Many of you who have followed my trips to India throughout the years and/or read my book, know about Santosh. The first child I sponsored at the orphanage, who I first met on my initial trip there in March 2005. Then 11-years-old, I thought Santosh was too shy of my attention, and that I would have little interaction with him during the week. That first night, when Papa Sahoo (who runs the home) called him out to meet his sponsor, he was very wooden and shy, and quickly ran off.
But moments later he was back, with a Texas cap that my friend and co-sponsor Craig had sent him. Throughout that first trip Santosh was often at my side, to my surprise. In the several years and trips back to the children’s home after that, I realized the impact it makes to these children to be sought out – to be remembered, to be made to feel special and loved. Not in general, but specifically – because they are the individual child they are. Just like our own children or loved ones. To know that they are somebody to someone. That they matter.
Then, after a few years, suddenly Santosh was gone from the orphanage. When he was about 15, his father removed him from the home and sent him to live (and work) with a guardian a couple of hours south in Konark. I am guessing at the time, that Santosh figured I was history. He would never see me again.
But he didn’t realize just how stubborn I was. Or just how special he was.
I bugged Papa for details of where Santosh was, exactly. Craig, his co-sponsor, went to find him in Konark that first time. On my next trip to India, I also went to Konark and found Santosh. Fortunately his guardian, Pravat, is a good and caring man who took Santosh into his home and family. That was five years ago, and since that time I have visited Santosh just as I do the home in Choudwar where he once lived – and where 115 other orphans still live. In fact, all these years since Santosh left the home, I have also brought him up to Choudwar to visit his friends there again and to spend time with me and my family/ volunteer group while we are there. On the trips to India he would smile and laugh with us, join us at dinner and even staying in our hotel with us, holding my hand as we walked the streets of India – Santosh always on the street side to protect me from danger.
In the last few years, the beauty of technology made our communication even easier: Santosh was on email, and Facebook, and Skype! The world between Texas and India shrunk just a little bit, and Santosh and I were still in each other’s lives.
No, Santosh, you were never forgotten.
But then, early this year in 2014, something happened. Exactly what I am still not sure of, but Santosh had some sort of problem. He was attacked and robbed, I believe, and he lost both money and his mobile phone which was his link to communications and the online world. Suddenly, I stopped hearing from him. He didn’t return my messages; his mobile number was disconnected; he disappeared from Facebook and Skype.
I worried, as any mother would.
I sent messages to his guardian, Pravat, and his friends Kshetra and Mithun who are also in Facebook. They gave me small pieces of information but still, no direct word from Santosh. I was anxious to get back to India in person this fall, to see Santosh in person and re-establish contact. To find out what was going on. To let him know that Mom still cared what happened to him.
Two days after I landed in India, I was in a car going to Konark where Santosh lives and works. After not having spoken to him or heard from him in months. I pulled up to the market where he works in the family store, and Pravat brought him out to meet me. Santosh was wooden, as he was on the first night I had met him nearly a decade before as a child. He wouldn’t meet my eyes or return my hug. I explained to both of them, with Pravat translating some of what Santosh’s limited English might not grasp.
“Santosh, I have been so worried about you. All these months I have thought of you every day and hoped you were all right. I wanted to hear from you. I came here to see you, the very first thing. Before I went to the home in Choudwar or saw Papa and the other kids. Coming here to see you, to make sure you are all right, was the first thing I did when I got to India. I am your mom, and I love you always.”
Suddenly, Santosh started crying. The boy who is now a young man, a sometimes moody adolescent who was often stoic and rarely showed a lot of emotion. Tears were now streaming down his face and he wiped them away roughly with the back of his hand.
Pravat said, “He thought you had forgotten him.”
My heart felt such a stab. This boy who had lost his mother before he even knew her; whose father took him to the orphanage by the time he was two years old. To lose another parent figure, what must that feel like?
I assured Santosh that I had NEVER forgotten him. Not for one day, one moment. And that I never would.
Finally, a smile. Smiles and hand holding and laughter all day. I went with Pravat and Santosh to their home, where I spent the day with their family and ate lunch with them.
A few days later, after the rest of our volunteer group arrived in Choudwar to spend our week at the orphanage with the kids, Santosh came up on the bus and we picked him up. He spent the next several days with our volunteer group, staying at the hotel with us and going to the children’s home with us and generally having a great time. There was a lot of smiling and love, even dancing and singing.
Santosh was back. For anyone who ever wonders why we do this – why we go back, over and over and over – this is why. All you ever need to know to answer that question is in this story.
And I believe, now, Santosh knows for certain, that he will never be forgotten. That he is part of our family, and always will be. Not because he was an orphan, or a kid at the home that I sponsored. Not because I feel obligated, or sorry for him, or have to. But because he is HIM, Santosh, and I – we all – love him for the special, unique person that he is.
It was planned all year, and now I can’t believe it’s over.
I just returned from my 8th trip to visit my family in India. I have been planning this trip since January of this year. Now that I’m back home, it’s hard to believe the time — so long anticipated — has come and gone. That it’s over.
Already I miss the kids so much, all those whom I love and who have made their home my home, their family my family, over the past 10 years.
