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


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.

Christmas in Haryana

SAFP Canada Staff Cassandra Griffin writes from the field in India.

I woke up to a white Christmas this year, but not the kind I am used to in Canada. Out my window, thick white fog hung over the paddy fields and mustard flowers that make up the landscape of Haryana in North India. It was one of the coldest days yet in the area, falling to only 2˚C during the night, but my heart was warmed by the beautiful Christmas celebrations that were going on in this corner of the world.

This year, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend my Christmas at Sanjopuram Children’s Village in Chandpur, Haryana, just a couple hours from the city of New Delhi. It is a project of Save A Family Plan’s partner St. Joseph’s Service Society in Delhi and is home to more than two hundred children. A major goal of this project is to promote inclusivity for those with disabilities, including the blind, deaf, and physically and mentally challenged, by allowing them to live and study along with normal children. The children with special needs learn from specially trained teachers, as well as from their interaction with the other students. The other children develop compassion and learn to respect and help those who have different abilities than they do.

Some of the children have families to spend their holidays with, but most stay in the village and spend Christmas with the many religious sisters who manage the residences. Although I was expecting a quiet Christmas, it was anything but! In India, there is a tradition of going caroling in the nights leading up to Christmas, so for many nights, we packed all the children into a school bus with drums, shakers, and santa hats and made our way down the roughly paved roads to find others to share in our celebrations. Sometimes we’d go by foot, dancing along to the sound of the drums and our own voices with darkness all around us and the bright stars above us. Even in an area that is predominantly Hindu, the local residents greeted us as we went by.

Christmas Eve brought with it great celebrations, involving more caroling, crackers, and a long candlelight procession at midnight. On Christmas day, we shared a simple but wonderful meal prepared by the sisters and enjoyed cake and sweets. Warm clothing was distributed to needy people in the local area.

In a part of the country where marginalization and exclusion due to gender, religion, and caste persists in a very extreme way, it is wonderful to experience the inclusive and empowering atmosphere that exists at Sanjopuram. It provides an example of what is possible when we build communities based on acceptance and gives hope for the next generation to create a society where everyone is able to participate.

India’s Scheduled Tribes

Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in India, facing disproportionately high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and poor health. These communities, referred to by the government as “Scheduled Tribes”, make up more than 8% of the country’s 1.2 billion inhabitants. Many have little contact with the outside world and continue to survive through hunting and gathering or farming with rudimentary agriculture techniques. It is estimated that more than half of these people live below the national poverty line.

As we work to combat poverty in India, special assistance must be provided to tribal communities to help them address their many needs in a way that respects their unique history and way of life. The Kothamangalam Social Service Society and the Highrange Development Society in Idukki have been working with tribal communities in the area of Marayoor, Kerala for nearly two decades. Prior to this, the communities had no interaction with the outside world and at first, they were cautious to have contact with people from the outside. Over time, staff members were able to establish a trusting relationship with the communities and were eventually welcomed in the tribal settlements. These staff members discovered a people with a nomadic culture, their own dialect, unique cultural arts and traditions, and a custom of nature worship. They also found high rates of infant mortality, insecure temporary shelters, many cases of early marriages, and extreme poverty.

The staff began to work with the community to illustrate the importance of formal education and eventually they worked together to create a school for the children of the area. It has been developed and expanded over time and now provides education up to Grade 4 for 200 local children. In addition to housing classes, the school also acts as a community centre where many gatherings take place, including community discussions on important issues, celebration of the local tribal festivals, medical camps, meetings with local government officials, and administration of the local Credit Union.

Save A Family Plan (SAFP) works in partnership with the Highrange Development Society to support the ongoing operation of the school and to continue addressing the needs of the children. In 2008, a midday meal program was started for the students after it was discovered many were missing class because they were hungry and spent the day searching for food in the forest instead. The following year, “an egg a week” program was started to provide additional nutrition to the children.

In early 2011, a survey of the community revealed that only 10% of the people in the tribal settlements had access to proper sanitation, while the rest were using open areas for their washroom. This practice leads to a variety of health issues and diseases that could be seen among the population. SAFP is now partnering with Highrange Development Society with a goal of building 60 latrines in the settlements this year. This will decrease the cases of endemic diseases, prevent the contamination of drinking water, decrease the infant mortality rate, and raise awareness of the importance of hygiene throughout the community.

SAFP is happy to support the work of the Highrange Development Society and the committed staff who spend their time working and teaching in these remote areas. In order to reduce poverty in India, it is essential that all people have the chance to take part in the country’s development and to benefit from the progress that is being made. Many marginalized groups, such as the Scheduled Tribes, require a helping hand to begin identifying and addressing the problems they face and to ensure their human rights are being met. We are pleased to work together with these communities as they engage in development with dignity and become active, participating citizens within their country.

By Cassandra Griffin
SAFP Canada Staff

Overcoming Obstacles to Education – Little Stars School

Although education in India is considered to be a right for all, schooling is still out of reach for many children from poor families throughout the country. This is the case for many children living in the slums in the city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, which is found in the north of India.

Poor families arrive in Varanasi from nearby villages and neighbouring states in search of work in the city. With no education, assets, or savings, they are often forced to settle in areas with poor infrastructure and lack of security, and to work low paying jobs driving cycle rickshaws, washing dishes, cleaning clothes, cooking or cleaning for others, selling vegetables or sweeping the street. With their small incomes, education for their children is out of reach. They are unable to afford the costs of uniforms, books, and supplies that are required for their children to study in free government schools. A large number of the children are also expected to work from a young age to help support the family, picking up trash in front of stores, begging, working at road side stalls selling tea or tobacco, pushing food carts, and working as domestic servants in wealthier homes. In this case, sending the children to school means a loss of income for the family.

Little Stars School, a partner of Save A Family Plan, is working to overcome the obstacles to education in the slums of Varanasi and give the children a chance at a better future. Along with providing tuition, uniforms, and supplies at no cost to the families, they have worked with parents to help them understand the importance of education. The school started by providing classes to a just few students, but now nearly 750 students are enrolled from preschool to grade 10.

Little Stars School aims to provide as much assistance as possible to these underprivileged children to address the variety of challenges they face. Class sizes are kept small to ensure that all the students get the help that they need and a wide range of skills are taught to accommodate their varying abilities and goals. Medical exams and daily nutrition supplements are also provided to keep the children healthy and deal with any problems. Support is provided to those who wish to continue their studies at college or university.

SAFP is happy to support organizations like Little Stars School that work to give disadvantaged children the chance to attend school. Their work is integral to making education for all in India a reality.

Photos and information courtesy of Little Stars School, http://www.littlestarsschool.org.