‘She is clothed in strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.’- Proverbs 31:25.
These are the words that first came to mind when I looked into Sajan’s eyes, the color of glowing coal, dancing with joy, excitement and anticipation, eager to see what the new day would bring.
One of the goals that I have mapped out for myself is to work towards rebuilding young lives and restoring hope – one child at a time! And to make this happen, this past summer, I went to India to work with Saath, a non-governmental organization that aims at creating safe environments for children of migrant laborers in construction communities. I thought I would encounter poverty and misery during my time volunteering with these young kids; but I came away impressed with stories of human dignity and determination, not only to do the best they could for their families but often to help others.
I can still clearly see that first day when I visited the school. Me looking awkward in my unfamiliar Indian dress and American sneakers, while all the children, aged between 1 and 12 years, gathered around staring at me gape toothed and round eyed wondering who this ‘alien’ was. That first day was the most challenging not only because I didn’t speak their language but also because I was a complete stranger. Getting used to the environment and loving all those wonderful kids did not take very long, though.
The experience was one of a kind, and I cherished every second of it. As soon as I got my basic Gujarati speaking skills polished, of course strewn with tons of English words, it was easier for me to communicate and build relationships with everyone including the 3 compassionate teachers that dedicated their days looking after and teaching these kids.
It was exciting to get out of bed every single day during my summer holidays and have a place to go to and a purpose to fulfill. My daily tasks included engaging the kids through encouragement and praise, teaching them English – popular nursery rhymes, ABC’s, counting numbers, simple phrases (hello, goodbye, thank you, please, sorry, etc.), and reinforcing clean sanitation habits such as washing hands and feet after using the bathroom, making sure that they remembered to brush their teeth, bathe and wear clean clothes before coming to school. Revising the work we had done the previous day was mandatory as this allowed the children to memorize and grasp the concepts that they only remembered after listening and repeating several times.
Standing in front of these children at the chalkboard and teaching them the alphabet, their eyes fixed on every letter I wrote, their eager faces wreathed in giant smiles made me realize how incredible they were and how thrilled they were to learn new things. I loved seeing their eyes light up when their favorite lunch was served, an Indian specialty called Pulav or Pilaf – a flavorful dish made of rice and vegetables, how their little eyes danced with joy when I joined in with them to play games such as musical chairs, tag, and hide and seek. Of the 32 kids of all varying ages, there was no doubt, that in my heart, Aarti and Sajan were my favorite. Both young ladies, not a day over 12, had assumed the duty of a parent, taking care of their younger brothers and sisters. Their love and generosity for their siblings just moved and touched me to the very core. Each day they came to school with freshly scrubbed faces, well poised, wearing worn but clean churidar kurtas with matching jewelry, hair oiled and tied up in fancy braids, carrying the baby sibling at their hips while pulling along their toddler sisters behind them. They were the ones that attentively listened to everything I had to say, put up their hands with answers for every question I asked, recited the poems and alphabets by heart, finished their assignments before everyone else did, and were the first ones to jump up and rush to comfort their siblings when they began to cry or started fussing. When asked why they didn’t go to a regular school like their older brothers did, they both answered with wistful smiles and an innate sense of dignity that if they too were at school all day, there wouldn’t be anyone else to look after their baby brother and sister while their parents were out working at the construction site. So after helping their moms with cleaning the house, cooking the daily meal, and getting the younger siblings ready, their only true bright spot in the day lay in attending this ‘school, this ‘child friendly area’ that Saath has invested in operating, that allows young girls like them to learn in a healthy and secure environment, a place where their younger siblings are also welcome.
I may have made a small mark on their vulnerable lives, but I know for sure that the impact these kids have left in mine will last for a long time. Being there and being part of their lives every day, was a shocking reminder of how fortunate I have been in my life, how I have taken for granted everything that has been handed to me on a silver platter.
I have pledged to raise $1,500 dollars for Saath to continue to launch these child friendly spaces around the country providing a safe shelter for our kids protecting them from different kinds of harms, such as abuse, neglect, exploitation, physical danger and violence, bringing hope and awareness that will rise up and give these future generations the strength to lift the despair and break the cycles of poverty that have existed for generations. The kind of help that Saath is providing helps change things, increases self-esteem through education. In my interviews with these children I found that although they are grateful for the charitable support that Saath offers, their best experiences include moments where they felt a sense of purpose and connection.
“Everyone needs to know that they’re important; they are worth the time and effort to educate and empower; they are capable; they can provide for their loved ones. And most important – they matter.”
Please check out my campaign fundraiser at https://secure.vibha.org/campaign/saath-child-friendly-spaces/AlishaPatel/ and the videos (open in a new tab) of a couple of the lovely young ladies I worked with and please help fuel their dreams.