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Making the Holidays Happy for Children

Papa with his children

Papa with his children

As we become immersed in the winter holiday season, my thoughts always jump across the ocean to my kids in India. It was just a year ago, November 2012, when I was there with them. It seems a lifetime ago, and so far away. I wish I could visit them many times a year; I miss them so much, and think of them constantly. It was these children who inspired me to write this book about them – their plight and their lives and their promise.

These kids first came into my life in 2005. From that first night I was there, they stole my heart with their laughter, their joy, their mischief, their love – they asked nothing from me, except to be there with them. The Sahoos, who run the orphanage and have dedicated their entire lives to these children, have become my Indian Papa and Mama. They are simply amazing. And in all these years, all my visits, they have never once asked for money from me. Not a dime. I have raised money and donated and bought things of course, but they have never asked anything of me except my love. Not once.

Arriving in India for the first time, March 2005. Pinky and Meena greeted us.

Arriving in India for the first time, March 2005. Pinky and Meena greeted us.

Over the past nearly nine years I have watched these kids grow, from toddlers into adolescents; from adolescents into young men and women. Some, like Santa and Rashikanta, have left the orphanage and gone on to college and work. My Santosh, who was taken out of the orphanage several years ago by his father, lives two hours away in Konark where he has a good life with a wonderful guardian, Pravat, and works in the market at the Sun Temple. He’s a young man now, and we keep up constantly on the internet and via skype calls. He is my son – only one who is too far away.

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With my mother and Santosh at the Konark Sun Temple, November 2012

I will never turn my back on any of them. Too many people have already.

First, for many of them, were their own parents. Although there are true orphans here, whose parents have died – far too many of them are orphaned by poverty, given up by their parents, runaways, taken from abusive homes or even worse. Some were simply abandoned at birth, or victims of child labor.

They have also been abandoned by others who have come through and helped for a while, or promised help, only to leave along the way for various reasons. A lack of agreement over where the money is to be spent, a lack of understanding between American board members and Indian orphanage directors. Some people simply fade away and lose interest, or give up because everything doesn’t go exactly how and when they want it to. These kids get abandoned over and over, in different ways.

As long as I am alive, I will never be one of them.

Me, Mama, Papa and my Mother, November 2012

Me, Mama, Papa and my Mother, November 2012

Papa Sahoo takes nothing. You should see where he lives – at the orphanage with the children, in two simple rooms. He has very little. He wants and needs very little. Everything is for the kids; they are healthy, well fed, well dressed, and happy as one big family. Papa is someone I admire. He’s not perfect – I wish the kids could go to a better school, could learn English better. But they do what they can with what they have. And I will do everything in my power to add to that, to make their lives better and increase the possibility of a good future for these kids.

I love them all from the bottom of my heart. I won’t be one of those who abandon them yet again.

btn_donateCC_LGYou can help – I’m raising money for my next visit, in 2014, to collect and take to spend on needed items such as books, clothing, school tuition, etc. We are also trying to start a longterm foundation fund that will provide a resource to help pay for better schools and college for the kids who are good students and pursue their education. Your donation will be taken and applied 100% to the Servants of India Society home where these children live, in Choudwar Odisha.

A little bit goes a long way in India. These kids deserve a future. Thank you, and happy holidays.

Honor Mothers Day by Reaching out to Children without a Mother

Ten years ago, a young American woman was in the midst of an around-the-world adventure with a friend. Taking a sabbatical from careers in television advertising that had become stressful and unrewarding, the two corporate refugees found themselves in India a few months into their trip. One of the women, Chris, had been sponsoring a child there through Christian Children’s Fund, and had added India to their itinerary during the planning stages because she wanted to meet the boy.

The second woman, Caroline, wasn’t so sure about either India or the sponsored child. Quite frankly, she was unconvinced that the child even existed. But if he did, according to the literature Chris had on the boy, he was to be found in an extremely small, rural village in the northeastern state of Orissa. It was not easy to get there, and the May heat was almost unbearable. But when Chris and Caroline arrived, they were greeted with pomp and ceremony by a hundred villagers as the first Westerners to ever come and visit their remote little community. And there, in fact, was Manus, the boy Chris had been sponsoring. He had every single letter and small present that Chris had ever sent him, saved in the tiny 6-by-6 foot hut he shared with his parents and siblings.

The local director of Christian Children’s Fund, who had assisted the American’s journey to Manus, invited the visitors to his home for dinner. On that night, Mother’s Day 2000, Chris and Caroline had no idea what was lying in wait for them. As it turned out, the overwhelming rush of emotions from that evening, including sadness, horror, grief and above all, an unbearable sense of wrongness, would end up changing forever the course of not only Caroline’s life, but the life of hundreds of children who lived across the world from her. That Mother’s Day, this single woman who had no children of her own – and admittedly knew nothing about children, much less orphans – went to bed an entirely different person than she had been when she woke up that morning.

