I received more than I gave . . . SAFP supporter Noah Porter shares his experiences in India

Noah with kids

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.

Noah with Family

Green Mango and Chili

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.

In Delhi

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.

Noah at Girls Home

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.

Noah 4

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 2

Noah is presently in the Pre-Service Firefighter Program at Lambton College, Sarnia, Ontario


The Search for Eco-Friendly Alternatives Leads to Sustainable Livelihood in Quilon, Kerala

Star Making Group
The waste management campaign that was started by the SPED III team in Thrikkadavoor Panchayath, Quilon, Kerala, is aimed at promoting systematic waste management and reducing the use of plastic products. To sustain the campaign, the team realized that it was critical to introduce the manufacturing and marketing of various paper products into the community. They got the idea that if the production and sales of paper products became a part of people’s livelihoods, they would have more incentive to use paper and avoid plastic.

A large number of the women in the community were unemployed and eager to find a source of income, so they worked together with the SPED III team to find an alternative livelihood that would change the entire ambiance of the community. Mrs. Felsy in Pallivettachira village said that, “We were unaware about the possibilities and opportunities that are available in the community. Once we came to recognize it, we were filled with great confidence and immense enthusiasm”.

Exploring the options

SPED III team was eagerly searching for an alternative livelihood to support the group of women who are actively propagating the systematic waste management and anti-plastic campaign. The team felt strongly that the livelihood project should be sustainable and ecofriendly. The leader of opposition in Thrikkadavoor Panchayath stated that “the Panchayath committee and VAT committees in various villages suggested for paper bag, paper plate products, paper cups and other paper based product manufacturing. But when we think about its feasibility we realize that it needs huge investment and risk”.

Paper StarThe SPED III team identified some companies that are encouraging home-based production of paper stars. These stars are used in India to decorate homes and communities during celebrations, especially Christmas. The companies provide free training and supply raw material at a low cost, then purchase the finished products at a reasonable margin. After receiving the necessary training to make the stars, the SPED III team and the beneficiaries began to network with star making companies. They were also provided with training to market their product and negotiate and bargain with the companies. The training was a blessing and opened up new opportunities to the poor and unemployed women.

Building Confidence

Now it has becomes a sustainable and regular source of income to 400 women. Mrs. Moly Babu, Ward member, Venkekkara village shared that “when we came to experience the star making, we did not believe that it would becomes sure source of income, but now we realized that it is a less expensive and marketable product and it is providing a sustainable and remarkable income to us”. The entire community whole heartedly agreed that the star making training was lighting the lamps of change for many lives and families.

Mr .Prasanth. B, the Grama Panchayath president also expressed that they were doubtful about the success of star making as a livelihood, but the community and the SPED III team proved that it could be a lucrative project for the women. “I would like to appreciate the SPED III team for their sincere efforts and innovative ideas.”

Celebrating Success

Star MakingNow the women are manufacturing two kinds of stars at different rates. The raw materials are purchased by the workers themselves and they sell the finished product to various star making companies in Kollam town. They were earning a reasonable income ranging from Rs. 1500 to Rs. 6500 ($30-$130) in a month.

According to Mrs. Jincy from Pallivaettachiara village, “The training was a blessing to me. Prior to the star making training, I was an unemployed house wife without income. But now I am very proud to be an earning member in my family and happy to be economically self-reliant. I am living in a rented house with my husband and two children. My husband is an alcoholic and completely ignored the family. Prior to the star making training I didn’t have any means of living. But now I am able to achieve nearly Rs.5000 ($100) as my monthly income and to ensure decent standards of living to my children.”

A big thanks to Quilon Social Service Society for providing us with this case study!

Increasing girls’ access to education in Bhuj, Gujarat

Girls ride to school
Bhavana Bhugu, Shantha Kanji, and Kajal Rupa are three girls from the Ahir caste in the village of Dhrang in Gujarat. After completing 8th Standard, the three girls dropped out of school. In Dhrang village, no girls have gone on to study beyond 8th Standard and many do not have the chance to study at all. The mentality in this community is that girls with more education have more difficulty getting married, since it is harder to find a suitable match for them with equal qualifications.

This village is located in a desert area near the border of Pakistan and there are no facilities for higher secondary school available nearby. The closest high school is 6 kilometers away and there are no transportation facilities readily available. The parents are not ready to send them to this school, especially since female children are typically not allowed to leave the village.

In Dhrang village, it is a custom in the Ahir caste for girls to spend their time making traditional handicrafts, including wall hangings and dresses, to take with them to their husband’s house after marriage. This custom also discourages girls from attending school and contributes to the low literacy rate.
Traditional Handicrafts
The local animators approached the girls and their families, as well as the principal of the local elementary school, to discuss the possibility of the girls continuing their studies. They pointed out the exemplary lives led by women who had come forward to work for the betterment of the nation. However, the families did not agree, claiming that the girls would not get admission in the schools anyways as registration for the year was over.

