Category Archives: interview

Travels through ‘Slumdog’ territory

When The Weight of Silence was first released, in 2009, Jeff Salamon was a book reviewer for the Austin American-Statesman. He ran an article on my book, and Red Room picked it up. Here is what he had to say:

A number of memorable people populate Shelley Seale’s “The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India”: The volunteers who selflessly run the orphanages that house millions of children, the teachers and housemothers who work there, the Westerners, like Seale herself, who have chosen to give money and time to people who live halfway across the world. But mostly one is struck by the children themselves, some of them true orphans, some of them “economic orphans,” abandoned by parents who could no longer support them. Sibani, Rashikanta, Sumitra — these are children who would seem to have little to live for, but who often face their trials with indomitable personalities.

Though much of what Seale writes about is painful to read, much of it is filled with hope. Yes, most of India’s orphans live in grueling circumstances. But Seale emphasizes that “The Weight of Silence” isn’t a depressing book. Though the needs are great, the children Seale meets are bright and resilient, and would clearly thrive with a modest amount of support.

Read the rest of the story and review at the Austin American-Statesman!

Inspiring Youth: The ASSET Foundation

Last May 2010, I was a keynote speaker at the Tamil Nadu Foundation’s annual conference in Philadelphia. This year, a teenager named Nita Umashankar received an award for the Young Social Entrepreneur, for her work in starting her own nonprofit, ASSET India Foundation.

Today I would like to feature a guest post by Nita’s father, Ray Umashankar, who also works to fight for children who are victims of sex trafficking in India. Here, Ray tells the inspiring story of his remarkable daughter:

Nita with her parents, Sue and Ray Umashankar

As a family we always contributed to various charities, and we wanted to do more than just write checks. I volunteered at a local shelter for abused children. My wife served on the school board. When our daughter, Nita, had her solo dance recital in Indian classical dance, she asked that instead of gifts, donations be given to the Brewster Center, a Tucson shelter for abused women and children. Her request produced a total of $7,800 for the center.

Nita, who was born and brought up in Tucson, was selected for admission to several Ph.D. programs in marketing strategy, and she chose the University of Texas at Austin.

However, in 2005, before joining the program, she said she wanted to spend a year in India working with nongovernmental organizations serving abused women and children. She also laid down two conditions:

She wanted to stay by herself and not with relatives, in order to experience the real India.

She wanted only to volunteer and did not wish to be gainfully employed.

My wife and I agreed to support her for the year.

Nita Umashankar and her family established an organization to aid victims of sex trafficking in India.

In 2006, When Nita returned home she dropped a bombshell. She said that of all the marginalized children she had seen and met in India, the children of sex workers were the most ostracized and abused. Nita said this is the group she wants to work with, and that she will go to India every six months to do so.

My wife and I were shocked. We were totally unprepared for something this radical from Nita. My wife and I wanted to support her completely, but we were worried at the same time. I told Nita that this could be a dangerous undertaking, with pimps and brokers who would not like our interference. I said we had to find qualified, fiscally responsible nongovernmental organizations that were already working with these children and find out what programs were in place.

I gave this assignment to Nita so that I could determine how committed she was to the project. I also said we needed to find out what programs failed so that we didn’t repeat the same mistakes.

Within a month, Nita had all the answers to my questions. Nonprofit groups mostly focused on teaching these children nontechnical skills, such as bag making, sewing, and vegetable vending. Those that did provide computer literacy did not provide “soft skills,” with the result that computer-literate children did not know how to look for a job.

Nita and I decided that we would provide training in information technology skills that were in demand in the job market. In addition, we would teach conversational English and also help in the placement of our graduates in internships and jobs after they complete the training.

My first plan was to raise funds for paying the students’ fees, so that they could attend established computer institutes, instead of having to start our own. But when I contacted the owners of the institutes in India and told them who our students were, they flatly refused them admission because of the fear of contracting AIDS. The owners also said that other parents would pull their children out of the institutes if they found out that children of sex workers were in the same class.

So, Nita and I started the ASSET India Foundation.

ASSET, which stands for Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology, provides computer literacy for education toward alternate livelihood. The program is designed to help the children attain a level of education and familiarity with technology that will enable them to free themselves from being chained to the same profession as their mothers.

The foundation administers education programs, using functional-literacy software in regional languages, and microfinance efforts, to help people establish, own, and operate their technology-based small businesses, such as computer kiosks. We presently have seven centers in the major cities of India, including  Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad (4), and Mumbai, and Delhi.

The sex workers are desperate for educational opportunities and a chance for a better life for their children. They do not want their children to know about the flesh trade and also wish to minimize the risk of their contracting HIV/AIDS.

I have thanked my daughter Nita so many times for coming up with the project idea. My passion for ASSET has become all-consuming. Before ASSET, my passion was adventure travel and mountain climbing. I have lost interest in these. I spend at least 30 hours a week on ASSET, in addition to my regular job. I get restless at social events and make notes on 3-by-5 cards in the restroom.

