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


“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…

India Reflections

In February 2011, SAFP Canada Board member, Patrick Mahon, and his son Thomas (who was 18 at the time) travelled with SAFP throughout Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This reflection was written by Thomas Mahon in October, 2011.

I remember first arriving in India. It was around 3 in the morning and even at that time the heat and the weight and smell of the air were staggering. My father, Patrick Mahon, and I stepped out of the airport and into the night to a dense mass of people, many of them staring at us, and a road covered in innumerable idling vehicles breathing exhaust fumes into that oppressive air. Our friend, Father Augustine from SAFP India, found us and soon we were off along tortuous roads, passing people making their way in the dark to temples and churches to attend morning prayers. In the light of the sparse fluorescent streetlights, dense masses of raw jungle and buildings leered from the gloom. I got a sense of a different world, and it felt like a dream.

Our destination on that early morning was Aiswaryagram. It is the headquarters and offices of Save a Family Plan, located near Ernakulam in the province of Kerala, very near to the southern tip of India. My father is on the board of Save a Family Plan in London, Ontario, and this presented him and me with the opportunity of staying in India for a month and visiting with the organization and its people. We arrived at the beginning of the month this past February, when my father was on sabbatical and I was out of school (for I had graduated the previous year and had returned to high school just for one semester to take a few additional courses). We had a couple days to recover from jet-lag and explore the Save a Family Plan headquarters – which consists of both a building with bedrooms, kitchen, chapel and offices, and a large farm around the back – before we were off, travelling the area and doing our work with Save a Family Plan. But I say this casually – the main work of the organisation is to help poor families of the region by using money from sponsors in Canada to provide the families with the tools necessary to start an Income Generation Project, a means of establishing their own source of income, so that after a few years they will no longer need the aid of the organization. What we were doing was not dropping off sewing machines or livestock, but for the most part, we were simply visiting families involved with SAFP and seeing the progress they are making with their IGPs. Also, as we travelled around, we attended gatherings of SAFP families at each area’s Diocesan Social Service Society, and we also visited other associated organisations such as orphanages and youth hostels. In a sense, we were ambassadors of Save a Family Plan Canada.

On our journeys with SAFP we toured just the two Southern-most provinces of India where the organisation’s work is among its strongest, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We travelled with a couple representatives from Aiswaryagram and also with coordinators from each DSSS. Everywhere we went, we were received like kings! At each house, the families would take us into their small dwelling and ask us to sit while they lavished us with their freshly prepared food and juice, always trying to give us more. It was often uncomfortable accepting food and being waited on by people who had so little, and yet it made them visibly happy to see us take and enjoy their gifts. The houses were simple and small. The families were prevalently those of widows; Kerala and Tamil Nadu border the Indian Ocean and the water claims many fishermen. There was often a solemn man’s photograph in the main room of the house above the door.

We visited families and dioceses for a couple weeks. It was overwhelming. The families were always horribly poor, faced with formidable social and economic challenges, and yet their unwavering generosity was inspiring. Their whole attitude was inspiring, as they received us always with smiles and optimistic stories.

Each experience was powerful, but one family stands out in my mind. Their dwelling was some distance from the road, and it consisted of three walls of varying brick and stone, and a thatched roof which came down low in the front to serve also as something of a wall. The house was tiny. The family came out to us instead of trying to squeeze us in, but through the front I saw all that lay inside: a single bed and a power conduit with one outlet granted to them by the Indian government, a bizarre object in such an abode. The inhabitants were a young mother, a son, a daughter, and a grandmother. Save a Family Plan support had enabled the mother to purchase a goat. The family was only in their first year of SAFP sponsorship, and the local animator explained that it was likely that with time their situation would improve significantly. But I had a difficult time being optimistic. The hardship and obstacles of this family were altogether crushing. The mother was described to us simply as an “abandoned woman.” The grandmother was old and frail and would not move or speak, perhaps she was soon to die. The son, about age 9, suffered from acute eye problems and his mother had invested much in surgery and special glasses with little apparent success. It seemed from his manner he had other issues as well, though this was not confirmed. The girl, about age 7 was healthy – but as a poor girl in rural India, all that her family could hope for her was that she would eventually be married, and dowries are invariably outrageously expensive. It was unlikely that her family could ever afford one; I wondered if the best they could ever hope for would be for the mother to work for the husband’s parents, indefinitely.

