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Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.
From nowhere it seems, two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about seven or eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging. I am acutely aware of the mountain of belongings surrounding the five of us, the suitcases containing toys and treats for other children, the plastic bags of food and drinks for the overnight train journey at my feet.
There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right out on the pavement or the train stations – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.
When brought face to face with them, it becomes almost impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul and no matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation. Reinforcing the tactic of children begging as a successful strategy merely continues the cycle. Activists and NGO workers will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like this, or in fact anyone in desperate need, then supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.
I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to NGOs that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.
A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. But I can’t help it. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.
After we board the train and find our seats, I stow my backpack under a side bench and sit down. Within moments, there is a knock on the window. I look out and the two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station. As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. They stay with me long after I’m gone and I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.
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The idea of volunteering in another country has long been considered the province of students and recent graduates; images of intrepid twenty-year-old Peace Corps workers in a remote Sierra Leone village might spring to mind. Today, however, the idea has reached far beyond that to become accessible, and highly popular, among travelers of all types and ages. Volunteer travel has grown so popular that a term has even been coined for it: Voluntourism.
Foreign destinations are luring American citizens who want to sightsee, while at the same time engage in community service. Companies and websites specializing in voluntourism have sprung up by the hundreds, and volunteer vacations can be found in all parts of the world, doing all kinds of activities – from digging wells for clean water in South America, protecting the elephant population in South Africa, or working with children living in orphanages.
It was this last type of volunteer vacation that hooked me. In 2004, I became involved with a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas called The Miracle Foundation, which manages orphanages in India and recruits sponsors and donors to support the children living there. I began volunteering for the foundation and sponsored a child, a ten year old boy named Santosh, living in the state of Orissa in northeastern India. Caroline Boudreaux, founder of the organization, soon invited me to accompany her and a group of other volunteers to Orissa. And so it was that in March 2005, I found myself in India for the first time – a ten-day volunteer trip that I was to make, it turned out, many more times over the years since.
The village is remote, and it took forty-eight hours of exhausting travel to arrive at the ashram where the children live. By the time we arrived, all ten volunteers in the group were suffering from sleep deprivation and culture shock; the overwhelming throngs of people, the smells and sounds that awakened all the senses at once. The streets filled with bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows with the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns that rose above it all. Mostly, the frantic poverty that does not let you rest.
Caroline had briefed us well on both India and expectations for our week at the orphanage, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when we turned through those gates. Dozens of children were lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting “welcome” over and over. I climbed out and they swarmed all over me, reaching for my hands and touching my feet in blessing. I was overwhelmed, lost in the sea of small bodies; smiling, barefoot children who asked nothing from me more than simply being there.
As I would soon come to find, in India these “invisible” children are everywhere – they fill the streets, the railway stations, the villages. Others have been trafficked or taken into indentured labor to pay off an old family debt. They are orphaned by AIDS and malaria, simple infections or sometimes, nothing more than poverty – their parents cannot afford to feed them. Many are homeless, overflowing orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. Amidst the growing prosperity of India there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up, often forced into child labor and prostitution – more than twenty-five million in all.
But there in Choudwar, a small town about a hundred miles south of Calcutta, one man named Damodar Sahoo had dedicated his life to providing a home and family for some of these children. Before The Miracle Foundation, he had constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for those he had taken in – children who had nowhere else to turn.
Mr. Sahoo, known to everyone simply as “Papa,” greeted the volunteers heartily, chewing the betel nut that turned his teeth red. He gave us a tour of the compound while the children trailed us, rushing past each other to claim a volunteer’s hand. They were everywhere, always underfoot, craving our attention. As I walked along four or five clung to each arm; when I sat down they filled my lap, their slight frames making barely an imprint against my skin.
I spent the following days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. It felt a lot like summer camp. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the children wanted to do over and over once it was taught to them. I began to discover who they were – their individual personalities and dreams. I watched the shy ones come out of their shells and self-confidence blossom.
As it did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away, reminding me of my daughter when she was young and seemingly deaf to the word “no.”
We began to make friends, and I discovered that they were just as curious about us and our lives as we were about them. The kids spoke varying levels of English, largely dependent on how many years they had been living in the ashram and attending school. Some had a large vocabulary and conversational skills; others spoke little more than a few words of English. I found it was surprisingly easy, however, to communicate without sharing even a word of common language.