Since I will be 69 in June, I want every day to count for something meaningful. Through my daughter, Nita, ASSET has made me realize that the only purpose of my existence on this planet is to help those in need.

Fund raising is one of the most challenging and fun activities that I have undertaken. I look at it like a chess game and constantly figure out new ways to reach potential donors and build relationships. I scour business journals, magazines, and The Wall Street Journal for stories on successful businesswomen and -men, find out about their philanthropic interests, and hunt for their contact information.

Once I get the contact information, I congratulate them on their business successes and tell them about ASSET and share our success stories briefly. With a couple of them, my approach was rather direct, since I was desperately in need of funds to open the first center and was ready to take out a home-equity loan on my house.

It feels great when a fund-raising pitch goes well, breaking through another major barrier. I offer to meet busy CEOs at airport lounges during their business trips so I don’t take time away from their workday.

One foundation president kept putting me off for months. One day I called her up and said I was going to be in a nearby town for a wedding and would like to meet her on Saturday morning. She said she and her husband had a million errands, children’s soccer, piano lessons, and so on. I said I will have a car and will drive her and her children to their game and piano lessons. She relented and gave me an appointment. I left the meeting with a $10,000 check.

I also competed in a couple of fund-raising challenges because I was told I stood no chance to win. I won them anyway.

I tell people I suffer from an unusual learning disability. I cannot understand the meaning of “no” in any language.

I have a history of being bold in this way, long before my involvement with ASSET. I have a total hip replacement from a bicycle accident in 1993. After the surgery, the surgeon told my wife that because of the seriousness of the injury, the most I could expect was to walk with a cane.

That motivated me to train. My wife and I hiked the Grand Canyon 14 months after the surgery.

If you are going to start a charity, the No. 1 requirement is a dream. Next is a passionate commitment to that dream no matter what anyone says. People will say yours is a crazy idea, and it will never work. Just laugh it off and keep going. Be bold in sharing your dream and asking for support.

Enjoy the challenge of accomplishing your dream. I say it’s better to have an impossible dream than no dream at all.

Return to India, and new Book Review!

Shelley with the kids in India, March 2009

Tomorrow morning I board a plane headed for South Asia (first stop: Thailand), and I couldn’t be more excited. My boyfriend, Keith, and I are going to spend more than two months in Asia, including of course India, as well as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. We will arrive in Calcutta, India on October 21, and from there take the train down to Orissa to spend four days with my darling, beautiful children of the Sishu Sadan orphanage outside Cuttack. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve seen them, and my soul is already rushing out for Daina, Pinky, Salu, Babina, Rashikanta, Rohit and the other kids who stole my heart over five years ago, and started the entire journey of this book.

Sooch Village, The Miracle Foundation

After that, we will meet up with the Miracle Foundation volunteer group at Sooch Village, to spend a few days with the kids who are living in that wonderful children’s village full of individual cottage homes, a school, and a great lunch-and-learn program for the children in the surrounding village. I will stay on with Caroline Boudreaux for several days after that, at Sooch and at Rourkela, where many familiar faces will greet me such as Amir and Sumitra.

I will certainly be posting from India, and updating you on the children as well as sharing photographs taken during the visit. So please come back to see how they are doing and how much they’ve grown!

Before I go, I also wanted to let you know about some recent exciting happenings with The Weight of Silence. On September 23 I was featured as a return guest on Conversations Live radio show. I appeared on the show last summer, after the book’s release, and host Cyrus Webb invited me to return to discuss the issues of invisible children, and what’s been going on with the book over the last year. It was a great interview, and you can listen here if you’d like! (15 minutes).

A great new review of The Weight of Silence was also published on Luxury Reading. In part the review reads:

Author, Shelley Seale, takes us on an emotional journey, showing us the lives of children living in poverty, toiling as child laborers, and those struck with diseases such as AIDS. In the modern world, children are subconsciously taught to take for granted many basic things. Children in the slums of India truly see some of these basic things as privileges and luxuries. This book is likely to evoke feelings of heartbreak and tears of sadness, but is ultimately one of hope.”

Thank you!

So bon voyage, and the next time you hear from me will be from India.

Namaste,

Shelley

Shelley on Conversations Live Radio Show

I have been invited to return as a guest this week, on Conversations Live Radio Show. I will be the guest on Thursday, September 23 at noon CST – you can listen online at the link above.

I first appeared on the broadcast last August, shortly after the release of the book, interviewed by host Cyrus Webb. I also had an interview appear on Cyrus’ book club.

Conversations LIVE! is an interactive way for those in entertainment and the arts to come together to discuss whatever unites them in life. Conversations also addresses current events and conducts discussions based on them.

I hope you’ll stop in to listen as Cyrus and I talk about what’s been happening with the book, and my upcoming trip next month to visit the Invisible Children of India again!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,092 other followers