I volunteer for a foundation that helps orphans in India called The Miracle Foundation. I have been going to India since 2005 on “ambassador” trips to work as a volunteer at various orphanages for a week or so. We have varied targeted projects when we are there. Usually we are a group or 10-12, mostly folks from the USA, since the foundation is headquartered in Austin, Texas, USA.
Some of the people on these trips are first timers. And many return again and again. The experience is tragically difficult and absolutely life-changing at the same time. India has a way of assaulting your senses the moment you arrive. I have traveled all over the world and have never experienced someplace so “foreign”.
The sights of color and filth, the smells of curry and sweat, urine and flowers, the stifling heat and smog from burning trash which wraps itself around you like a boa constrictor and takes the life out of you certain times of year. The cacophony of sounds screaming all around you all day long….the call to prayer at the mosque, the children cheering during a cricket match, the constant horns on rickshaws and automobiles raging all day and night. And the crows. I find the crows haunting.
India punches you in the gut and then wraps her arms around you in a loving embrace. Oh India, you gawd awful seductress.
On one particular trip, we were at an orphanage in a remote area of one of the poorest states in the country. So far from civilization that most Indians are shocked when I tell them not only do I know of it, I have been there.
Our assignment on this trip was to paint the children’s home with focus on their bedrooms. You see, in most Indian orphanages it feels more like a jail than a home. There is little color, little air circulation, and sometimes little hope. The house mothers are even called wardens at the government homes. Fortunately for a home under The Miracle Foundation’s care, there is a lot of hope and happiness. Our job on this trip was to make it feel like a true “home” with colorful paint and hand prints of all the kids on the walls painted to turn into butterflies.
Each volunteer had their own “family” of children for the week. They varied in age and sex so it felt like a family…usually made up of approximately 8-10 children. This group would help us with each of our projects throughout the week.
There was one gorgeous little girl of about 10-12 years old who stole away my heart. We were connected from day one. She had coco skin, deep soulful black eyes and an incorrigible little smile. The entire week she would run to me when we arrived each morning from our little nearby hotel.
She would put my arm around her and melt her little body into mine. “Auntie, Auntie, COME” she would call out and take me off to see something. A drawing or a trick or her bed or some kind of small accomplishment of which she was proud. She learned to master the hula hoop from me with rapid ease.
We got on with our projects all throughout the week, painting walls, painting hands and virtually painting their names across our hearts. There was also plenty of time for play. Time for games and crafts and even a field trip. It was exhausting and exhilarating. They blossomed under our love. And we, of course, grew extremely attached to them.
On the last night the kids performed on “stage” for us and then it turned into a Bollywood dance party. We were so proud of them, our hearts swelling with adoration. After the show, they came out to get all of the volunteers to dance with them. Holding hands, swinging them around, laughing, singing, dancing. The evenings do cool off and you can see the stars forever. The breeze kisses your skin and the earth feels like it sends vibrations through you from the ground. This exceptionally magical feeling of India is something I have never felt anywhere else in the world. It is like an out of body experience. It is so hard to describe, like the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes on that extraordinary day.
The last night is always the trickiest. That inevitable goodbye happens without knowing if you will return to see them again. The children asked us to promise we will back next year. But how can you make such a promise when you live on the other side of the world? One never knows where life will take you. And then your tears start to mix with theirs as you cry for happiness that it happened, yet sadness because it is over.
Keep in mind, most of these children are orphans. Unwanted! The “untouchables” in their culture. We constantly reminded them how important they were by giving them hugs and kisses and holding their hands. Remember, all they own are a change of clothes (when one outfit is on, one is being hand washed by a house mother and sun dried in the courtyard), a school uniform, books for school and a plate for meals. Most other things are shared. The girls have little bits of jewelry made of plastic or a cheap metal. Because let’s face it, what is an Indian girl without bangles???
On that magical last night after dances and endless hugs, my girl pulled me aside from the madness. I crouched down to talk to her and she made me open up my hand and put it in front of her. She tugged the little heart off her plastic beaded necklace and placed it in the palm of my hand. She closed my fingers around it and put her little hand over my fist and said, “Auntie, auntie, so you will never forget me.” I was choked with emotion in a way no other child had ever made me feel. Like I would EVER forget her?? I hugged her close and whispered in her ear a “thank you” which came out like a croak, I was so overwhelmed with sentiment. When someone who owns NOTHING gives you something, your paradigms shift in the most powerful way. That day I realized she did not have “nothing”, she was filled with love. And she passed on the best lesson I could ever learn.
It got me musing today….wondering where is that beautiful little girl? Her particular home is not under the same partnership with the foundation, so they no longer take volunteers to work there. But maybe I can return on my own one day? She is a teenager now. Is she still filled with love? Is she happy and healthy? Do her deep soulful eyes still have the sparkle of hope? Does she know I often think of her? Did I help change her life as much as she did mine? I hope so.
Monday Musings. Make this life count. Have a great week ahead.