In many ways they were just like other children I’ve known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging. In the midst of the games, laughter and silliness that we engaged in all day long it became almost easy for me to forget that they were orphans. When that reality came crashing back it never failed to hurt my insides with the same breathless intensity as it had the first time. Especially when it intruded unexpectedly, as happened one afternoon.
Caroline and Papa had arranged an ice cream party. Two tables were pulled into the courtyard as the frozen cartons were delivered. The kids lined up eagerly from youngest to oldest to be handed their paper cups of ice cream as we scooped it out in a battle of time against the sun blazing overhead. As we served the icy treats and listened to the kids slurping away, I noticed that Santosh, the boy I sponsored, was nowhere to be seen. I asked some of the other boys about him, and they pointed toward the top of the stairs.
I went up and found him sitting alone, seeming sad and listless. He wasn’t interested in the ice cream. A house mother named Madhu passed, and I asked her to help me find out what was wrong; I was afraid Santosh was hurt, or sick. Madhu took him into the boys’ dorm and talked to him for several minutes.
“He misses his mother,” she said simply when she came back out.
I felt it in my heart, and knew that although they loved us being there it could sometimes only make them miss the presence of their own parents. The good of all these caring surrogate parent figures – Papa, Caroline, the house mothers, the volunteers – outweighed the heaviness of sorrow, to be sure. But it was easy to miss the sadness, at times, in the presence of love that filled the ashram. I was reminded anew that these children all carried secret grief and damage inside them, often hidden or temporarily forgotten but never erased entirely.
I sat with Santosh on the edge of the concrete walkway outside his dorm room. Draping my arm around his shoulders I squeezed reassuringly and held him against my side. I knew that his mother had died when he was so young he couldn’t possibly remember her, not really; but to mourn the idea of a mother, that huge absence in his life like a great gaping hole – that was another thing completely. We sat together, not speaking, while in the courtyard in front of us the other children slurped up their ice cream noisily.
* * *
Still, these children living under Papa’s care are the lucky ones. Far from the tourist’s India of the Taj Mahal and yoga retreats, a journey into an Indian orphanage is a difficult one – hard on the body, hard on the heart. In homes like The Miracle Foundation where children are well taken care of, it’s far too easy to forget how many street kids are outside those gates, the children sleeping under plastic roofs beside a sewage-filled canal, the thirty thousand babies born HIV-positive each year. In the best of institutional homes there is love and community, and needs are met on the most basic sustenance levels; although there seems to never be enough food, never adequate medical care. And never, ever enough room.
For every child fortunate enough to live in a home like The Miracle Foundation provides there are a thousand more the orphanage cannot afford to take in. A thousand who have nowhere to turn but homes run under vastly inferior, sometimes horrific conditions; a thousand more children living on the streets, begging at train stations, or working twelve hours a day for pennies. Children for whom childhood has been discarded.
The beautiful kids at Papa’s home no longer had their own parents, yet they were still joyful and filled with hope. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. They offered seconds and thirds of their precious food, serving us before eating themselves. They rushed to bring water, pull up a chair for us, take our shoes off and put them back on, carry our bags – anything and everything.
Even in the most deprived circumstances they were still just kids – they laughed and played, perhaps far less frequently than others; they developed strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they had an enormous amount of love to share. As I bore witness to the harm that lay in each of them because their past, as I discovered the stories behind the faces and the names, there was simply no way to go on with my life afterwards as if they did not exist.
* * *
It was clear that Papa and Caroline were doing something special, something more than what could be seen with the eyes. Papa was the heart of the ashram and had created an almost tangible presence of love. He had given up a far easier life and job as a government official to dedicate himself to these orphans. Paid a very small allowance as the director of the home, it was not an easy existence. He didn’t seem to regard himself as remarkable or noble, however, and appeared detached from all things material.
“I am a simple beggar,” he said, his eyes boring into me to confirm that I didn’t doubt his words. “I need nothing, except for these children, my family.”
Caroline told me that over the past few years as she raised money for the orphanage, building a new wing and bunk beds and bathrooms for the children, she had repeatedly asked Papa to let The Miracle Foundation make some improvements to his small quarters. To give him something that would make his life a little easier.
“Let me do something for you,” she told Papa.
“No, no, I need nothing,” he answered always.
“Let me buy you something,” Caroline persisted.
But Papa only shook his head, gesturing toward the new dormitories, the children in their uniforms going to school.
“You have already bought me the most important thing,” he said. “You bought me sleep.”
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.
