After being connected to the work of Save A Family Plan in India for the past eighteen years of my life, I finally had the opportunity this past year to take an incredible journey that has changed my life forever. Since I was a young boy, I have always supported a family through funds that I either worked for doing jobs on the farm that I lived, or from birthday or Christmas gifts. So it was a real dream of mine to meet some of these families in person and see for myself how they lived and experience their culture. Traveling on my own through the Middle East on the way to the head office of SAFP, located at Aiswaryagram in Kochi, Kerala, was an experience in itself. Nothing could have prepared me for the many new sights, sounds and smells of India! It was both a beautiful and sad country to visit…with extreme wealth and extreme poverty. I had many great and moving experiences such as arriving at the home of a family that I supported in Cochin for six years and walking into their small home and seeing a framed photo of myself on their table. To think that they cherished that photo and really did think about me all the way back in Canada brought tears to my eyes. It was amazing to see how well they were doing.
Despite the simplicity of the homes that many of the families that I visited lived, they were always so hospitable with providing me with tea, biscuits and even a chance to try traditional foods such as green mangos with hot chilies. They invited all their family and neighbours to come and see me.
My travels took me further south to visit several other families in the Dioceses of Marthandam, Thuckalay and Kottar in the State of Tamil Nadu. Baby, a staff from SAFP India made my trip safe and he made sure that we had lots of tea breaks along the way.
I traveled north to Delhi to visit the SAFP Canadian Government supported program SPED III. We went to the Canadian High Commission and met with Dr. Sampath Kumar, who is responsible for monitoring this program. This took me to Faridabad, Haryana where I visited the Sanjoepuram Children’s Village (for physically and mentally challenged children); Daleelgarh Village, where they were doing many projects including: legal awareness classes on domestic violence and dowry; special programs for drop-out girls; adult literacy program; first aid kit distribution and awareness on first aid measures; medical camps; model toilets; non-formal education; pesticide free kitchen gardens; awareness program on safe drinking water; spoken english course, tailoring & beautician course; and youth clubs.
We visited the Village of Arua where SAFP was undertaking a non-formal education program for the local children who were not attending regular school. They were so happy to be learning!
I then traveled back to Kerala and had the privilege of visiting the tomb of SAFP’s founder, Monsignor Augustine Kandathil in Vaikom, who continues to inspire so many. After a long winding drive up through the mountains filled with tea plantations in Munnar (Western Ghats), we drove to a remote Muthuvan Tribal settlement to visit the Girijothy Lower Primary School and had a wonderful day interacting and sharing a simple lunch with the staff, students and parents. This project is done with SAFP in partnership with the Diocese of Idukki.
Another experience I will cherish was spending time at the Don Bosco – Sneha Bhavan – home for street boys & the Valsalya Bhavan – home for street girls located in Pallurathury, Kerala with Director, Fr. Joe Fernandez. While it was shocking to hear some of the stories of the children and their experiences of living on the streets, bus shelters and train stations, it was great to see what new opportunities they had through education, sports and a living in a family atmosphere with loving and supportive staff.
For the final part of my trip, I travelled to the northern part of India, starting first in Kolkata, West Bengal. There I had the opportunity to visit the Lawrence DeSouza Home for seniors; the Loreto Entaly Convent School with headmistress Sr. Marion Vase, staff and students; Missionaries of Charity – Mother House to see Mother Teresa’s tomb; the Calcutta Anglo-Indian Social Services (CAISS) and Night Shelter – with volunteers. Kolkata was a difficult place to be – with so many families living on the streets and so much congestion and garbage. Our simple accommodation at Seva Kendra, Diocese of Calcutta was a refuge at the end of the day.
My trip would not have been complete without the unique experience of being on a train! Travelling on an overnight train we arrived early in the morning at Gaya, Bihar on the way to the famous Buddhist pilgrim centre of Bodhgaya. Bihar is one of the most impoverished states in India and it did not take long to see the pathetic condition of the families. There we met a young physiotherapist named Dr. Sanjay Kumar of the Hope Charitable Trust who travelled to remote villages to provide treatment to children with polio. Out of thousands of worldwide nominees, he was being awarded with the prestigious Adeste gold medal.
Back on the train we made our way to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh where the Director, Fr. Gyan Prakash of the Diocese of Varanasi – Purvanchal Gramin Chetna Samati – Centre for Rural Development met us. By jeep we then travelled on a rough road for approx. 5 hours to reach Raghopur, Ballia, where we attended the inauguration of the food ration program for the Nagar Block and representatives from 20 villages and government officials attended. Our next stop was the Village of Jetwar where we saw a street play and learned of the other SAFP supported projects such as income generation; improvement of sanitation facilities, drainage, and roads.
The next day we travelled to the Village of Kaithi where women’s groups were doing income generation projects like a spice making unit and undertaking community activities including sanitation and drainage. The hospitality of these people was incredible and sincere.
While the majority of my time was spent seeing all of the incredible work that Save A Family Plan has been doing in some of the most impoverished areas of India, I did have the chance to see some historical sites such as Benares, Uttar Pradesh and attended an evening “Ganga Aarti” ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and travelled down the Ganges River in a small wooden boat to see the Manikarnika Ghat (Hindhu cremation site).
I will never forget the local animators and coordinators of the programs and the dedicated staff at the Save A Family Plan India office. More importantly, I will cherish my time that I had with some of the most courageous and hardworking families that I have ever met in my life. Despite their many challenges and issues, they were making a difference in their lives. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience that I hope one day will be an inspiration for others.
Noah is presently in the Pre-Service Firefighter Program at Lambton College, Sarnia, Ontario