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.
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.
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.
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.
You 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.
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.