When Caroline and Chris arrived at the CCF director’s home that night, they were shocked when over a hundred children rushed out to the car to greet their “Papa” and the two visitors. Barefoot, filthy, painfully thin and mostly bald children. Children who surrounded the women, pulling at their hands and arms from all directions, creating a sea of little bodies that the women didn’t know what to do with. Stunned, they spent the next several hours playing with the kids, holding them, eating with them and singing them lullabies – all the while a heartbreak was growing inside them.

The beds that Caroline found in 2000

These were all children that Papa had taken in over the years – children who had nowhere else to go, who had been orphaned or abandoned, dropped off there by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them, or simply found wandering the streets. Damodar Sahoo, who became their Papa by default, took them into his own pitifully inadequate home and family, and tried to take care of them the best he could, on painfully little. A little girl named Sibani, who had been found abandoned in the bushes when she was only five days old, pressed herself into Caroline’s lap, burrowing into her as if she was starved for attention, for mothering. Sibani fell asleep there, and when Caroline went to put the toddler to bed, she found the room for dozens of children no bigger than a closet, with no ventilation and no pillows or blankets. Sibani’s bed was nothing more than a wooden slat; the room looked like images Caroline had seen from concentration camps in the Holocaust.

Caroline left India with Sibani and the other children haunting her. It was so unjust, that they had to live like that, deprived of not only the basic necessities, but even of a childhood. It was unjust that anyone should have to live that way. Caroline simply could not go on with her life as if they did not exist, and from the moment that Sibani crawled on her lap, the Miracle Foundation was born – that Mother’s Day, ten years ago.

Sibani the night Caroline met her in 2000 (inset), and today

Caroline and the organization she has poured so much of herself, her life and her passion, into have come a long way since then. It now has a full cadre of sponsors, volunteers, donors and “Ambassadors” – those, like myself, who have traveled to India in volunteer groups to work, play and live with the children for a period of time. The Miracle Foundation has an effective and energetic COO, Elizabeth Davis, a dedicated Board of Directors, and an incredible staff of housemothers and Dr. Manjeet Pardesi in India. The organization now cares for more than 500 children, who live in good homes with caring surrogate mothers, and receive nutritious food, medical care and an excellent education.

But there are so many more. Currently, about 25 million children live in orphanages or some type of institutional home in India – many of them unspeakable, where they are vulnerable to abuse, child labor or trafficking. The more support that Caroline and The Miracle Foundation receive, it means that another child can be given a home, and a childhood.

There is no better way to honor Mothers Day than to help support these children, who have no mother of their own – and might not ever have had a chance, if it weren’t for Caroline Boudreaux, a childless woman who decided to become a sort of mother to hundreds. And it seems clear to me that she won’t rest until she’s done everything she can to make sure that every child has such a home and chance for the future.

Caroline Boudreaux at the TMF 10th Anniversary Party - May 1, 2010

Whether you want to honor your own mother, or an incredible mother you know – perhaps a grandmother or your wife – or, you are a mother yourself who wants to celebrate Mothers Day by giving to a child who doesn’t have a mother – please know that there are many things you can do that will make a huge difference. I can personally attest that the seemingly smallest contribution is enormous. I have been to India with Caroline numerous times, and I have seen how far this help goes. I’ve purchased underwear for 120 kids, for about $40. I’ve thrown them an ice cream party, such a treat as they rarely get, for about $10. Every single dollar is enormous.

So, for this Mothers Day and in honor of The Miracle Foundation’s 10th anniversary, I challenge and encourage you to make a difference, a HUGE difference, in the life of a child. Sponsor a child, or volunteer a couple of hours. Check out taking a volunteer trip to India with the organization. Purchase school books, a bicycle or mosquito netting for a child. Buy my book through The Miracle Foundation, where all proceeds are donated back to the nonprofit.

And a very happy Mothers Day, to each and every one of you.

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Book brings $10K donation

For today’s Good News Wednesday, I would like to share some amazing news! Caroline Boudreaux of the Miracle Foundation recently informed me that a reader of The Weight of Silence has just made a $10,000 donation!

The unnamed donor had learned of the Miracle Foundation through a 3-page feature article about the book in India Abroad Magazine, and subsequently decided to endow the foundation with a $10,000 donation. This is incredible, and I could not be happier. This bequest will fund an entire cottage at the new children’s home being built in India; it will house 10 children and their housemother for their entire childhood – and then it will house 10 more children!

Nothing brings me greater joy than knowing that my voice for these children is being heard – and nothing humbles me more than learning of the goodness of others in being so generous. Thank you!

