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Giving a Job & Hope to People with Special Needs

This story comes from Caroline Boudreaux of The Miracle Foundation. Caroline just returned from India, where she was visiting numerous orphanages and other NGOs to potentially partner with her foundation. This inspirational account of a great organization and idea makes total sense – and makes you wonder why more people aren’t doing this kind of work. From Caroline:

In Bangalore now. Was picked up by the driver of Ashok Giri who is a fellow YGL that I met at Harvard. The driver handed me a McDonald’s bag with a fish sandwich, french fries and a diet coke. It was awesome.He wanted to give me an Indian welcome western style. SO SWEET.

We drove an hour to his office where Subhash Dhar was also waiting for me. Ashok and his wife run a for profit data entry company and employ only people with special needs. He is so on to something here. Deaf people use sign language to communicate and sign language is in English (who knew). So all his deaf employees come to him already reading and writing English. Most call centers/ companies that do this kind of wok in India promise their customers that all their staff will have a college degree. He won’t make that promise and doesn’t have to. There simply aren’t enough college seats to accept this group of people and there are no concessions for them in college. If you’re special needs and want to work, it is very difficult to find a job unless, you call Ashok. If you’re special needs with a 10th standard education and want to work, he’ll find a job for you.

Photo by Caroline Boudreaux

To that end, they print and mail out over three million letters of correspondence a month for companies throughout India so there is a whole section of people just stuffing envelopes and putting on labels. It is unbelievable how much more they are able to produce than their competitors. First, special needs people who are educated are so frustrated by not being able to work and find a job that their motivation is HUGE.

Second, after a year, he gives them a share of the company (a relatively new thing in India only made legal in 2008). Third, with the exception of the click of computer keys, they’re entering thousands of pieces of data in total silence. This amount of concentration makes his employees 800% (a real number) more efficient than his nearest competitor. Since his employees come from all over the country to find good work, he also has a hostel next door where they can live. He told story after story of people who would do anything to prove they could work just as well and hard as someone without challenges.

One man with polio asked him to race up the stairs. Ashok, who has a really fun sense of humor agreed. The man with polio won. That man was his second employee, married a deaf girl he met here three years ago and both were out on maternity leave welcoming their first baby, a boy. He knows sign language (which he learned and says he can teach me) in ten days. It is amazing. Now he’s considering offering a medical transcriptions to doctors and hospitals and will hire blind people to do the work. He asked a blind woman who was looking for a job if she could type. She said she could and asked her to come in for a test. He asked her to type as he read the newspaper to her and after the third line, she told him to please read faster. He and his wife (who is the visionary behind this whole concept) have only been in business five years and have over 200 employees. It is awesome.

The Miracle is Us

Saturday I am the guest on a Voluntary Traveler Q&A Discussion, about my book and volunteer travel experiences to India with The Miracle Foundation, which recruits sponsors for children without parental care who live in their homes.

Tonight I went to a sponsorship party for The Miracle Foundation – a party at which I imagined I would see a few of my India volunteer travel buddies and catch up with Caroline Boudreaux, founder of the organization. Have a nice evening, listen to some music, eat some great Indian food.

I did all of this. And then, perhaps an hour or so after the party started, Caroline took the microphone to thank us for coming and tell the guests her story – why we were all there in the first place. A story I have heard many times before, have written about numerous times – a story I thought I knew well. Perhaps was even a little immune to.

But something happened. Caroline took the microphone and said, “Nine years ago tonight was the worst night of my entire life.

Sheebani Das the night Caroline met her, Mothers Day 2000

Sheebani Das the night Caroline met her, Mother's Day 2000

Nine years ago was the birth of The Miracle Foundation – although she didn’t fully realize it at the time. Nine years ago tonight, May 14, 2000, was Mother’s Day in the United States. And on that day Caroline was in India, invited to dinner at the home of Damador Sahoo, whom she had just met. She had no idea what awaited her.

“I arrived at his house,” Caroline recounted tonight with her voice cracking, “and was surrounded by dozens of bald, filthy, starving children.They were so starved for affection they literally pushed themselves into my body. At one point I had about fourteen children all over me, just trying to touch me. And then Sheebani Das came and laid her head on my knee.

I sang her a lullaby, and at that minute I knew that no one else had ever done this for her before. Ever. I picked that baby up and wanted to go put her down in her crib to sleep. When I walked into the room where she lived with the other girls, it was like walking into an oven. The stench was unbearable.”

The room where Sheebani lived, 2000

The room where Sheebani lived, 2000

Caroline has described this scene to me as looking like the barracks of a concentration camp – and I’ve seen the pictures that look so. The room was filled with wooden slats for beds – no mattresses, pillows or sheets. Putting that baby down on a hard wood plank, hearing her bones clatter against the “bed,” broke Caroline and changed the course of her future – and the lives of those children.

“When I said it was the worst night of my life,” she told the group tonight, “I wasn’t exaggerating. I went back to my hotel room and told the friend I was traveling with that I was never going back to that place again. I wasn’t ever going to face that again, couldn’t face it. It was just too heart-breaking. But she looked at me and said, you can and you will.”

Like I said, I have heard this story before. But never in the same way twice, it seems. And here it was, nine years later, and Caroline’s eyes still filled with tears and her voice still shook when she recalled that night, and Sheebani Das. She often had to pause to collect herself before continuing.

“Up until then, I had never donated to anything,” she told us. “I wasn’t philanthropic at all. Just the month before, I had spent $5,000 on a diamond tennis bracelet for myself.” Here she had to stop again, fighting back tears as if coming face to face with a previous self that she no longer even recognized. “I had everything money could buy – but I had a pit in the bottom of my stomach, a hole in my heart. I knew that if I didn’t help Sheebani, no one else was going to.

That is the truth, but here’s another truth: Caroline didn’t save these children – they saved her. From an outwardly successful, but utterly meaningless interior life that she readily admits she had been so busy setting herself up for.

The rest is history, and one I have written an entire book about. Caroline came back to the U.S. and began the long and brutal process of setting up the nonprofit organization that, today, supports over 500 children in several orphanages throughout India – and even tonight, is recruiting more sponsors so that more children can be taken in. For every child that is sponsored, another can be helped.

And the flow of those children seems never-ending. India is home to 25 million children living without parents or homes – on the streets, begging, or trafficked into child labor or the sex trade.

Sheebani Das in March 2009 - I took this picture on my last visit

Sheebani Das today - I took this picture in March 2009

But slowly, Caroline and her sponsors and volunteers are changing the lives and futures of many of these children – although it’s never enough. She always wants to do more. I think, listening to her tonight, that Sheebani whispers to her nightly, never letting her forget why she started this in the first place – reminding her that there are thousands more Sheebanis, out there waiting for someone, somewhere, to care.

“Give, and get rich,” Caroline said tonight. “You can get the things that money can’t buy – peace, fulfillment. The definition of responsibility is the ability to respond – and we have that ability. We are the lucky ones, because we get to be the givers. You can change the future of someone like Sheebani, too. And I promise, you will get more out of it than you ever thought was possible.”

All it takes is a miracle. But the good news is, that miracle is us.

Find out how you can make a difference in the life and future of a child, too!
Give the gift of that most basic of children’s rights – the right to have a childhood.

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