The program coordinator met with the principal of the high school to discuss the possibility of the girls continuing their studies. Although the school admission was over, the girls were enrolled in 9th Standard with the recommendation of the staff of the local NGO. All three are now regularly attending Lodai High School, which is 6km away from the village. At first, they would walk to school each day, but eventually they were able to purchase bicycles to make the travel easier.

The girls are very happy to have the chance to continue their studies, especially Bhavana Bhugu, who wants to become a police officer and fight against domestic violence and dowry. They feel that by seeing them attend school, some other parents may also be motivated to send their children as well.

Partnering with the Khasi people in Meghalaya, India

Visiting School Children in Meghalaya
The Madonna Missions is a committed group of people who partner with Save A Family Plan to carry on the work of the late Father Richard Saldanha. Their generous support is helping to promote education and infrastructure development in a rural area of Shillong in the north-east of India. Mr. Jack Geerts, Chair of the Madonna Missions Committee, shares a reflection on his experiences in Meghalaya.

The year was 2009 when my wife, Julia, and I had the good fortune to travel to India in a group of 20 with our parish priest, Father Richard Saldanha, who was born, raised and spent the bulk of his life there. He had started several small missions in India and he raised funds for them by taking small groups there annually. Though excited, my fear was that I would witness abject poverty and not be able to turn away from it and put it out of my mind. In other words carry on my cozy life as if nothing had happened, like nothing had affected me. But I couldn’t and it did.
Women handwash their clothing at a nearby water source
There began some serious soul searching because I couldn’t turn away. My fears had become my reality, a reality that stayed with me each waking hour. I had to act. So in 2011, I returned alone to the one place that had affected me the most, the small state of Meghalaya in the northeast of the country. This area is inhabited by mostly tribal peoples and in this particular area the Khasi tribe. Missionaries of different Christian faiths had started arriving here in the nineteenth century and a strong Christian belief was present.
Children attend school with support from Madonna Missions
I had the good fortune to connect with some of the Visitation Sisters of Don Bosco and from here was able to visit their far flung missions where they administer to their own people. In each mission centre, four or five sisters who are trained as nurses, teachers, evangelists and social workers live in small convents. There they teach school and run a dispensary with medications for malaria, diarrhea, etc., for many of the local people still succumb to these treatable diseases. If ever there could be “angels” among us, I felt it certainly would be these little nuns. They are totally committed to their calling of service to others, while themselves enduring the ravages of malaria, homesickness, loneliness and extremely primitive conditions with a sweet smile.
The dispensary run by the Sisters is an integral part of the community
I returned home with a new zeal, determined that I would do all in my power to continue to provide funds for their mission. What started as an apprehension has now become one of the greatest joys of my life. We are extremely grateful to Save A Family Plan for partnering with our Madonna Missions Committee. In the meantime, I have fallen in love with the Khasi people! Their warmth and welcoming spirit has touched me deeply and I have come to the realization that the poor are the true heroes of this world. In the quest to help them, I feel it is I who has received the greatest blessing.

Meeting some shy children
A big thanks to Jack for this reflection and to all those who support Madonna Missions and make this work possible.

“I alone cannot change the world…” Reflections from St. Edmund Campion Students

Visiting Aiswaryagram

Save A Family Plan was delighted to partner with staff and students of St. Edmund Campion CSS as they journeyed to India for their annual mission trip. They shared the following reflection with us on their experience and learning during their travels:

On March 1, 2013, our group of students and teachers from St. Edmund Campion Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, Canada had the privilege of embarking on a life changing journey to India as a part of a social justice project. Our mission was to raise awareness of the plight of the poor of India, specifically the children, as it relates to their limited educational opportunities and socio economic situation. Funds were raised through various activities thanks to the kind support of our families, friends, school, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, feeder schools, community businesses and local parish.

We spent the first few days in Kerala where we stayed at Save a Family Plan’s inspiring headquarters. In Kerala, we got a chance to meet many great people, including Save a Family Plan’s staff and Bishop Sebastian. We felt honored to be welcomed into their home and to receive welcoming gifts from them.

Meeting with Bishop Sebastian

“Kochi was beautiful and the Save a Family Plan staff was so welcoming. I felt like I was surrounded by family.” – Karen

As a school, we took on the commitment of supporting two families for the next six years through the Family Development Program. Both families are located close to the SAFP office, so we were able to organize a day to visit with them. Finally, the day had come for us to meet the families, we couldn’t wait.

“Although we were not able to communicate in the same language, we were able to work and get to know each other through smiles, kind gestures and our willingness to learn from one another.” – Chelsea

Students and staff visit their partner family in Kanjirappally

They were family now and it was hard to know that they are in the situations that they explained. It was a very emotional experience and completely unforgettable.

