I am so lucky. In no way more or less deserving than anyone else, I won the lottery of birth by being born into a family who loved and wanted me — and even more, who had the ability to take care of me. While we never really had a lot of money growing up, and often had to scrimp and save, I never lacked for anything I truly needed.
I never went hungry. I never suffered, or had to worry about dying, from something like a cut or the water I was drinking or malaria. I never had to watch my own parents suffer through these things, or worse. I didn’t have to worry about being forced into child labor, being denied an education, or being forced into marriage at 8 or 9 years old.
My parents didn’t have to make the decision to feed their children or eat themselves; didn’t have to make the agonizing decision to send their kids to an orphanage or as household servants, just so they could eat. They weren’t subject to people preying on them to trick them into putting their children into indentured servitude, or selling them on the streets.
These things might sound harsh, and like something very few people have to worry about. But in fact, I have seen all of these things happen, sometimes many times over; and millions of people have to watch this happen to their children, have to make these kinds of agonizing decisions that can mean life and death.
Today, on Mother’s Day, I especially think about how lucky I am to have had not only a mother, but father and grandparents as well, who gave me everything I needed. More than that, they gave me love and encouragement. They gave me a childhood — something far too many children in the world are denied.
Then I think about all the weeks and months I’ve spent with “my kids” in India — kids who no longer have a mother. No one to tuck them into bed at night, to kiss their knee when they have a boo-boo. They are fortunate enough to live in an ashram with my Indian Papa and Mama, and a group of housemothers and other staff who care very much about them, who have dedicated their lives to making sure they don’t starve on the streets.
But still, they don’t have a mother.
Since the day I met these kids, 8 years ago on a day that truly changed my life forever, I have formed bonds with them that have created a second family. Family isn’t necessarily blood, or what you’re born into — and both them and I have been lucky that we have been able to make our own little surrogate family. I will never leave them; at this point it would be like leaving my own birth family.
And so today, I think about what we all could do for kids like this, to help them know that others care. To help them feel the love of a mother, of a family, even if it isn’t their blood.
Last year, I was honored to be able to finally take my own mother to India, to meet the kids who had become her sort-of-grandkids, sight unseen. The moment we walked into the orphanage and they surrounded her; the moment she met Daina and Santosh for the first time; the moment that my Indian Mama and my American Mama embraced….these were treasured moments, and remain priceless memories.
We are not without our own struggles here, in the “lucky” world. My mother, who has given me so much over the years that these kids have never had, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Four days ago, she went into the hospital to undergo a double mastectomy, which has hopefully removed all the cancer in her body. We will know for sure in a few days when the pathology report comes back, and on this Mother’s Day she is back at home recuperating. Happily, our entire family is together and surrounding her. I still could not be luckier.
Neither my mom nor I will ever forget or abandon these kids. We are determined, along with many others including my dear friend Jody who had been there numerous times with me, to do what we can to raise money to help them with their schooling and books, their needs at the orphanage for basics like clothes and sheets and lights, for medical care and assistance with their onward adult futures. Even if it’s not exactly how we experience it in America, even if it doesn’t go exactly our way or on our timing, even if it’s not exactly the perfect world that we would want it to be — we will not give up on them.
Would you like to help? It might be the perfect way to honor your mother, who perhaps gave you some of these invaluable treasures as well. The things these kids have never had.
Thank you, and Happy Mother’s Day!
You might think that going to India time and again, immersing myself in this orphanage and the plight of these children who have no one else, over years and years — the poverty and never, never ending need — would be an exercise in sadness. Depressing. Demoralizing, traumatic even.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. What has been the most surprising thing, and meant the most to me, kept me coming back all these years, is how readily this family accepted me into their home. This family of 120-plus children, all taken in by one man and his kin, a hodgepodge of castaways who came together to create a home — they, who had so little, welcomed me. Joyously. And they never once have asked for anything from, other than simply my self. My being. My presence.
My Papa has never once asked me for money. The children never care what I bring them, and when I do produce stickers or toys or coloring books they are, of course, happy and enthralled as children would be anywhere. But they are, by far, mostly interested in ME. In the fact that I am there, with them. That this is where and how I choose to spend my time, who I have chosen as my family, halfway across the world.
Believe me, this means more than you can know to me, as well. Their acceptance, their unconditional love and joy with me.
They have let me into a world that is a hidden world — not because it is secret, but simply because very few people really choose to look. But once there, if you had that sort of curiosity, if you opened yourself to the experience and the love, if you decided to have an involved interest in the welfare of children for whom childhood has been discarded — well then, you are in a new world. One in which your own petty troubles are so easily checked at the door. One in which you quickly come to realize how little, how pitifully, inconsequentially little, it takes to turn the world around for one child here.
$20 a month is all it takes to send one of these kids at the Servants of India Society orphanage in Choudwar, India to a good English school. Education is the key. They have already come a long way with having the basics of food, shelter and basic medical care provided. What they need now is education — which equals future hope and opportunities.
My very first night ever with these children, back in 2005, I wrote the following:
There seemed no other world outside this place. Papa spoke as my eyes traveled over the faces all around me. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. As much of a loving community as the ashram seemed, it was not the family that most of the children had once known, now distant and ghostly memories for the most part.
Home is a fragile concept — far more delicate than those of us who have always had one can imagine. When a person no longer has a home, when his family is taken from him and he is deprived of everything that was familiar, then after a while wherever he is becomes home. Slowly, the pieces of memory fade, until this strange new place is not strange anymore; it becomes harder to recall the past life, a long ago family, until one day he realizes he is home.
Will you help me in giving these children, so brave to find a way in their new home, the possibility of a bright future through education? I am asking people to pledge $20.13 per month in a recurring donation beginning this year, 2013. Think about it — for less than the price of two movie tickets, or about five lattes at Starbucks, you can create a bright and hopeful future in one of these children’s lives.
At my home, in fact right above my head as I write this, hangs a beautiful woven tapestry that I bought in India some years ago, made up of scraps of dozens of sarees. Each small individual piece of material, before it was sewn into the final product, is fragile and insignificant. It is not anything except a torn scrap of cloth, beautiful but delicate, easily ripped or lost.
Yet, when it is stitched together strongly to the next tiny piece, and then the next, suddenly the pattern of the whole begins to take form. The finished patchwork, all these scraps of what was once discarded, together are strong. Together they make something. They have a purpose — to cover a bed, to keep a child warm or, as in my house, to simply be beautiful.
And so it is with these children of India — the orphans, the street kids, the world’s forgotten throwaways. They may be fragile and easily lost on their own, but held together with the thread of those of us who care, they can be whole again — strong and vibrant, and above all, simply beautiful.
Help me create a strong tapestry to hold these children together. Have you ever despaired at the state of the world and thought it was impossible to do a little bit, that would really make a difference? Now is your chance. You’ll be amazed at what a difference your $20.13 per month can make.
Can’t commit monthly? Make a one-time donation here.
I thank you. I will keep you updated on their progress. And more importantly, these kids and their future families thank you. Now is the time to stop the cycle of poverty.
Last month, I returned from my 7th trip to India, visiting the awesome kids who stole my heart eight years ago. On this trip, I took my mother who has grown to know these children through me, and understand that this place is my heart’s home, my second family. It was an incredible experience having my American mother meet my Indian family for the first time, in person.
I would like to share a photo essay of this wonderful time together. Peace, love and namaste.
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:
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.
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.