Memorial Day weekend saw the 35th Annual Convention of the Tamil Nadu Foundation, held in Valley Forge, PA outside Philadelphia. I was invited to be the keynote speaker at this extraordinary event attended by about 1,500 people. I took my mother along with me, and we had a fantastic time with a great group of people who are absolutely passionate about, and dedicated to, supporting causes for children in India.
The Tamil Nadu Foundation is comprised of thousands of Indian-Americans living in the U.S., who promote educational, social and other charitable projects in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, as a way to share their good fortune with those less fortunate.
Convention Chairman Som Somasundaram invited me some months ago to speak during the main assembly of the convention, which I did late Saturday afternoon, May 29. I spoke about the children’s suffering that I had witnessed while researching and writing my book – children who have been impacted by such things as orphaning, abandonment, abuse, street life, child labor, AIDS and other issues. I also spoke about the success stories and changes I’ve seen happen, in kids who were lucky enough to have a caring adult or two take an interest in their lives. I spoke about my own personal heroes, such as Dr. Manorama of the CHES Home in Chennai, who left behind a successful medical practice to dedicate herself to housing, and treating, HIV-positive children whom no one else would take in.
Som’s beautiful daughter, Lakshmi, introduced me beautifully, before I spoke. She also invited me to join the youth group, comprised of high school and college age students, in an informal session discussing volunteer work in India and some of my experiences. All in all, it was a great day spent with a large group of people who are just as committed as I am to being the change they want to see in the world, to quote Mahatma Gandhi.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Butterfly, a website portal for working mothers, features a different “celebrity mother” each month. For April, I am delighted to report that yours truly is featured on the site. Butterfly features both a printed interview with me, as well as a series of short video interviews. The interviews discuss my work in India and research/writing about issues affecting children there, as well as my own journey as both a parent and author.
For the video interviews, they are available in order below:
I have been reading Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, his nonfiction account of returning to modern Bombay to live after a 21-year absence. Some of it is so spot-on it is hilarious. So much so, that I thought I would share some of his most astute observations about life in India. For those of you who have been, who understand the yes/no, now/never, love/hate relationship – you will totally get and appreciate this. For those who haven’t, you will be highly amused, though perhaps a bit perplexed. And it is sadly, frustratingly, altogether true. My favorite line:
India is not a tourist-friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds.
Bombay survives on the scam. The ethic of Bombay is quick upward mobility, and a scam is a shortcut. Anyone can work hard and make money. What’s to admire about that? But a well-executed scam? Now, there’s a thing of beauty!
All things in Bombay fail regularly: plumbing, telephones, the movement of huge blocks of traffic. For the month after my family arrives (at their new flat), I chase plumbers, electricians and carpenters. The electrician attached to the building is an easygoing fellow who comes in the late afternoons, chats with me about the wiring in the flat, and patches things up so they work only for a little while, assuring multiple future visits. The phone department has to be called and the workmen bribed to repair it. It is in their interest to have a lousy phone system.
As for my plumber, I want to assassinate him. He pits the occupants of the flats against one another, telling the people above and below me that I should pay to fix the numerous leaks, then telling me I should convince them to pay. The president of the building society explains it to me: All the pipes in this building are fucked. All this takes most of our waking time. The city is groaning under the pressure of the 1 million people per square mile.
India desires modernity; it desires computers, information technology, video on demand. But there is no guarantee of a constant supply of electricity in most places in the country. The country is convinced it can pole-vault over the basics: develop world-class computer and management institutes without achieving basic literacy; provide advanced cardiac surgery while the most easily avoidable childhood diseases run rampant; sell washing machines that depend on a non-existent water supply; drive scores of new cars that go from 0 to 60 in ten seconds without any roads where they might do this without killing everything inside and out, man and beast.
It is an optimistic view of technological progress – that if you reach for the moon, you will somehow, automatically, span the inconvenient steps in between. India has the third largest pool of technical labor in the world, but a third of its one billion people can’t read or write. The country graduates the best technical brains in the world, but neglects to teach my plumber how to fix a toilet so it stays fixed. As a result, in the “Country of the No” nothing is fixed the first time around. You don’t just call a repairman, you begin a relationship with him. You can’t bring to his attention too aggressively the fact that he is incompetent or crooked, because you will need him to set right what he has broken the first time around.
Bombay is not the ancient Indian idea of a city. It is an imitation of a Western city, and like all other imitations of the West here – the Hindi pop songs, the appliances, the accents people put on, the parties the rich throw – this imitation, too, is neither here nor there.