Donations at Work…

…An epic day calls for an epic post. Out of the 343 pictures I took this morning, I can’t narrow down my list of favorites to fewer than 37. With 31 people in a convoy of two tuk-tuks, we made a statement today as donations from around the world were used to purchase shoes and uniforms that will carry these precious children to new heights as their first day of school rapidly approaches.

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–Versha Kumar with her new sponsor’s daughter, Heather Barnes–

–Left to right: Kashak, Ajeet, Golu, and Versha–

This morning, we took 14 students and their available family members to the tailor and shoe store. For six of our children, their parents could not come. Pooja and Anita brought their older siblings. Neha, Gudiya, Manisha, and Rahul did not have anyone to bring so we gave them some special attention of our own.

–Boarding the tuk-tuks and taking attendance–

–Roshan waiting to go–

–After defeating me in arm wrestling, Ajeet was so excited he could hardly sit still–

I had thought we were high profile last week when we took just four students to get shoes and uniforms. Today, heads were turning everywhere to see our caravan of opportunity. In the market, people found out what was happening and asked if we could get their children admitted to the Carmel Convent School.

We arrived back at the war-zone looking street where the tailor is hidden. Holding hands and with smiles from ear to ear, the kids filed into the nondescript establishment.

The parents and kids lined up for measurements and information, each of which was systematically taken. Neha and Gudiya have been patiently waiting for this day. They were appropriately at the front of the line.













After some business matters, we all piled back into the tuk-tuks for our next destination: the shoe store.

–Versha with her mom, Gudiya–

–Gudiya and Manisha–

–Neha being lifted by the store manager (he was happy today too)–

The shoe store was overflowing with inspiration and hope. Other customers looked on in disbelief of what was happening. Even strangers came over to shake my hand and say thank you.


The children obediently waited their turns and showed great pride in their new shoes. Rahul even put a plastic bag over each of his bare feet before trying on his new shoes so as not to taint them.


Indu is Anita’s older sister and came to serve as Anita’s guardian. Indu took great pride just in verifying that Anita’s shoes met her approval. Indu and Anita’s stories are particularly touching. There will be a heart-tugging post soon just about their family.

–Indu inspecting the fit and appearance of her sister’s new shoes–


–Crystal Graham with Madhu–

I have been pleasantly surprised by the recent increase in commitment displayed by Madhu’s family. For the last week, I feared that Madhu would not receive the necessary family support. However, when she and her mother showed up this morning and promised complete devotion, I was thrilled to have her aboard.


After a more efficient visit than I had expected, everyone cheerfully funneled out of the store with new shoes in hand.

–Pritam (Pooja’s older brother) keeping Golu and Rahul in the moving tuk-tuk–

I am repeatedly astonished by the maturity and responsibility displayed by our students. They are rugged, independent, and hungry for goals. They take care of each other in ways that wealthier children do not. Just seeing them makes me smile. To watch them obtain what they deserve for the first time makes me celebrate on the inside.

–Rani with her mother, Suniana Devi–

Three weeks ago, Suniana Devi had no plans for her daughter. Now, she is already proud of Rani. With the donations buying these shoes and uniforms, Rani will go places and do things that her mother cannot even fathom. To those who continue to donate, thank you so much. God bless you.

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It’s Wedding Season…

…Loud music, dancing, and horses filled the street outside of our house all day. Tonight, another one of our neighbors, named Ambuj, wed his new wife, Abha, through an arranged marriage. Although the marriage venue was only about 35 miles away on the other side of New Delhi, it took us more than two hours to get there. We planned to leave at six, left at seven, and arrived at nine. We must have passed at least 20 other weddings on the way. Fireworks and bands filled the streets throughout Delhi. Luckily, we still arrived before the groom and his parade consisting of a full band, horse drawn carriage, and dozens of dancing relatives.

It was certainly a celebration! We could hear the band and procession coming from far away. Another wedding was taking place across the street as well as two more just down the block. When we were invited to the wedding last week, I was specifically requested to dance and wear the same outfit as in last month’s wedding. As soon as the groom’s family saw me, they whisked me into the dancing. The curly toes of my jooties were repetitively flattened by all of the stomping feet.

There were many similarities to the last wedding. We danced outside for at least 15 minutes before the groom and his men were stopped at the front of the venue by all of the bride’s female relatives. The groom received blessings, food, gifts, and new coatings to the tilak on his forehead.

The groom’s brothers and cousins wasted no time in getting the party started. The dancing continued directly to the dance floor while the procession continued.

After some time, we all joined in the dancing. The other volunteers had befriended this lady in previous events on previous days. She is the wife of one of the groom’s relatives. Every time I have seen her, she has been wearing extraordinarily gorgeous sarees and jewelry.