“The thing that touched me the most was knowing that each day our families were praying for our well-being. They even had us write out names down on a sheet of paper and would pray for us everyday. I think this was the most touching moment of my experience.” – Zenaida

When we arrived in Kolkata, we encountered and saw the impact of poverty and inequality that many of us have never seen in our life. We were experiencing culture shock that was forcing us all of reflect on our own lives and privileges which we take for granted everyday back home. Every night of the trip we would all meet up as a group to reflect on our day. That night was a special reflection because we were learning a lot and our own thoughts and perspectives were expanding rapidly. It became evident to us that as shocking as it all was, it was and still is reality to the people living in Kolkata.

“I realized that we complain about minuscule things in comparison to what people in India endure. I appreciated for the first time in a long time, everything and everyone in my life.” – Tania

Kolkata is the very city where Mother Teresa started her Missionaries of Charity. We continued our mission in India by volunteering our days there, which was another whole new experience. At the Missionaries of Charity, we met many other volunteers from all over the world. We would have mass and breakfast with the volunteers and the sisters in the mornings and then split up to our assigned homes, where we helped the Sisters and other volunteers feed the children and women and do the laundry. The kids and women we met were great! They were such intelligent humble people. During one of our scheduled days some of us took the kids out and taught them how to handle money. By the end of our time volunteering at these homes, many of us formed bonds with the children and women we met.

“Everyday was action packed with children in schools who we enjoyed playing and talking with; the most energetic children I have ever met. It made me so happy to see the children’s excitement to see us.”
– Marlon

Colouring with children at the Home of Faith

Through every state we stayed in, we visited different homes, orphanages and schools. We donated a duffle bag full of school supplies at each location. What we learned very quickly was that there is common ritual at each school and orphanage held for visitors. We were always welcomed with a dance routine, sometimes followed by singing. Aside from the school supplies, we returned their act of kindness with a dance of our own. Despite our obvious lack of skills in comparison, it always ended with the entire room (including ourselves) in smiles. Many of the times the kids would teach us their dance as well.

“Something that I have taken home with me is how outgoing the kids were. They always put on a dance for us. Now when ever I feel shy I remind myself how fearless and proud the kids in India are.” – Kendal

Children Playing in Kanjirappally

Our final destination was one of SAFP’s partner’s, the St. Joseph’s Service Society – Sanjoepuram Children’s Village, in the Northern State of Haryana. Sanjoepuram is a village of schools and homes for children with disabilities. On our last day, the children shared their gifts with us. One girl read us a story in braille, another very young girl recited a bible story to us aloud and in sign language at the same time. We ended our stay there working on an educational improvement project. The Sanjoepram community and our group gathered together to clear a field. It was a great way to interact and make friends. The children continually impressed us by how much they accomplished despite having disabilities.

Volunteering at Sanjoepuram

“While visiting all of these places in India, they all taught me the same lesson. We must never stop smiling and always believe for a better future.” – Reuben

The final day volunteering came to an end too soon. It was sad to know our mission was coming to an end. Although the children and people we met were without a doubt the highlight of our experience, we did get to see amazing land marks and taste all kinds of great Indian dishes like Masala Dosa! We were blessed to visit Mother Teresa’s tomb, the Ganges River and even the Taj Mahal.

Although we came to India to help, we were blessed in return with new knowledge and experiences to pass on. We’ve obtained knowledge that we can apply every day as agents of change.

“This experience was a confirmation of what I want to do when I get older which is social work and I recommend it to anyone who is contemplating on going.” – Christine

Staff and Students visiting the Home of Faith

Now that we are home with our new perspectives our mission does not end. We know that we can’t keep this life changing experience to ourselves. We are focusing on giving presentations within our school and community and to share as much as we can about what we’ve learned and what we’ve opened our eyes to. It is our hope that we can shape the attitudes and inspire others who will lead the fight against social justice. Now we can truly apply our groups mission statement that we’ve carried on our backs through out the trip:

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa

At the Don Bosco Shelter

Many thanks to Fatima Gomes this article and to all the staff and students for their open hearts and willingness to share.

Collaborators of Love

Michael and students
In December 2011, SAFP contributor, Michael Botermans, and six youth from the Northwest territories travelled to Kerala and Tamil Nadu with SAFP. The following is a reflection on their experience, as written by Michael.

India is as diverse, dynamic and different from the Canadian Arctic as summer is to winter, and vice versa. It was in December 2011, that a small band of Tlicho (Dene) youths and myself, their mentor from Behchoko, a small hamlet off the North Arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, traversed half the globe to begin our venture in partnership with Save A Family Plan.

