September 26, 2011

I was not simply helping poor children, I was helping myself.

While living as an expat in India I was naturally drawn to charity work.

As soon as I arrived in Mumbai, I sought out an opportunity to help others through an existing organization. But don’t get me wrong on my motivation. It may sound shocking, but I was not simply helping poor children selflessly and generously. I was helping myself.

I needed to be able to face the kids on the street, their little faces and hands bouncing on the window of my car on the way to or from school. Sitting comfortably in my car with air conditioning, a driver and my kids commuting from their American school, it was heart-breaking to see the kids begging for bottle of water, biscuits or few rupees. Even after four years there, I did not get used to it. It did not become easy to ignore.

A Loving and Impactful Leader

A few weeks after my arrival in India I met extraordinary woman, Colette Battistini, a French lady with great charm and immense energy. At that time, she’d just created her own association, Un Toit A Bombay (A Roof In Bombay), in order to help needy kids. Unfortunately, the present NGO that had been serving the children was leaving them as “no perspective”. Colette decided that she would not abandon these young children, leaving them miserable and neglected. She bought the old bus from the expiring NGO, and used the vehicle as a temporary kindergarten and office.

Colette’s efforts aren’t limited to education and simple childhood pleasures. The poorest families receive a food ration; at least two times per year Colette buys them rice, oil, salt and spices. Colette also ensures that the doctor visits the slum every two weeks and that children and their families can consult the physician, which is quite valuable as there are many infections and issues with tuberculosis. With money from sponsors she pays for the medical care and, when necessary, she applies funds from special donations for surgeries, glasses or dentist intervention. Today she cares for about more than 100 children in the slum of Malad, in North Mumbai in India.

Ankita’s Story

The story of one of these children stands out in my memory: Ankitas story.

One afternoon young Ankita played on the floor of her family’s little hut under the dark plastic roof. The opaque roof and walls are designed to keep the sunny daylight out, as the sunshine is synonymous with hot, with discomfort. Too dark to see and play, she became fascinated by fire and the way it could light up the hut. She decided to burn her little school papers, and the game with fire became nearly fatal for her.

She was transported in rickshaw to the hospital, where Colette rushed to be with her. When Colette saw Ankita and her horrible burn injuries, she was shaking. The face of little girl was sunken, her eyes were nearly destroyed and her skin was pending at the jaw. Colette was formal, under control, and she prohibited me to go to see her in the hospital. She was afraid that I would be upset and distraught after seeing little Ankita, and somehow she worried about my children too and the long-lasting impact of another’s deep hurt on our family. I have to admit that I never saw Colette so emotionally shaken, yet still concerned about everyone she cared for.

Ankita was placed in an artificial coma for ten days in the hospital for poor people, which serves the many needy citizens of India. The hospital facility is free, however medicines must be paid for and there is no nurse service and no food. Ankita’s bed was in a vast room, with other 80 women, all of them seriously burned. Yes, you read correctly: 80 women! When Colette described the atmosphere, the image of Dantes Inferno came to my mind.

With no nurse service at the hospital, all bedside care is left to the family. Ankita’s mom passed away while she gave birth to Ankita’s little sister, so it was up to her father to maintain her care and comforts. Her father slept in the hospital, on the floor under her bed, the same as many other family members, under other’s beds. He washed her, applied her ointment to her body and brought her to the toilets when it was possible. Ankita’s aunt travelled three hours to train to bring the little girl and her father food, when Colette was unable to visit. I always admired the immense strength of family especially among the poorest of people. The family weight of traditions can be lethal, but also can save a life. Here it was fortunately the better case: support, love and constant care.

Before waking Ankita from her coma, the hospital chief suggested that Ankita be transferred to the smallest private hospital for children. Of course, the private hospital has a price tag, a cost so many simply cannot afford. Colette and I had a discussion in the “bus office” about it. The little girl’s survival and recovery were so important to us that we were willing to pay for it from our own pockets.

There is good news about Ankita, and her life after the children’s hospital. I saw Ankita last May, before I left India, and I was amazed to see how beautiful and courageous and brave she was during her ordeal. Her eyes were saved, and even the few cicatrices that remained were treated within the following year, thanks to continued support from Colette. Miracles happen and I’m grateful for being able to testify to them and share them with others. Often they happen because of Colette, and many others serving the less fortunate with generosity and love.

In cold and rainy Dublin now, my memories bring me back to the hot, sweaty and smelly slum of Malad, and my heart aches to go back to the middle of this human madness and love again. Whatever I write here seems just too plain, too tasteless compare to Indian spicy reality.

Enlightenment and a Simple Light

When I saw this little movie about the ingenious light bulb now being used in slums of Manila, I ran around my house, calling everybody to see it and I felt like I’d seen another miracle. I instantly thought of Ankita, and many others living in the darkness of their huts in slums not only in Malad, but all over the world.

I felt disappointed to see that the video didn’t seem to gain much interest, much reaction from others. It was at that moment I realized: they simply cannot imagine how it is NOT to have a LIGHT. We are looking for enlightenment, thinking a lot, but sometimes less doing than thinking. Maybe, just maybe, this simple little innovation is an opportunity to bring the light to the life of others!

You Can Help

Colette and the others at Un Toit A Bombay need support.  It’s easy to get involved, by sharing financially through a donation or membership.  Please check out the website to learn more. Colette also welcomes volunteers, which is of course how I came to have the enriching experience of meeting Ankita and the other children.  Even if you are not able to share your money or time, please take a moment to view the photo albums , read stories of Colette’s work, and learn more about how such powerful work is done.

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

 ~Ralph Waldo  Emerson

To reach me for more information please visit my website: Free Hug Yoga.

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