After about 30 minutes, the party music suddenly gave way to slow spiritual-sounding music. The bride emerged from the small room she had been hiding in. Decorated with 30 pounds of jewels and garments, the bride was slowly escorted to the stage by her immediate family.

Once on the stage, the austerity of the event gave way to jovial celebration. Unexpectedly, the bride and groom were lifted up by their respective families while they adorned each other in massive garlands. Everyone was laughing and cheering at the fun-loving change of pace.

To be a part of events like this is very special. I was thrilled just to be able to attend one wedding. Now I have been to two and have been invited to yet another! However, the wedding to come is of one of our 16-year-old female students in the slum. That will be quite the sight to see!

99 and Still Running…

…One lesson that I have learned in India is that the human body is much more durable than we often give it credit. It’s amazing enough to see people defecating on piles of burning trash next to grazing cattle. But to live like this for 99 years is truly remarkable. Today, I came across a man who has done just that.

This afternoon in front of the slum school this 99 year old man was sitting, talking to himself, and smoking hookah. His grandson, whom I have met before, was passing by and told me more about him. Even at 99, he can still run a kilometer in under 10 minutes!

Earlier this week, the other volunteers saw a dead human body floating face down in the canal. To survive 99 years in this environment is incredible and serves as a testament to just how robust we really are.

Pooja’s Birth Certificate…

…Special thanks to my lovely cousin Teresa Murphy of Little Rock, Arkansas for sponsoring Pooja’s education for the next year!

Pooja, age 7, is one of the first people to run and greet me by name every time I enter the slum. I can hear her running at me now yelling, “Johnnnnnnnnnnnn” as each step causes inflection in her voice. She is confident, energetic, and, like most of our selected students, very eager to learn.

–Pritam, Pooja’s brother–

Pooja’s older brother, Pritam, is 13 years old and also studies in our slum school. He has never attended a formal school and reads at a 1st grade level. Without our intervention, we fear this will happen to Pooja too.

–Umesh, Pooja’s father–

Pooja’s father, Umesh, works the night shift at a nearby factory. I had no idea we were going to wake him up when we visited his home one afternoon last week. Although visibly exhausted with eyes glazed over, Umesh was very enthusiastic about our plans.

However, Pooja does not have a birth certificate. Like many of the others, she was born at home. Unlike many of the others, however, her father has some documentation to support her story. Today, I walked with Umesh, Mitlesh, and Mumta to the local birth certificate office at the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad (MCF). Below are some photos from the walk:

–The open field on the left is the bathroom for much of the slum. It is particularly fragrant–

–A very busy part of town called Ballabgarh–

–Finally arriving at the MCF office–

As expected, I immediately got the impression that this was going to be a long process. There were computers in the room, but I don’t think they have seen any use in years. Every birth was still being recorded in massive atlas-sized books dating back many decades.

From his gestures and attitude, I could tell that the head of the office was not too interested in helping us. He insisted that each student wanting a birth certificate bring:

1) Address proof from the time of birth
2) Vaccination card from the time of birth
3) Ration card from the time of birth
4) Multiple applications
5) Witness of a midwife or doctor from time of birth
6) Witness of two neighbors from time of birth
7) Copies of multiple documents
8) Current address proof

I kept calm but I was internally fuming at what a horrible system this is. Most of our students’ families couldn’t come up with even current documents, let alone documents from nearly a decade ago. Our children aren’t the only ones without birth certificates. Given the small sample size I have seen, there must be tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in India who do not have birth certificates.

Still, we obeyed this man’s seemingly frivolous demands. We walked to get copies of Umesh’s ration cards and Pooja’s vaccination cards in a ramshackle store…

…and then to a small hospital to have an M.B.B.S certified doctor notarize the copies…

..and then back to the slum to find the midwife who gave birth to Pooja so that we could get her fingerprints and validation (by the way, she is uneducated and has assisted the delivery of more than 1,000 children in the slum!)…

…and then back to the MCF office to give the man what he wanted. Then, the same man that told us to go get all of these documents said that he needed the birth certificates of Umesh’s other children. “You have to be kidding me,” I thought to myself. After some pressure, he accepted the application as is. Over the next ten days, he will perform an investigation of the documents and interview the midwife and other witnesses.

To say that I was frustrated with bureaucracy today would be an understatement. However, I am keeping the end goal in sight. If we have to bring in the big artillery and work with district level commissioners just to get these kids in school, we will. Just looking in their eyes motivates me.