For more information, visit:
The Miracle Foundation – www.miraclefoundation.org
The classic “All Things Austin” website, The Austinist, has just reviewed the new 2011 Revised and Expanded edition of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. Thanks, Austinist! The review is below, or you can read it at The Austinist here. To purchase your copy of the new edition of The Weight of Silence, please click here. It’s available through CreateSpace, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others, and there is a Kindle edition as well!
Not to get all inside baseball on you, but this review of Shelley Seale’s memoir/reportage from her time in India was delayed by an almost tragicomic set of circumstances seemingly destined to keep this book from getting reviewed at all. Throughout it all, Seale was polite but persistent, and after we (finally) had the book in our hands and read it, her dedication to the work came into a wider perspective.
Most books have something of import to communicate to the reader, but this true life account of Seale’s trips to India in the middle and end of the last decade exposed her to not just tremendous poverty, but to its most helpless and legion victims, children, many of whom are also having their years of innocence wiped away by plagues of disease, forced labor and nothing short of sexual slavery.
It’s not an easy subject to broach or to read about, and the introduction itself to The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India is a testament to this difficulty. “There is a holocaust quietly happening among India’s children. The perpetrator is poverty, and its foot soldiers are disease, gender and caste discrimination, unclean water, illiteracy and malnutrition.”
Not exactly beach reading, but Seale has a patient and balanced viewpoint that eases some of the pain inherent in her topics. Furthermore, she’s less interested in a litany of complaints or solutions and is more dedicated to her reporting. As she explains: “Foreigners rarely fully understand the society they think to ‘improve,’ and the potential for imposing their own cultural bias can result in negative consequences for those whose lives they seek to change.”
Seale’s own effort at understanding actually begins through local media, when, in 2004, she was flipping through Tribeza and was inspired by the story former advertising exec turned philanthropist Caroline Boudreaux, founder of The Miracle Foundation. One year later, Seale and Bodreaux were bound for an orphanage in Cuttack, where we first meet Papa, a caregiver for orphans, and children like the shy Santosh and artistic Sahiful. This is actually the book’s second printing, and in the epilogue we’re given a glimpse of the continued stories of some of the individuals Seale met in her previous visits.
Critiquing a book that essentially hopes to raise awareness of child poverty feels about as useful as complaining about the Jerry Lewis Telethon – what are you supposed to say, that you had hoped it would be funnier? – but that’s our job and we should probably do it. While the book aspires to cut its beyond-sobering statistics with warm stories of Seale interacting with and bonding with children, the juxtaposition is frequent and at times jarring – some critical distance with the individuals she meets and less of a grocery list of factoids and overwhelming social ills would have made the reading more fluid.
That said, it must be noted that the tone of the book is overwhelmingly positive, and, as Boudreaux explains late in the book, the time has never been better to help the helpless. “The time for philanthropy is now…Together let’s put our feet down and stop allowing children to starve.”
If you have been following this blog, or read The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India (original edition), you may be wondering what has happened to some of these kids over the past few years. They may have grown near and dear to your heart, as they have to mine.
I have returned to India each year, and kept in touch with Santosh, Daina, Sibani, Sumitra and the others. I’ve also stayed in close contact with many of the organizations and adults who have tirelessly dedicated their lives to these children, their rights and their futures.
If you would like to revisit the world, and issues, of these kids – and find out what has happened to them in the last three years – then I invite you to pick up your copy of the newly released 2011 Revised and Expanded edition of The Weight of Silence. This new version has 25 additional pages, an entire Epilogue chapter, updating readers on the lives of Santosh, Daina, Yesu Babu, Sumitra and many others. There are also new photographs, taken last year. Wow, are they growing up!!
And as a special gift, if you order a copy FROM THIS PAGE ONLY, via this purchase link, you will receive two additions from me personally. First, I will send you an autographed copy of the new book edition. Second, you may select from one of the beautiful photos of India, below, taken by my daughter Chandler. I will send you a 5 x 7 print of the photograph of your choosing as a gift, along with your book. If you would like a larger or framed photograph, visit Chandler’s store on Etsy, or contact me. I would be happy to send you a larger or framed version for a very small additional charge to cover those costs.
But the 5 x 7 photograph print is yours, with the autographed book when you order it here. The price of $16.95 includes the autographed book ($13.00) plus shipping, including the photograph. There will be a space for you to write the photograph number that you would like; please choose from the photos below. Thank you!
Order Now and choose from these photographs: