Ms. Shelley Seale, a humanitarian and now guest blogger, shares with us a moving piece on the price and plight of innocence. It is a piece born from the heart. As you approach the end of Ms. Seale’s narrative, she also graciously shares with us general statistics on the day to day societal warfare waged knowingly against children. May peace be with you as you share your moments with Ms. Seale and pass on her moving piece, information and website to all that you know.
With no further introduction…
“The plane started its final descent, and my heart began to race. It was March of 2005, and I had been traveling halfway around the world for nearly two days to volunteer in an orphanage in northeast India, with the Austin-based nonprofit The Miracle Foundation. I had been sponsoring a child who lived there but had never visited the country before, and my stomach tightened as the plane touched down and I waited impatiently for the exit doors to open.
I had never expected to be in India. It wasn’t the exotic beauty that had drawn me. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure; but they were not what pulled me close, made the place somehow a part of my soul before I had even arrived.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the streets, the railway stations, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many of them are homeless, overflowing the 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. They are invisible children, their plight virtually unnoticed by the world, their voices silenced.
And in the small town outside Cuttack, a hundred miles south of Calcutta, one man named Damodar Sahoo had dedicated his life to providing some sort of family for one hundred of these children, assisted by donations and volunteers from the United States. I had no way of knowing just how much they would change my life.
Eleven dazed Americans emerged into piercing sunlight and walked across the tarmac to the small terminal. As we entered Caroline Boudreaux, founder of The Miracle Foundation, was immediately spotted by Damodar – known to all simply as “Papa.” He pulled Caroline into a hug across the metal bars separating the passengers from those waiting for them. He lifted his large, thick 1980s style glasses from the bridge of his nose and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief, overcome with joy at seeing his American “daughter” again and the group she had brought along to visit the children he cared for. Alongside him were his wife, two women who worked at the orphanage, and three of the children. As we showed our passports and entered the gate, one by one, the little girls handed us each a bouquet of flowers, kissing their fingers and bending down to touch our feet in a blessing.
The visitors and our luggage were crammed into vehicles and we zoomed down the main road, which was dirt peppered with potholes, narrowly missing bicycles, pedestrians, cows and rickshaws. India was everything I had imagined it would be – only more so. More colors, more noises, more smells, more people, more everything. It was an assault on all the senses at once: The throngs of people, the muddy dirt roads, the constant beep-beep of the horns. The deteriorating buildings, the ragged street vendors, the ramshackle homes for which hut was too grandiose a term. The wonderful and the abject co-existed side by side, for the most part peacefully. There was what everyone, myself included, expected – poverty, ugliness, despair, filth.
But there was also much beauty, in the midst of it all. The warmth and shyness of the people, the colorful saris, the upscale shops next to the vendors, the swaying trees surrounding it all. I was enchanted by a brief glimpse into an ornate Hindu temple, candles glowing and people bowing their heads to the ground in prayer. Beauty was not its own thing to be separated out, sanitized, and kept apart for its own sake. The true measure of beauty lay in its imperfections; to see it, one must embrace it all. India immediately wrapped itself around me and refused to let go.
And in the children beauty seemed to come alive, almost making me believe it was a living entity I could capture in my hands.
Without warning, we lurched around a village corner and turned into the orphanage entrance. In a second the cars had stopped and a hundred children lined around in a semi-circle, waving and chanting "welcome" over and over. I opened the car door and they were all around me, touching my feet in blessing. The children were shy at first, obviously excited but reticent. One little girl, about seven years old, summoned her courage and touched my arm, then grasped my hand. "Hello," she said softly, looking up at me and just as quickly dropping her eyes, giggling. As soon as she did this, the crowd of surrounding children shed their reserve and instantly moved in closer, putting their hands out for me to shake. There was a never-ending supply of hands raised in front of me and I shook them over and over.
I was overwhelmed and unsure what to do, blindly following behind Papa and Caroline as they moved into the ashram. It was almost surreal, and happening so quickly. I didn’t have time to look around or get any sense of where I was in the darkness. There were just the children, all around, and my feet moving forward until we arrived in a courtyard. The children, as one, left our sides and began climbing a staircase in an orderly fashion. We followed with the dozen staff members, removing our shoes at the top of the stairs and entering the prayer room.
The children were already lined up and sitting on rugs on the floor, boys on one side and girls on the other, ages progressively going up toward the back with older kids sitting behind younger. I was handed a small bouquet of red roses and marigolds, and led to a spot on the mats. At the front of the room was an altar holding flowers, small trinkets of devotion, a picture of the guru Sai Baba and a statue of Vishnu, an ancient Hindu god. Tacked to the walls on all sides were pictures of other Hindu gods – Ganesh and Krishna – as well as Jesus, Mary, Mother Theresa and Mohammed. Ceiling fans whirred overhead to stir up the warm air. A staff member lit incense at the altar while another blew a horn softly. The children sat up straighter and ceased any fidgeting or whispering.
Then the prayers began. It started with a simple chant: "Om….om..," the small voices resonating deeply. The chanting gave way to a song, a hundred sweet voices dancing in the air and filling the room. Beside me on the rug sat one of the smallest girls, with glossy black curls and deep dimples. She was sitting lotus-style with her middle fingers and thumbs pressed together on the knees of her yellow and green flowered dress, eyes squinted tightly shut in concentration. Her strong, clear singing distinctly carried to my ears apart from the others. The voice of this three year old rising so pure and true was one of the most powerful sounds I had ever heard.
Soon the singing faded into silence and Papa prayed. He said there were many religions represented and respected in the ashram. “Here, there are Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. We pray,” Papa said, “to God and Allah and Jesus and Mohammed. The meaning of life is to love all. The purpose of life is to serve all.”
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, and I breathed out deeply. The past forty hours of travel and little sleep fell away as if they were nothing. There seemed no other world outside this place. As Papa spoke my eyes traveled over the faces all around me. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go home, or if they ever had. As much of a loving community as the ashram seemed, it was not the family that most of the children had once known, distant and ghostly memories for the most part.
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 home, 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.
Post Script: Excerpts provided by Ms. Seal
What to know:
More than 25 million Indian children currently live without homes or families – in orphanages or on the streets, where they are extremely vulnerable to abuse, disease, and being trafficked into labor or the sex trade.
Another 4 million children join their ranks each year.
India is home to the most AIDS orphans of any country in the world – approaching 2 million, and expected to double over the next five years.
By some estimates, as many as 100 million child laborers work in India.
Hundreds of thousands of Indian children go missing each year, kidnapped or trafficked – and three out of four of those are never found.
A poor child in India is three times as likely to die before his fifth birthday as a rich child.
More than two million children themselves die every year from preventable infections for which education and medicine are lacking.
One of every three of the world’s malnourished children lives in India.
Fifty percent of childhood deaths there are attributable to malnutrition or starvation.
How you can help:
The first step is awareness – thank you for reading this article and for caring. You can sponsor a child at Miracle Foundation.
You can make a donation at UNICEF, the leading champion for children worldwide. Be a conscious shopper. Is it really worth getting something a few dollars cheaper if it is made by slave labor or children? Check out The Better World Shopping Guide. You can take action by signing petitions and/or financially supporting organizations that are working worldwide to end child labor. Some of them are: globalmarch.org | endchildlabor.org | earthaction.org