Teresa, your donation is opening doors for Pooja in more ways than many of us can even comprehend. Without your help, Pooja would not even be registered as a citizen of her own country. We will get her birth certificate, no matter what it takes. She will thrive in school, I know it. Perhaps, someday, she will use her birth certificate to get a passport so that she can come visit you in the United States of America on her way to a new job.

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Versha Accepted to LKG…

…I have some more excellent news that I have not yet disclosed. Sister Prasanna, head of the LKG (lower kindergarten) and UKG (upper kindergarten) programs at the Carmel Convent School, has given us the opportunity to add up to three three-year-old students to her new class starting this April.

I’d like to thank Susan Barnes of Halifax, Nova Scotia and mother of volunteer Heather Barnes for sponsoring Versha, one of our brightest three-year-old girls. Versha is the sister of Kashak, one of our students who will be entering our special first-standard class at the Carmel Convent School. In the photos below, you will recognize Kashak from yesterday’s shopping trip.

This morning, we escorted Versha, Kashak, and their mother to the Carmel Convent School to finalize Versha’s admission into LKG and pay her tuition and fees for the entire year. Like I have said before, approximately 600 children apply for only 150 seats here in Kindergarten! Although Versha and Kashak’s mother is illiterate, she understands that this is an extraordinary gift.

We debated for a second whether or not we should take Versha since we already took Kashak. However, Verhsa shows such enormous potential that she has little competition in her age group. We are extremely confident that Versha will excel at the Carmel Convent School. The fact that both sisters will be studying at the same school will also improve their performance and chances of graduating.

I recently learned that plans are in place to construct new buildings at the convent school to house programs for 11th and 12th standards. Assuming these buildings will be finished within the next few years, our students will have the opportunity to study all the way through 12th standard at the Carmel Convent School! Our students will have the ability to go straight from here to college!! What a starting point. If she stays in school, Versha will study and develop here for the next 14 years!

We filled out the necessary documents and provided a down payment for her tuition and fees. We will deposit the rest in the bank via an electronic fund transfer to eliminate transaction fees. Within minutes, Versha had applied, was admitted, and will soon be on her 14-year journey toward greatness.

–Versha with Heather Barnes–

Versha was captivated by the aquarium. They were probably the first live fish she has ever seen. It was the first of many things she will learn about the world here.

Versha’s bill came out to Rs 6,235 ($125) today, which pays for her admission fees and an entire year of tuition at the Carmel Convent School! The rest of Susan’s donation will be used to buy two uniforms ($20), books ($20), a backpack ($5), shoes ($5), tutoring (TBD), and other costs such as transportation, field trips, etc. I’ll break down these costs as we encounter them.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day…
…Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Thank you Susan for providing teaching to Versha! Your generous donation will feed her for a lifetime.

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Uniforms and Shoes…

…For Prianka, Ankit, Abishek, Kashak, and their families, today was a big day. It was one that I have been looking forward to tremendously and will remember for a lifetime.

This morning, these four students met us in front of the slum school so that we could take them to get measured for their custom-made uniforms and purchase their spiffy new shoes. As desired, each family sent one parent to come with us. Prianka, Ankit, and Kashak were joined by their mothers and Abishek by his father. The children were all perfectly groomed and in their best clothing. It was the first time I had seen some of them wear shoes.

We chose to start with these four students because they are the only ones who posses birth certificates, which are necessary for entering an accredited institution like the Carmel Convent School. I wanted them to get their uniforms and shoes now to provide a visual incentive for the parents of other selected children to obtain their birth certificates as quickly as possible.

–Ankit, ready and waiting–

Mitlesh called an auto rickshaw driver, who happens to be a parent of one of our other students. Ten minutes later, four kids, three volunteers, three mothers, Abishek’s father, Mitlesh, the driver, a curious local boy, and I piled into the three-wheeled tuk-tuk. Just to be in a vehicle made the children especially excited. The fact that we were crammed so closely made everyone even more energetic. As the 15 of us slowly made our way out of the slum, the kids lovingly waved to all of their friends, neighbors, and relatives.

On our way to the tailor, we passed right by the main gate of the Carmel Convent School. The children and their parents ooed and awed in eager anticipation.

After a few kilometers, we arrived at the inconspicuous tailor specified by Sister Pushpa. Its many dimly-lit rooms were stuffed with hundreds of tiny Carmel Convent School uniforms. Since the power was out, a large diesel generator hummed out front to electrify the operation. One-by-one, the kids made their way into a back room to get measured.

–Although very tall for her age, Prianka is essentially shrink-wrapped bones–

–Abishek with his incredibly proud and grateful father–

–One of the only pictures in which Kashak is not smiling–

Next, we made some calls to arrange a bulk order of first standard books and supplies. We then set out for the shoe store.

Even our driver was hands on. Everyone was so excited by what was happening. The kids gawked at the extraordinary amount of shoes in the store while the parents watched with complete trust and gratitude. I could feel the excitement building as the kids tried on their first pairs of shoes. We showed them how to walk around for a minute to see if they felt right. It probably feels good for them to wear shoes at all. We showed them how to check where their toes were and how to tie their shoes. None of the kids have socks yet, but they will soon. We made sure they had a little room to grow.

Buying brand new black dress shoes for these adorable kids was an experience of a lifetime. At under $5 a pair, they were one of the best purchases I have ever been a part of. The kids were so grateful and excited. They ran out of the store holding their shoe boxes like they were bricks of gold.

–Abishek’s father hand-starting our tuk-tuk–

By now, we were well into the afternoon. The kids were hungry, so we took everyone to get fresh hot samosas. Prianka’s mother, Seema, had stayed across the street sitting on the floor of the tuk-tuk. I signaled for her to come join us just as I realized what she was doing. She was guarding the four boxes of shoes right next to her.

Today, I felt ALIVE! Here we were, two sets of individuals with entirely different backgrounds from opposite sides of the planet. Fate brought us together. Faith will keep us together. Slowly, we are becoming like family. Tears will be shed when I board the plane.

For those who have and continue to donate, thank you so much. Your money is changing lives, even those who are just observing the power of your benevolence. What sometimes seems like an insignificant amount of money to us can be a powerful gift to these individuals. For the price of a Starbucks Coffee, you can give a boy or girl a pair of shoes that they will wear as they walk into new lives.

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…Next, I must thank Kathy Allard of Belmont, California and mother of volunteer Natalie Wills for her generous semester sponsorship of Prianka!

Prianka, age 8, is the second youngest of five children and one of our brightest and most disciplined students. She has three brothers and one sister. Although her family does have comprehension about the importance of education, she would never have the ability to receive the education she deserves without our help.

Prianka’s mother, Seema, is one of the most enthusiastic parents about our project. She understands what a life-changing blessing this is for her daughter. Furthermore, Seema serves as a motherly figure for much of the community. During our meeting on Sunday, Seema knew the birthdays of many of our students even when their own parents couldn’t recall the dates. Needless to say, she is quickly becoming a valuable resource for us as well.

Prianka is one of the only children we have met in the slums who has any concept of goals. She says that, if she could be anything in the world, she would be a doctor. Three weeks ago, her chances of being able to attend medical school some day were close to zero. Today, thanks to Kathy’s contribution and those that follow, Prianka may be operating on us in 20 years.

Thank you Kathy for giving knowledge and opportunity to this bubbly and astute little girl. I’m sure she and her mother cannot wait to meet you on Skype!

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…I wish to take this opportunity to thank Pamela Cox, of Tupelo, Mississippi, for being the first donor to sponsor a child for an entire year.

Pamela’s generous contribution will sponsor Manisha’s education at the Carmel Convent School for the next 12 months! This donation will pay for Manisha’s school fees, books, multiple uniforms, shoes, supplies, tutoring, and safety during her walk to and from school.

Manisha does not know Pamela yet, but she will. During the next two months, Pamela will have the chance to Skype with Manisha (and perhaps her family too, if they are not at work) with translators present to facilitate easy conversation. In a few years, a translator will not be necessary. Manisha will be able to have a fluent conversation with Pamela on her own.

Manisha is the fifth and youngest child of Moni and Ramesh. She has two older sisters who are married and two uneducated older brothers (ages 12 and 6) who live with their grandparents. Both Moni and Ramesh are illiterate and work in nearby factories. They have thought about sending Manisha to a government school, but it seems unlikely she will ever attend any formal school. You may remember a previous post in which I noted that Manisha started to make chai tea when we visited her tiny, dark, and spartan home last week. At only eight years old, Manisha is the primary caretaker of her tiny home and shows remarkable maturity and respect for her age. Moni and Ramesh are incredibly excited about this new opportunity and have vowed to support Manisha every way that they can.

Manisha was born at home and therefore does not have a birth certificate. Multiple individuals, including her parents, will be volunteering a large amount of time and energy to acquire proper documentation for Manisha.

Manisha is a precious young girl with the heart of a lion and work ethic of an ox. Pamela, you have given Manisha an opportunity that she and her family will never forget. On their behalf, thank you!

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Meet the Family…

…After church, we returned to the slum school where the selected children and their families were gathering for our first big meeting. While waiting for all of the families to arrive, we started a chart to keep track of which families have what documents. In order to be admitted to the Carmel Convent School, students need to have a birth certificate, ration card, caste certificate, and multiple individual and family photos. We know that these documents are some of the biggest hurdles we face.