Grasping all this and looking at the family before me I came to a realisation: for the most part, the problems and troubles of my life are comparatively meaningless. I saw then the world to be wider than I could have ever understood before the trip, and that it is on this reality that I should focus my own life’s interests. I thought of the playful, exuberant children we had seen in the orphanages, the generosity of the families, and the matter-of-fact way this family had recounted its hardships. The people we had visited are all confronted with immense challenges, and could be duly despondent from time to time in the face of these, but, somehow, they could still be happy too. I wondered if, in large part, this is because they are somehow ‘free’ of the negligible things we so often let haunt us in our lives in the privileged West.

As we left this family, the children waved and smiled and I tried to do the same.

Stories from the Field – A Visit to Kerala

Cavorting emus. Have you ever seen emus cavort? If you visit Aiswaryagram, SAFP India’s headquarters and agricultural training and research centre, and farm, you may. I did as I looked out my bedroom window one afternoon. You will see cows, pigs, horses, monkeys, chickens, ducks and nearly every farm animal you can think of, including the two emus.

The farm is beautifully run and serves many purposes. Every morning, men on bicycles come to pick up milk and deliver it to neighbors. If you’re awake in the middle of the night, you will hear men and women taking care of the cows that need to be fed, and milked, and to have their stables cleaned out. Folks do every sort of work on the farm, including caring for the cars and the grounds, as well as the many animals. In this way, local jobs are provided throughout the community.

When I had called Lesley, Executive Director of SAFP, some month before my stay in Aiswaryagram, and expressed a desire to visit, she graciously invited me. This would be the sort of trip I could relate to; no 5 star hotels, just a chance to see South India from the perspective of the people who live there. When I arrived at the airport, Father Augustine met me in his small car.  At the farm, I was shown around and all my needs were met by the sisters, Maria Jose and Ann Mercy. Later, it was arranged for me to meet some of the families I had sponsored over the years. What a delight it was to visit families who had taken the donations they received and put them to such good use. Many families use the money to educate their children. One man explained that his parents had received support some years ago and this had made it possible for him to become a plumber. Now as a plumber he was able to earn enough to educate his three children. A son had become a lawyer, another son worked at information technology and a daughter was attending nursing school! Listening to this story made me think of my own parents struggles to educate me and my siblings. Sometimes just a little help is all that is needed.

We walked down a muddy trail surrounded by lush, green vegetation to the home of a woman who had been able to start a coir making business. We went to the back of her home and she demonstrated how she turned the fiber from coconuts into rope. She and her family all benefited from the money she earned. How proud she was to have this little business and to give me a piece of the rope she spun. It sits on a shelf in my office today.

Each family insisted on providing a meal for us. At the end of our trip, we had eaten many varieties of delicious Indian food and couldn’t eat another bite!

I also had the opportunity to visit two orphanages, where children as well as some adults with disabilities lived. The children at Home of Faith lived like sisters and brothers, attending school, and church services together. I rode the school bus to drop off children at their various schools. It brought tears to my eyes to see how the children helped each other.

One boy, who seemed bright and normal in every way had severely clubbed hands and feet. He accepted the need to roll wherever he went. When he needed to climb stairs or get onto the school bus, other children lifted him. There was no embarrassment or shame; just a feeling of loving cooperation as brothers and sisters helped each other.

Later I visited Mercy Home, also run by Sisters. Children were so delighted to have a foreigner visit, and had great fun attempting to teach me Hindi. I dutifully wrote down the words and tried to pronounce them. We all laughed long and hard at my flawed pronunciation.

One evening, several girls put on a show for all of us. They had sewn their own beautiful purple and silver silk dresses. Since they couldn’t walk, their dance consisted of synchronized arm and body movement as they as they sang and “danced” to the music.

I cannot give enough praise to the people who run these institutions and to SAFP for allowing me to take part in their wonderful programs. As I slept under my aqua blue Mosquito net, I knew that this adventure was one I would never forget.

By Judy Cirillo
Long time supporter of Save A Family Plan