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Wisdom & Insight
You Bought Me Sleep
For this issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter, Shelley Seale, author of The Weight Of Silence, shares part of her personal experience of traveling as a voluntourist in India. Venturing into a remote village in the northeastern state of Orissa, she describes her connection with Santosh, a ten-year old boy whom she decided to sponsor through The Miracle Foundation. Shelley takes us on a physically-demanding and emotionally-charged journey that includes a closer look at the life of the "invisible" children of India.
Introduction To The Miracle Foundation
The idea of volunteering in another country has long been considered the province of students and recent graduates; images of intrepid twenty-year-old Peace Corps workers in a remote Sierra Leone village might spring to mind. Today, however, the idea has reached far beyond that to become accessible, and highly popular, among travelers of all types and ages. Volunteer travel has grown so popular that a term has even been coined for it: Voluntourism.
Foreign destinations are luring American citizens who want to sightsee, while at the same time engage in community service. Companies and websites specializing in voluntourism have sprung up by the hundreds, and volunteer vacations can be found in all parts of the world, doing all kinds of activities – from digging wells for clean water in South America, protecting the elephant population in South Africa, or working with children living in orphanages.
It was this last type of volunteer vacation that hooked me. In 2004, I became involved with a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas called The Miracle Foundation, which manages orphanages in India and recruits sponsors and donors to support the children living there. I began volunteering for the foundation and sponsored a child, a ten year old boy named Santosh, living in the state of Orissa in northeastern India. Caroline Boudreaux, founder of the organization, soon invited me to accompany her and a group of other volunteers to Orissa. And so it was that in March 2005, I found myself in India for the first time – a ten-day volunteer trip that I was to make, it turned out, many more times over the years since.
The village is remote, and it took forty-eight hours of exhausting travel to arrive at the ashram where the children live. By the time we arrived, all ten volunteers in the group were suffering from sleep deprivation and culture shock; the overwhelming throngs of people, the smells and sounds that awakened all the senses at once. The streets filled with bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows with the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns that rose above it all. Mostly, the frantic poverty that does not let you rest.
The "Invisible Children"
Caroline had briefed us well on both India and expectations for our week at the orphanage, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when we turned through those gates. Dozens of children were lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting "welcome" over and over. I climbed out and they swarmed all over me, reaching for my hands and touching my feet in blessing. I was overwhelmed, lost in the sea of small bodies; smiling, barefoot children who asked nothing from me more than simply being there.
As I would soon come to find, in India these “invisible” children are everywhere - they fill the streets, the railway stations, the villages. Others have been trafficked or taken into indentured labor to pay off an old family debt. They are orphaned by AIDS and malaria, simple infections or sometimes, nothing more than poverty – their parents cannot afford to feed them. Many are homeless, overflowing orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. Amidst the growing prosperity of India there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up, often forced into child labor and prostitution – more than twenty-five million in all.
But there in Choudwar, a small town about a hundred miles south of Calcutta, one man named Damodar Sahoo had dedicated his life to providing a home and family for some of these children. Before The Miracle Foundation, he had constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for those he had taken in – children who had nowhere else to turn.
Mr. Sahoo, known to everyone simply as “Papa,” greeted the volunteers heartily, chewing the betel nut that turned his teeth red. He gave us a tour of the compound while the children trailed us, rushing past each other to claim a volunteer’s hand. They were everywhere, always underfoot, craving our attention. As I walked along four or five clung to each arm; when I sat down they filled my lap, their slight frames making barely an imprint against my skin.
I spent the following days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. It felt a lot like summer camp. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the children wanted to do over and over once it was taught to them. I began to discover who they were – their individual personalities and dreams. I watched the shy ones come out of their shells and self-confidence blossom.
As it did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away, reminding me of my daughter when she was young and seemingly deaf to the word “no.”
We began to make friends, and I discovered that they were just as curious about us and our lives as we were about them. The kids spoke varying levels of English, largely dependent on how many years they had been living in the ashram and attending school. Some had a large vocabulary and conversational skills; others spoke little more than a few words of English. I found it was surprisingly easy, however, to communicate without sharing even a word of common language.