To our amazement, only 4 of the 16 students present have birth certificates. They were born at home with the help of uneducated midwives who probably do more harm than good. Unconcerned and illiterate, these parents never went to a government office or hospital to register their children’s births. Legally, all but four of these kids still do not exist.

Aware of the challenges ahead, we pressed on to discuss what we were really gathered for. With Mitlesh or Shri translating after every sentence, I told the group what was happening. I told them that, through the generosity of Sisters Pushpa, Prasanna, Asha, and Sweta, benevolent faculty, caring locals, and support from sponsors and donors from the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and India, their children were being given the opportunity to attend the Carmel Convent School.

I emphasized that the Carmel Convent School is one of the top 5 ranked schools in Faridabad. More than 600 students apply for only 150 seats…in kindergarten! Shri even added that his own daughter could not get into the Carmel Convent School! I talked about the school and what opportunities that it could lead to. I told them that, in ten years, their children would be fluent in English, versed in science, skilled in mathematics, and be on the path to becoming engineers, doctors, lawyers, or whatever they desired to become. I told them that students paying full price for this education would expend more than Rs 250000 ($5000). That statement opened some eyes. That is more money than many of the families will make over the next ten years!

I then talked about the enormous responsibilities and obstacles that are attached to this opportunity. This is a massive and long term commitment for everyone involved. The families must be prepared to face and overcome many challenges. First, jealousy from the community will introduce hardships for the families and their children. Second, although we will try to assimilate the students as much as possible, they will likely face discrimination from other students. Furthermore, even at only 6-10 years old, our students are already years behind their new classmates. I explained that the separate class will be accelerated and that, in time, our goal is to have them even surpassing the other students.

After going into much more detail about the responsibilities involved, I asked, “Who is certain that they want to accept this commitment?” The men’s hands shot toward the ceiling! They showed more emotion and excitement than I have ever seen from them.

Many of the women still had to report back to their husbands for verification. Only some of the women seemed to have the authority to make such a decision. Guyatri, Gudiya and Neha’s mother, however, has been ready all week. Gudiya and Neha will be placed into our evening class first until they can keep up with the regular students.


–Golu (right)–


I then told the group how excited we are for them and that this is a partnership and relationship that will grow for many years to come. I told them what Sister Pushpa said, “I’ll make them leaders here–not great leaders, the greatest!”

The group clapped and smiled with fervor. I took the kids outside for a group picture. Only 16 of the 18 students had shown up (only 15 are in the photo, however). Lata did not come because both of her parents were working and did not want to participate. Madhu did not come because her family also seems uninterested. As we pointed out, this is a two-way street. We need the commitment and dedication of families more than anyone else. This is why we padded our list with extra children.

I am thrilled with the amazing response received from readers about what we are doing. It is truly an honor to be part of something so significant in the lives of others. Thank you for the wonderful feedback and continued support for the Squalor to Scholar Program.

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Singing in the Sunshine…

…I eagerly returned to mass with the sisters this morning. I took with me the three new volunteers who arrived last Sunday night. We sat right behind the sisters. The sermon and hymns were scheduled to be in Hindi today. However, the priest and choir switched some parts of the service to English so that we could participate. It was a sweet gesture.

One of the English hymns they chose to sing, called “Here I Am Lord,” was particularly gripping.

However, my favorite hymn so far is one from last week. I can’t seem to find a recording of it, but these are the lyrics:

Walking with the Lord,
We are walking in the morning,
Lift up your hearts,
For you are walking with God.
Singing to the Lord,
We are singing in the sunshine,
Lift up our hearts,
For you are singing to God.

Hand in hand with everyone,
We’re walking, walking,
Black and white and brown,
Together, walking, walking,
Singing new songs now,
Living new lives,
Building new bridges,
Walking distanct miles,
Well we’re walking with the Lord….

Rain and storm will not prevent us,
Walking, walking,
Faith and hope and love,
Will send us walking, walking.
Crossing all barriers,
Climbing all stiles,
Breaking through fences,
Walking distant miles,
Well we’re walking with the Lord….

Taking into account all of the current circumstances, I seems like a perfect soundtrack for the month. If anyone has heard it before, please chime in! I have had it stuck in my head all week.

–Heather (Nova Scotia), Crystal (Saskatchewan), Natalie (California), and I with the priest–

Once again, I met with nearly the entire congregation. We took pictures with the priest and some of the exceptionally welcoming parish members. We went home, changed, and headed out to the slum for our meeting with the parents.