The first night I was ever in India, nearly 10 years ago, was spent in this room. The prayer room in the ashram in Choudwar, Odisha, moments after arriving. It turned my world, my idea of existence and who I am in this life, upside down. This is what I wrote in my book about my first night in prayer time with the kids:
“It was a simple prayer, reminding me that life need not be complicated unless we made it so. A soothing peace palpable in the air filled me. I breathed out deeply. There seemed no other world outside this place.
I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. 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.”
Sitting with my eyes closed, chanting, “Ohm, ohm…shanti, shanti, shanti” and listening to a hundred sweet voices sing around me — I feel my true self the most. There is nothing better on earth for setting the soul right. Even after all the many nights I’ve spent here over the years since, this is my all-time happy place. I know that I am home, too.
Below is a video of prayer on our very last night. Bittersweet…leaving is always so hard.
Even though I’m sad the trip is over and I’m having my typical India withdrawal, the visit was amazing. As always, being home and being with the children (as well as my Papa and Mama!) is such a homecoming, such a treat that seems to make everything right with the world. It was also an incredible visit because of the group we had. Joining me as she has on nearly every trip was my dear friend Jody, also a long-time supporter of the orphanage over the years. I was honored to be able to take both my mother and my daughter back for their second trips — my mom Sandy went last time, in 2012; and my daughter Chandler returned for the first time since 2006, when she was only 15 years old!
Also returning with us were my boyfriend, Keith; Kathleen, who was with me on that very first trip and was making her first visit back to this ashram; Nancy, who also was on the 2012 journey; and her daughter Lindsay, on her first trip to India. And we were joined by a new friend and volunteer, Sumeet, who lives nearby in Bhubaneswar and was a wonderful addition. This group of people truly made the trip magical, for all of us and for the kids.
One of the best things about this trip, as well, was the incredible support we had from friends. Caroline Boudreaux, founder of The Miracle Foundation and the person who first introduced me to India and these children, led the charge with a generous personal donation and challenging others to do the same. We had 35 donors all told, including ourselves, and raised right at $6,000 to donate to buy much-needed supplies for the home! We were able to do some electrical upgrading, purchase school supplies and bedding, give some additional cash for items needed for the children, and put half of the money into a fund for education and future needs. THANK YOU to everyone who donated and supported this cause — you awe me, every one of you.
The days were filled with laughter and love: dancing, singing, ice cream parties, games, beautification in the girls’ dorm rooms, drawing competitions, eating, and lots and lots of hugs.
I will post some more blog updates about specific things in the coming weeks. Until then, thank you all again for sharing our love for these kids, and making their lives so much better. You don’t even know what it means for them to feel special, loved and never forgotten. I will close with a short video of their welcome song. Namaste.
In one week, I am leaving for my 8th trip to the Servants of India Society Orphanage in Odisha, India, where I’ve been going and helping to support with a small group of volunteers for 10 years now. Right now we are just shy of $5,000 in donation to take to help out this home. Can you help us reach that goal? EVERY DOLLAR HELPS. And EVERY SINGLE CENT goes straight to the orphanage: for education, clothes, food, supplies, books, equipment, and whatever else is needed. Every single cent we take straight to India and spend on the orphanage and the kids, and it goes a long way there!
This is where “my kids” reside, with my Indian Papa and Mama. The very first place I ever went in India, home of Santosh and Daina, where I was first inspired to write this book and tell the story of these children – their struggles, their joys, their problems and their hopes.
Every dollar in donations that I raise, I take with me to India and spend on things that the orphanage needs. Last trip, in November 2012, I raised just around $2,000 and spent the money on bedding, mosquito nets, lanterns, and many other necessary items that the orphanage needed. We also had an ice cream party complete with a magician show for the children! It was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had with my kids.
Watch a photo slideshow of our volunteer trips with the kids!
If you would like to make a direct impact on the life of a child, this is the way to do it. Money goes a LONG way in India, so whether you can donate $5 or $1,000, every single dollar helps. Please donate today!
It’s been a thrilling week – I’ve finally booked my next trip to India! Tickets are confirmed for November – I will be arriving on November 1, and staying until December 6. And not only me, but the best of the group is reuniting. My mother, Sandy, and two of my best friends, Jody and Nancy, are joining me from our last trip in 2012. Also, my daughter is finally returning to India with me, after 8 long years!
My boyfriend Keith is going with me, Nancy is also taking her daughter, and one of my best friends – with whom I shared my first trip to India back in 2005 – Kathleen, is going!
With all these wonderful friends and family, who love these kids and India as I do and continue to support them, the trip can’t be anything but wonderful.
November still seems a long way off, and now that the tickets are booked I can hardly wait to get back to see Santosh (with whom I Skype regularly), Papa and Mama, Daina and all the children at Choudwar.
We will, as always, be collecting donations between now and then. I have set up an automatic monthly deposit into the donation fund, and several others are doing this as well. All donations, like the times before, will be used on the ground in India to buy needed supplies for the kids such as books, clothing, living supplies, mosquito netting, etc.
Every little bit helps! From $5 even, it’s amazing how it all adds up and what a long way it can go.
As always, I appreciate your support. Donate here if you feel so compelled!
Dreaming of India,