In many ways they were just like other children I’ve known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging. In the midst of the games, laughter and silliness that we engaged in all day long it became almost easy for me to forget that they were orphans. When that reality came crashing back it never failed to hurt my insides with the same breathless intensity as it had the first time. Especially when it intruded unexpectedly, as happened one afternoon.
Caroline and Papa had arranged an ice cream party. Two tables were pulled into the courtyard as the frozen cartons were delivered. The kids lined up eagerly from youngest to oldest to be handed their paper cups of ice cream as we scooped it out in a battle of time against the sun blazing overhead. As we served the icy treats and listened to the kids slurping away, I noticed that Santosh, the boy I sponsored, was nowhere to be seen. I asked some of the other boys about him, and they pointed toward the top of the stairs.
I went up and found him sitting alone, seeming sad and listless. He wasn’t interested in the ice cream. A house mother named Madhu passed, and I asked her to help me find out what was wrong; I was afraid Santosh was hurt, or sick. Madhu took him into the boys' dorm and talked to him for several minutes.
“He misses his mother,” she said simply when she came back out.
I felt it in my heart, and knew that although they loved us being there it could sometimes only make them miss the presence of their own parents. The good of all these caring surrogate parent figures – Papa, Caroline, the house mothers, the volunteers – outweighed the heaviness of sorrow, to be sure. But it was easy to miss the sadness, at times, in the presence of love that filled the ashram. I was reminded anew that these children all carried secret grief and damage inside them, often hidden or temporarily forgotten but never erased entirely.
I sat with Santosh on the edge of the concrete walkway outside his dorm room. Draping my arm around his shoulders I squeezed reassuringly and held him against my side. I knew that his mother had died when he was so young he couldn’t possibly remember her, not really; but to mourn the idea of a mother, that huge absence in his life like a great gaping hole – that was another thing completely. We sat together, not speaking, while in the courtyard in front of us the other children slurped up their ice cream noisily.
Shelly Seale, Author, The Weight Of Silence, with Santosh
About Shelley Seale
Hi, I’m Shelley Seale. Many people ask how I got involved in this work and writing The Weight Of Silence. Many people also ask, “Why India?” So I created this page to give a little bit of my background and that of this book project.
I have been involved in nonprofit work and social activism almost all my life - particularly around child advocacy. When I was a young teenager my mother began fostering babies for the Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth, and through the years we were a foster home to over 50 children. My sister, Katie, was adopted during that time - as she says, she’s always known she was special! So at a young age I was aware of child rights and advocacy issues. It must run in the family because both of my sisters, Amy and Katie, work at a foster agency that provides homes to abused and neglected children.
As an adult I began doing a lot of volunteer work here in Texas, with abused and neglected children. I participated in a mentoring program for at-risk teens for several years, and worked with Child Protective Services. In Austin I have been a Guardian Ad Litem through CASA for almost 5 years, in which I act as a court-appointed advocate for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, and have been involved with The Heart Gallery to find forever families for such children.
Then in 2003 I read a story in Tribeza magazine about Caroline Boudreaux’s incredible journey that became The Miracle Foundation. After a trip to India caused Caroline to come face to face with hundreds of children living in hunger and filth in an orphanage, she turned her life upside-down and started the foundation that today supports five orphanages in India. I began sponsoring a child, and in March 2005 traveled with Caroline to India for the first time, to work in the orphanage and meet the children. As trite as it sounds, the experience changed me, too.
This topic, and these children, are very near and dear to my heart. For those who ask, why India? My simple answer is, why not? I find most people who ask this question are really asking, ‘why don’t you do something here at home instead of traveling halfway around the world?’ There are plenty of children here who are suffering and need help. And I do - I donate thousands of hours and dollars each year to children in need right here at home.
But besides that, why India? Because I believe that every life, no matter where it’s lived, has equal value. Because extreme poverty in India is not the same as poverty in the United States. Because there are very little if any safety nets for these children who fall through the cracks. Because the AIDS crisis in South Asia is reaching epidemic proportions and threatens millions of children. Don’t get me wrong - we have vast problems in my home country, including poverty and racism and inequality and child abuse. But millions of children in the U.S. aren’t generally threatened by malaria and tuberculosis, missing out on their entire educations, or trafficked into brothels and factories of inhuman conditions. Today there exists, for the first time in history, the real possibility of ending extreme poverty in developing countries.
And quite simply, because those 25 million children exist.
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