In other news, tonight I was the guest on Om Times Magazine’s radio show, talking about the book, issues affecting the children of India, nonprofit work and spirituality. Go to the site to listen to the interview!

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Chance Encounters & Meaningful Gifts

For today’s Good News Wednesday, I would like to share a wonderful email that I recently received from Avdesh Bhardwaj, an Assistant Professor in Delhi. This email made my entire week:

It was not more than a coincidence that I met Mr. Damodar Sahoo, more fondly known as “PAPA” on a train journey from Orissa to New Delhi. The beetle paan-chewing, friendly Papa caught my attention soon after boarding the train as he was reading a book whose title made me think. Soon enough the man had tears in his eyes. I asked him if he was in some sort of discomfort or ill. The enquiry made him smile and he asked me to read a few lines of the book he was reading. The concerned page was well marked. As I read the description of a paan-chewing saint I could gauge his emotions. The Weight of Silence had actually become The Weight of Emotions. As he was having some problems reading at night time I offered him to read it for him. I came to know about your work, Miracle Foundation, Caroline, and Papa. But the Journey ended soon and I could not finish the book. That is a regret.

Papa has sent his good wishes and blessings to all and specially to you. This truly was the most rewarding journey for me. I wish you all success and happiness in life.

Papa with his children

Amazing, isn’t it? This man happened to meet my Papa, a main character in The Weight of Silence, on the long train from Orissa to Delhi – and took the trouble to contact me and write about it. I had tears in my eyes reading his email, and we struck up a correspondence. As it turns out, Avdesh was also inspired by the chance encounter with Papa – in 2001, as he was in his final year of college, Avdesh was caught in the massive earthquake in Gujarat, India that registered 8.0 on the richter scale. The entire hostel that he was living in crumbled to the ground, and Avdesh was crushed in the pile of rubble.

For the next three years he was hospitalized, receiving medical treatment and trying to learn how to walk again. The doctors said he would be lucky to ever walk again – but he did; in his words, “Today I not only walk but dance, play and travel a lot.” He was extremely lucky, for most of his friends and teachers at the site died in the earthquake.

Avdesh went on to tell me that the people who rescued him from the rubble were “economically poor construction workers who we normally don’t pay much attention to.” Avdesh said:

I promised myself never to lose hope, be positive, smile,, enjoy life and help as many people as can in my life without any inhibitions, especially the less fortunate. But somehow in stabilizing my academic and professional career, undertaking research and fulfilling family commitments, things went out of my mind somewhat.

His chance meeting on the train with Papa and coming across my book telling of these amazing children helped remind him – just as they remind me every day. Thank you, Avdesh, for bringing such a smile to my face and reaching out to me. It is, indeed, a small world and I love when the connections grow closer every day.

On another note, now that we are nearing the holidays, I would like to share some meaningful gift ideas. iPods and the latest toys are very nice, but making a real difference in someone’s life? Priceless.

Here are some great gift ideas for the person who has everything – or who really wants to give something:

  • Buy your holiday cards at Scene East. Scene East has partnered with Akanksha, a non-profit organization in India that is dedicated to education of the poorest and most vulnerable children, to bring these beautiful holiday cards to the market. Scene East’s business is designed to share photos of magical places, while raising money to benefit worthy causes such as Akanksha’s work.
  • Gift card for saving the world. Best Buy, Starbucks? Sure, they have gift cards, but it’s not often you get the chance to give a gift card with which someone can change the world! A Global Giving Card is an amazing and unforgettable gift – in denominations starting at $10, the recipient can choose who the gift is donated to from a list of vetted, approved nonprofits doing everything from rescuing victims of child trafficking, to digging clean water wells. The cards are even bio-degradable, giving you even more reason to feel good this holiday!
  • Buy a backpack, mosquito netting or bike for an orphaned child in India. Through the Miracle Foundations “Gifts that Matter” catalog, you can purchase any number of needed items for children living in the Miracle Foundation homes in India, from $25 on up. This is the organization through which I met Papa, and since I got involved with them 5 years ago they have helped hundreds of children receive food, health care, shelter, and education – and most of all, love.
  • Give a gorgeous, handmade cashmere scarf. The nonprofit organization Citta has partnered with Tonic to offer beautiful Sutra pashmina scarves, all hand-made by artisans at the Women’s Center in Orissa, India – and each scarf features Sanskrit words of wisdom from people such as David Bowie, Natalie Merchant and Queen Latifah. Proceeds from the scarves go toward building a school for girls in Jaisalmer, India.
  • Become a Secret Santa for a child in need. One of the best lessons you can teach your children is the gift of giving. Have them round up those toys that have fallen by the wayside that other little boys and girls will be able to use, or take them shopping to buy new toys to donate. Then find the closest toy drive by going to www.secretsanta.org and to find a list of sites where you can drop off those gifts.

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