Teresa Weyallon-Zoe, Jacqueline Gon, Mercedes Rabesca, Dene Daniels, and Shawn Gon (all Tlicho students) and I, the one who instigated this endeavor, left a snow-covered western arctic under temperatures as steep as -32 degrees Celsius. In two days we found ourselves in the southern-most states of India (Kerala and Tamil Nadu) in what felt like temperatures hovering around +32 degrees with no snow in sight. Greeted by waving palm leaves, exotic flowers and unparalleled hospitality by a host of local peoples, our story begins. It was here we experienced the fertile land, varied languages, scrumptious foods, and spirited communities of a country and a people beyond compare. We met our gracious host, Father Augustine Bharanakulangara and his “collaborators of love” and before long embarked on a mission unimaginable.

My task was simple: to offer the young Canadian adventurists firsthand knowledge of the “poorest of the poor” by experiencing and witnessing some of the family and community development projects that Save A Family Plan is involved in, and all of which help build the kingdom of God on earth. First things first, however, and we began by travelling through meandering roads and tropical rainforests of the south to reach some of the impoverished families I support through the Family Development Program. Most of these families live in far-off villages that would take us through the various landscapes of southern rural India. I felt as though it was like a family reunited for the first time after years of separation and the elation we felt and exchanged left us in heaven. It was a learning experience for our group to see first-hand how the poor are empowered to make such changes in their lives and how a whole team of volunteers and experts is involved in the enhancement of life for these families, to help restore their dignity and strengthen their faith. It was marvelous and miraculous to see the progress made by these families, the “before” and “after” effects from Gospel love in action!

We visited a remote tribal school in Marayoor and the hope and progress education offers the village children and their families. Adding to the inspiration of India, we also visited a leprosy hospital, of which scores of lepers had lived in much of their lives with the stigma of the disease, a home for street girls to shield them from human trafficking and danger, and an orphanage, to name a few. Finally, after spending Christmas among these instruments of peace, the poor and SAFP staff alike, I knew I just had to do more, and plan a return visit. So upon my arrival in Canada, I immediately decided to partner with another 10 families! Until we meet again…

Gambling with the Monsoon

India is an agrarian country with 52% of its people employed in the agricultural industry.  As I rode the train between some of India’s southern states during my last trip there, there was no shortage of evidence of this.  Outside of the major cities in rural areas, you are surrounded for miles by farm crops specific to each state.  Coconut and pineapple trees, mango groves, fields of bright red chilies, cotton, maize, and the deep dark green of the rice paddies, form the squares of the quilt which this country is covered in.   The livelihood of millions of people in India are dependent on farming and consequently on the weather and environment.  Agriculture in India is often attributed as “gambling with the monsoon” because of its almost exclusive dependency on this season.  There, you are at the mercy of the environment, and often victims of it as communities struggle through droughts, floods, land degradation, poor growing conditions etc.   This can be seen in the situation of the Korku indigenous people, living in the village of Hettighat, in the Melghat Mountain region of Maharastra State, one of the areas where Save A Family Plan operates.

On the morning of my visit to Hettighat we set out on a bumpy, unpaved road, dodging pot holes, goats and wooden carts being pulled by oxen.  I had left behind the lush green crops that I frequently saw in other states, and instead was surrounded by dry and barren hills.  We passed through a small village at the bottom of the mountain that had a small market and the only water access in that area.  I was told that in past years the mountains had been more heavily forested and rivers were flowing for longer periods of the year.  Due to deforestation the density of the forest reduced and the availability of water became limited.  For the last few years, there has been scarcity of water due to reduced rainfall and erratic Monsoon seasons.  These poor environmental conditions make agricultural livelihoods impossible in Hettighat.  As a result, families are forced to migrate from the area for employment during harvest season.  Migration forces families to uproot their lives and is the source of many safety and human rights violations.  It takes away from villages’ attempts to create a sustainable economy and it forces children to be removed from school which contributes to illiteracy.  For women, there are high reports of violence and sexual abuse, and they live in small tents for months with no access to water, sanitation facilities or health services.  There is no regulation of pay or labour laws to protect women.  They work longer hours than men and are paid less.

Through Save A Family Plan and the Jevan Vikas Sanstha Social Service Society, the community of Hettighat is being given the opportunity to diminish the need for migration and to create healthy, sustainable communities.  Our Family Development Program encourages locals to start small, innovative, businesses through a micro-credit program.  Businesses such as snack shops and animal rearing are becoming successful as they do not rely on the agricultural industry, erratic monsoon rains or the poor growing conditions.  Through the program and community participation, the local economy strengthens, and the skill training offered by staff members provides opportunities for new jobs and businesses to be created.   In building and strengthening their community through participation, there is no longer a need to migrate and children can stay in their community to attend school.  Their health and safety situation has improved and they are able to budget and rely on a stable income.  We are excited for the community of Hattighat as they grow and strengthen their community through economic justice and empowerment of their people.

By Laura Stinson
SAFP Canada Staff