spirit, splendor and enchantment, nonstop vitality, amazing people and their daily parade of life – struggles, joys and triumphs – that passes by every moment. I was lucky enough to have been given this incredible treasure by these children and the people of India.

Millions of children in India share a similar story. A life of poverty with no family and little hope. The Miracle Foundation provides these orphans with food, water, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, love, and most of all – hope.

Help Street Kids in India – Win Great Prizes

Today’s post is about a project currently underway by my friend and fellow writer, Mariellen Ward. She is currently raising funds for Deepalaya, a non-profit organization that has educated more than 44,000 underprivileged children from the slums of Delhi and surrounding rural areas. She is also trying to win a contest, through the charity fund-raising, that would allow her to travel in India.

Mariellen spends a lot of time in India, and loves it as I do. She has also done some amazing volunteer work there – read my story about her work at Art Refuge in northern India, with refugees from Tibet.

And even better – when you make a donation, you automatically go into a drawing for several fabulous prizes – including an autographed copy of my book, The Weight of Silence.

More about Mariellen’s contest is below:

I have spent more than a year traveling in India, and months living in Delhi. I love India, and I love Delhi. In fact, I think Delhi is one of the most under-rated cities of the world. It has incredible richness of culture, layers of history in the form of monuments, gentle foggy mornings and iridescent pink sunsets, a jungle of greenery, great food, a treasure trove of shopping … and children, living on the streets. You see them at traffic lights, skinny bodies, huge eyes, wearing shabby clothing, sometimes no clothing at all. They turn somersaults, cling to their mothers, sell toys, flowers and magazines. They sleep under bridges, on the railway platforms or in blue-tarp juggis.

The street kids of Delhi always tug at my heart strings, and I sometimes find myself dreaming of finding ways to help them. I dream of giving them proper food, clothing, health care and shelter, and of educating them and giving them a fighting chance to rise above their status and at least earn a living making handicrafts, driving an autorickshaw, selling chai … and who knows what else. There are stories of former street kids who, after earning an education, had successful careers, made money, and seriously challenged the stereotypes.

What would it feel like to know that you helped a child beat the odds? You can help by donating to the fundraising project for Deepalaya through The Intrepid Foundation before October 26, 2011.

It is estimated that Delhi alone has over 100,000 street children. Deepalaya started in 1979 to help these children for whom the street is their place of work and home. The sad reality for most of these children is a life of hard labour and work in environments that no child should  be exposed to, such as prostitution and drug trafficking.

Deepalaya social workers counsel these children and place them at the  Home for Boys in Deepalaya Gram in a village called Gusbethi, 60 kilometres from Delhi. Deepalaya has educated more than 44,000 underprivileged children from the slums of Delhi and rural areas in Haryana. At present the Home for Boys has 52 children staying there. The school in Gusbethi imparts formal schooling to the boys and children from the surrounding villages of Tayru. The school has more than 250 children.

Donate $10 to help street kids in Delhi

By October 26, 2011 I am hoping to raise $2,000 for the fundraising project for Deepalaya through The Intrepid Foundation. For every $10 you donate, I will enter your name into a draw. So, for example, if you donate $50, you get five ballots. I will put all ballots in a hat and draw randomly. But the more ballots you have in the hat, the more chances you have to win!

To read more about this fundraising project, please read my post Help the street kids of Delhi — and send me to India. And see below for more information about Intrepid Travel and Deepalaya.

Here’s where you can donate online. There are 17 prizes so you have a great chance of winning! Prizes include:

  • A stay at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto
  • A framed photography print
  • Two tickets to the musical Bharati
  • T-shirts, books and more – click here to see all the prizes!

If you have $10 to donate, I recommend Mariellen and this cause. Breathe, Dream, Go!

The Girl Effect

One-fourth of girls in developing countries are not in school. Of the world’s 130 million youth who don’t go to school, 70% of them are girls.

When a girl in the developing world receives 7 years or more of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. And when women earn income, they reinvest 90% of it back into their families, compared to only 30-40% for men.

So why are girls so overlooked around the world? Shockingly little has been done to understand these phenomenons, or the economic impact of educating and empowering girls. Many girls around the world are invisible before their feet even hit the ground; millions are not even recorded at birth. To the world, they simply don’t exist.

That needs to be changed.

Sumitra, before (2006) and after (2007)

I met many such girls in my travels through India over the years, and I tell many of their stories in The Weight of Silence. Stories like Sumitra’s, who came to the orphanage in the middle of the night as a starving 9-month-old whose mother had died. But today, Sumitra is receiving wonderful care and education, and her future looks hopeful. 

I have seen, first-hand, so many similar stories that showed to me, in person right before my eyes, what monumental changes can be made with just a little bit of care, effort and money. The one thing that amazed me the most, throughout my journey of writing this book, has been the realization that although the need is great, the answer doesn’t have to be complicated or impossible. I have seen incredible things accomplished from humble beginnings. Truly, all it takes is enough people caring enough to do ONE THING, to take ONE ACTION, to perform ONE SMALL PERSONAL MIRACLE.

Will you be that person?

Meet Anita, a beautiful young girl from India who had to go on a hunger strike just to convince her parents to let her go to school rather than get married.

Must so many girls have to struggle so hard, simply to have an education and a better life? This is a question that Anita asks – but I think it’s a question that girls shouldn’t have to ask. It should be the right of all girls.

Today Anita owns her own business, because of her determination and her ability, finally, to go to college. She was also an inspiration to other girls – after she went to school, all the girls in her village went. You can hear her story, in her own words, below:

Anita asks, what does my story mean to you?

I’m one girl who gets to speak to you. But there are 600 million like me who face little chance.

I’m Anita. I’m a girl. And I’m waiting to hear from you.

The girl effect is about girls.

And boys.

And moms and dads and villages and towns and countries.

Want to be part of the Girl Effect movement?

If you have a blog, you can participate this week, October 4-11, by writing a blog post for Girl Effect. Visit Tara Mohr’s website to sign up and find out how to become a Girl Effect blogger, and click here to see other bloggers and their posts.

If you join as a blogger, I’d love to hear about it! Please post a link to your blog in the comments below. Thanks, and here’s to Girl Power!

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