I don’t usually publish my Making a Difference column for Chalo! as part of my blog. Mostly, that is because the column is about showing Mumbai Connexions members how our rupees are spent at the various charities that we support. My reporting has taken me to Deonar garbage dump, Dhobi Ghat slum near Arthur Road Jail, and Byculla (twice now). Not exactly a list of the most glamorous hot spots in the city, but I have enjoyed every minute of it.
Yesterday, I toured the League of Mercy Shelter for Girls. Run by the Anglican Church of North India as a community outreach program, the shelter offers assistance to two types of girls: orphans and girls of single parents (usually mothers), who cannot afford to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate them. The shelter currently houses 31 girls ranging from 5 to 18 years. It is open to girls of all faiths. I left the shelter with the song, “It’s a hard-knock life” running through my head on some kind of confounded loop of an earbug that is plaguing me even now.
For those of you unfamiliar with the song from the Broadway musical Annie, here is the YouTube version.
Specifically, the scene at about 3:00 where they are jumping on the beds. Here’s why:
This is the sight that greeted me as I climbed the spiral staircase to the upper floor dormitory. Maybe the Annie image is a testament to my sheltered existence in the US; maybe it is a testament to my prodigious knowledge of US pop culture; maybe it is the only way that my brain could process the image before my eyes. An image that left me in tears later.
Annie takes place during the Great Depression of the 1930s in the US. When we see the images on the screen, we are meant to sympathize for the girls whose plights are so bleak. But, this is not the 1930s, and we are not in the US. We are in modern India. After being in India for over a year, my expectations are definitely lower than they used to be. I looked at these beds and realized that they really are quite nice. Quite frankly, for the girls at this shelter, these simple beds are a vast improvement over life on the streets or in the slums. But, unlike Annie, there is no Daddy Warbucks for these girls. The shelter is a group home and meant to be a girl’s home until she turns 18.
Although the beds conjured images of the beds in Annie, I can tell you that not all children sleep off the floor. Many have the mattresses pulled out each night and lined up on the floor to sleep. I can hear everyone in the US now, “But, that’s outrageous! Let’s buy all the girls bed frames!” Typical Americans thinking big. Great idea! The only problem is that I am not sure where they would put them all. The other rooms that you can see to the left are rather small. They are used as multipurpose rooms, so being able to clear the floor of mattresses actually helps use the space better. A bunch of bed frames would make that task much harder. A simpler need would be getting sheets and blankets for each girl instead. In India, I have learned that it is the small, small things that matter most. It’s not that you can’t have big dreams and goals. It’s just that you must take a small step toward achieving that goal every day. Success is measured in millimeters not inches.
Although the home is run by the church, it takes referrals only from the Child Welfare Committee (CWC). When the CWC learns of an orphaned or destitute child, it refers the child to the League of Mercy shelter. The shelter’s purpose is not to adopt the girls to families but to provide an “atmosphere of love and care” for these girls so that they can successfully transition to adulthood. For the girls of single parents, the goal is reunion with the family. Monthly visitation is allowed during a child’s stay to help maintain the bond. A girl must be readmitted to the program every year. A change in family circumstances, even for the better, might mean that a girl can no longer remain in the shelter. That can mean a never-ending cycle of poverty for the family and missed education opportunities for a girl as a parent manages to squeak above the poverty line.
While housed at the shelter, all the girls’ needs are met: shelter, food, clothing, and, most importantly, education. Education is their path out of poverty. Many girls are daughters of household help. The goal is to help the girls achieve a life better than their own mothers’ had. The girls attend either Marathi or English medium schools, depending on their circumstances and abilities. They are educated until 12th standard.
The shelter’s most pressing needs are the ongoing expenses of food and education. I asked Mrs. Barday, the shelter coordinator, how the retail bandh had affected the shelter’s food supply. She said that “by the grace of God” a woman had contacted her about making an in-kind donation in honor of a deceased relative. Thanks to that donation, the girls had a hot lunch supplied straight through the bandh without interruption. Because the shelter’s primary goal is to educate the girls, it could also use additional computers to help the girls practice for their exams and learn new skills. A girl can also be sponsored for Rs. 2,000/month. All material needs aside, really and truly, what these girls need is much simpler: someone to care and help them achieve their best.
I was guided by a lovely girl named Sangeeta. Sangeeta is 15 and has been at the shelter since she was five years old. This next school year, she will matriculate to 10th standard. She attends a Marathi medium school, and speaks excellent English. She is an artist who hopes to attend college after completing 12th standard. She is an example of the good a program like this one can accomplish. Her face lit up as I asked her about how her exams had gone. She was very proud of getting to 10th. I asked Mrs. Barday if the girls were taught crafts like sewing and cooking. She said, “No, they are too busy with school for that.” They all want to learn computers instead. The goal is that these girls will not grow up to be maids like their mothers, but managers with degrees in BComm. Although it is a life with clear hardships, it is also one with hope, too.