My Passage to India
I just returned from an amazing two weeks in India with a local nonprofit, The Miracle Foundation, which adopts and supports orphanages in India, home of 25 million orphans. I was part of a team of eight ambassadors or volunteers. Everyone said this trip would be life changing, but I’ve traveled some and was a bit skeptical.
Despite the fascinating culture and eclectic mish mash of everything under the sun, which is India, what affected me most were the children in the two homes we visited. I came to help them, but I came away with the lessons they taught me.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I thought I’d be sad, and the children would be sad, and I’d feel sorry for them. From the beginning, they were so open and welcoming. They speak their native language, at the Savalee Home it was Marathi, similar to Hindi, but they can speak a little English and write their names. Somehow the language barrier miraculously lifted over time, and we were able to play and communicate.
One trouble I had at first was interpreting the Indian head bobble. The nod from side to side, kind of like our No, but tracing an infinity symbol (sideways 8), for Yes or Okay, threw me at first. My group began by writing their names on the headscarves we gave them as nametags. As they wrote their names, they’d draw an asterisk on either end. I called that a star, and so we named our group the stars, or Chandani. But then they drew trees on their scarves, and the word, chandhil, so I’m not really sure. Still, throughout the four days I was the day camp counselor for eight children, three girls, five boys, whenever I’d call, “Chandani,” they’d come running and respond with the same shout.
One of our activities was for each group to paint a mural. I was impressed by the way the children immediately took ownership of the project. Laxmi and Krushna emerged as natural leaders, and our wall began to fill with large lotus flowers and trees. At one point, a hose in the courtyard belched and blasted water all over a section of the just completed mural. The paint ran in a big blur, and my reaction was “Oh no!” As I readied to comfort the children, there was a long pause. Suddenly, Laxmi and the other children let out a great laugh, “Ha ha ha,” and then immediately worked to repair the dripping wall. I thought of my own tendency to panic and make a big deal out of setbacks. The current phrase of “first world problems” came to mind. These children are healthier in some ways, psychologically, than I am.
This happened again the next day when we were flying kites for the beginning of spring festival, Makar Sankranti. It was truly a scene out of the book, The Kite Runner. When one kite’s sharp string cut loose a rival kite, the children went racing to claim the fallen kite as a prize. The kites were made of thin tissue paper, and when they’d rise and swiftly dive to the rocky, thorny ground, the kites would often tear. My first reaction of “Oh no!” was again met with “Ha ha ha,” as the children ran to get a replacement.
The children taught me that, although they were harmed in the past, they are resilient and adaptable. Although I feel for their emotional pain and abandonment, I rejoice in their exuberance, their curiosity, the way they care for each other and form a beautiful community. Rather than depressing, visiting these homes fills me with hope.
On the last day at Savalee, after our goodbye ceremony, at which we were given scarves, woolen vests, the bindi (or dot between the eyes) and even a coconut, the director of the home, Nitesh, gave a farewell speech, translated by the English tutor. He said that he could see tears in the eyes of the children. We couldn’t see this, as we were sitting behind them. As his speech concluded, the children turned and, on every face, fat tears dribbled down. We immediately began to bawl, and they came running to hug us as we comforted each other over our departure. We’d known these children for only four days, but I will never forget them. Still, were we to leave on this sad, heart-rending note, abandoning children who had already been abandoned as orphans? Barbara, our Miracle Foundation leader, knew better. Suddenly, loud, stacticy Bollywood dance tunes blasted from old stereo speakers, and we all began dancing together in that wonderful, free for all, Indian exuberance. We literally danced off into the night, with the children calling out, “Happy journey! Come back soon! I love you!”
These children have more than many, and their lives will only improve as their homes continue to rise to the Miracle Foundation standards, which mirror the UN Rights of the Child. At the ceremony for the new playground at Savalee, as the children rushed to climb on the new equipment the Miracle Foundation provided, I had tears in my eyes. Never have I been part of something that mattered so much, that did so much good in the world. I’ve worked with young people my whole career, but nothing has been as meaningful as visiting these two homes.
A last memory I will share, from both homes, was witnessing the children singing Hindu prayers before their meals. The children, sitting in rows on the ground with their round plates before them, close their eyes, with hands folded in prayer, a gesture originating in India, and sing with beautiful, fervent voices. Their thanks remind me to be ever grateful.