My work in India began in February, 2006, on a blazingly hot afternoon in Kochi, India. It began quite by accident. Or, thinking back, perhaps it wasn’t an accident at all. My wife Tracy and I were in middle of a trip of a lifetime, four weeks in India. We had come to the city of Cochin in South India and checked into still another well-appointed hotel.
Our driver picked us up promptly at nine, after we had finished a sumptuous breakfast. In our air-conditioned car, he showed us the oldest synagogue in this part of the world, unique Chinese fishing nets, a vibrant merchants’ quarter. He was a perfect gentleman and wanted to do nothing to spoil our visit to his city. He talked proudly of Cochin’s past and present; he said nothing about the poverty that was all about us, the crippled, the maimed we saw, so many children begging on the streets, shacks made of scraps of metal and plastic. It was two o’clock, we still had time in his service; what would we like to see or do, he courteously requested? Where my reply came from I will never fully know. “I’m Catholic,” I blurted out: What is my church doing to alleviate this grinding poverty, to help these poor people?” He was a professional driver and guide. I don’t know if he had been asked the question before, but he hesitated before answering. “I could tell you. But, if you don’t mind, sir, I’ll show you…
We drove down Mohandas Gandhi Road, turned off at Binny Road, a narrow lane in a poor neighborhood that had once been a swamp. He stopped at the metal gates of Prathyasha Bhavan, (Home of Hope), an orphanage. The gates swung open and a group of girls came running toward us, laughing, waving their hands in welcome. They were well dressed, clean, and apparently happy. We were offered a tour of the orphanage by one of the Salesian sisters, a member of the religious order of women who had founded the home thirty years before. It was soon apparent my first impression was wrong. This was a very poor place. The children were sleeping on the concrete floor of a school assembly hall, simply because there was no other room for them. The sisters were a bit shy, but finally admitted that at times they had difficulty feeding the ever-growing number of children, 75 of them that day. The orphanage was living on the threshold of mere survival. And yet, we were asked for nothing and offered tea and cookies in the nun’s small refectory.
We came outside into the hot sun and I was reaching into my pocket to offer a donation. There, on the dusty playground, a tiny girl stood in the shadow of one of the nuns, Sister Sophy Joseph. The little girl, named Reena, was wearing sunglasses. None of the other girls were wearing sunglasses and I asked why this child was wearing them. Sister Sophy took off the sunglasses. One of Reena’s eyes was perfect, dark, bright. The other eye was terribly scarred and dull. Sister Sophy told us why.
Reena had been begging on the streets with her mother, who was mentally ill. They were separated in the downtown crowds. Reena was kidnapped by the “beggar mafia,” who held her down hand and foot, and plunged a darning needle into her eye. They wanted her not only to be a beggar, but a “better” beggar to bring them even more money. This was years before the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” portrayed this kind of cruelty to children. I looked down in horror. Little Reena returned my look with the most beatific, trusting smile I had ever seen. Something happened. I don’t know exactly what. But I knew that the rupee notes I was pulling out of my pocket to hand over to Sister Sophy were not enough, not nearly enough. Home of Hope needed far more than that. I needed to do more than leave a donation behind, get back into my air-conditioned car and go on with my comfortable air-conditioned life. But what? And, more importantly, how? I was a free-lance writer. What was I, one person, going to do? The needs were so profound. Where could a person even begin? But if not me, who?
Oddly enough, our next stop on our India trip was not a typical tourist destination but Kurisumala, an ashram of Trappist monks, high in the mountains three hours from Kochi. I wrote about that visit, but what is not in that story was the mental video that kept replaying in my head. Reena’s story. My shock. Her radiant and trusting smile. We only had a short time when we returned to Kochi, before getting on a plane to continue our journey, but I knew I had to see Home of Hope again. This time, when I drove through the gates, and the girls came running toward us, I had a feeling I had come home. Home…to Home of Hope. Remember, I had only been here for less than an hour the first time. I looked upon Reena once again. And again, there was that trusting, loving smile. I found these words forming in mind, but I was neither bold nor sure enough to say them out loud: “Reena, somehow, some way, I want to — I AM – going to make your future better than your horrible past.”
Before I left, I took Sisters Sophy and Thresia aside and told them we would not forget them.
Little did I know that since that day, my life would dedicated, first to those orphan girls and sisters at Home of Hope, but eventually to the hundreds of orphan girls and thousands of children who live and go to school at 32 similarly poor Salesian orphanages and schools in South India. When I got back to the United States I began to tell my friends about meeting Reena and her trusting smile. I found myself relating the story over and over, to anyone who would listen. I could see that Reena’s story made the same impact it had made on me. It was almost as if people were ready to help, but I didn’t know what to ask for, what to do. My mind kept going back to that concrete floor where the children slept each night, on a thin straw mat. I would start there.
That Christmas, I sent out a letter to my friends, asking them to contribute for “A Bed for Reena.” We would buy foam mattresses and coverlets so the girls could at least get off that hard concrete floor. I collected about $3,000. It was a start, and as it would turn out, a foolish one.
As it turned out the mattresses were a terrible idea. There was no place to store them during the day. The space was too crowded and the floor too dirty to keep them clean. But the work had begun, and energized by the heartfelt response from my friends, I pressed on. I am a journalist and was working on my next book, but supplementing my income by teaching at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had begun to be eligible for Social Security and as I looked at how much I was earning as a part time teacher and what the Social Security check would be there was not a great difference in the amount. Where the great difference was, was time. I was at a point in my life, sixty-eight years old, my children out of the house, and as I knew, with more years behind me than before me. As I would begin to acknowledge: there was only so much oil left in my well…how did I want to pump it….and where did I want to use it?
Reena’s smile held the answer. Our list of accomplishments and our annual reports give a vivid picture of where we started and where we are today. With generous support from people, corporations, foundations, civic and religious groups all over the world, Homes of Hope India-US has made a profound difference in the lives of thousands of children and young women. And our future could not be brighter, as more people learn about our work and join in. And just to think: it all started with a little girl’s smile.
In such a short period of time, Homes of Hope India-US has made a profound difference in the lives of thousands of children and young women. And our future could not be brighter, as more people learn about our work and join in. And just to think: it all started with a little girl’s smile.
Paul Wilkes Executive Director, Homes of Hope India – US Homes of Hope India-US is governed by a Board of Directors and assisted by an Indian Advisory Board.