You’ve Been Selected…

…Imagine some foreigner coming into your home and telling you that you have just been selected to board a rocket to Mars. Oh, by the way, it leaves next week. To an onlooker, that’s probably what today looked like.

–Lata, age 8, has no school plans, no personal records, and many family constraints —

After a tremendous effort to methodically and fairly select the most deserving, capable, and at-risk students, we have finalized our list of 15 children. It has 18 names. Uncertain about the bureaucracy surrounding the creation of interstate birth certificates and wary of family constraints, we have padded our list with three extra students. If, by some miracle, we are able to take all 18, we will still make it work.

–The chosen few–

You’ll notice a heavy slant toward the females, 2:1 in fact. This is on purpose. First, females are almost always the primary childcare providers in India. If they are educated, their children will be too. Despite this obvious fact, the education of women is highly overlooked. The reason for this is just as obvious. Females, upon marriage, become absorbed into the structure of their husbands’ families. They take a dowry with them and leave their blood relatives behind to fend for themselves. Why should a family invest in resources (ie. education) for their daughters when they cannot marry up in caste and such an investment will never come back to benefit the family? Although castes and dowries have been legally abolished, they still play irrefutable rolls in society here. This will continue to be the case for many generations to come.

–A sign from one of the hospitals I have been volunteering in–

Here, female children among the poor and lower castes are seen as burdens more than blessings. As I have noted before, prenatal determination of a fetus’s gender is illegal throughout India to minimize purposeful abortions of females. Although the causes are still scientifically controversial and hotly debated, the gender ratio of births is still 917 girls for every 1000 boys.

Regardless of science or statistics, there is celebration when boys are born here. When girls are born, there is disappointment. In fact, if a mother has no sons and gives birth to a second daughter, the government opens an account with Rs 25,000 ($500) in it for the second daughter. This $500 can be withdrawn by the second daughter once she turns 18. Apparently, enough parents neglect their second daughters (often leading to malnutrition or death) to justify this incentive structure. As adults, women earn as little as half of what men earn for similar jobs in the factories surrounding our local slum.

An ulterior motive of our selection process, therefore, is to combat this blatant male favoritism. The sisters like this too. In the Carmel Convent School, the boy:girl ratio is about 1:1. However, in the public and low-end private schools usually attended by slum children, the ratio is more along the lines of 4:1 or 5:1.

This morning, after my speech at the school, Mitlesh and I set out to spread the news to accepted students and families. We also informed them of a meeting tomorrow afternoon in which we will lay out exactly what is going on, what this all means, how it will impact them, and the responsibilities that come with this incredible opportunity.

We walked far and wide throughout the slum on this exceptionally clear and beautiful day. Stray dogs sipped puddles, children hand-pumped water from wells, and soaking wet naked children scurried around after their bucket baths.

We informed parents at their homes and even at their jobs. We found Abishek’s father, for instance, chemically treating automobile parts inside this poorly-ventilated building with multiple blazing furnaces and open pits of noxious acid. I can’t imagine what it’s like to work here in May when ambient temperatures reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

–A random worker where Abishek’s father works–

Many of the selected families do not have any idea what these opportunities mean for them or their children. That is why we have planned a meeting. Tomorrow, they will begin to realize what a blessing they are being given and that we are in this together for the long haul.

On behalf of our volunteers, sisters, teachers, Mitlesh, my host family, and especially these awe-struck students and their families, thank you so much for your continued donations. As stated earlier, I will be properly acknowledging these wonderful gestures in later posts. Additionally, those providing semi-annual or annual sponsorships at the $125 and $250 levels respectively will be given the opportunity to Skype with the children they sponsor. I promise to make it a special experience for everyone involved!

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Impromptu Speech…

…I must sound like a broken record at this point but every day here is even more surprising than the last. Yesterday, Sister Pushpa asked if I would like to come hand out prizes to some of the children at the Carmel Convent School. I was honored by the offer and obviously accepted without hesitation. I showed up this morning at the pre-determined time of 7:45. All of the students were also arriving. I sat down in Sister Pushpa’s office as she asked me, “So, what are you going to tell the students?” Hmmm…great question, I thought. I didn’t know I was going to be asked to speak.

Five minutes later. I was standing outside of Sister Pushpa’s office as nearly 1600 students assembled with militaristic precision. I had just woken up and this day was already turning out to be a memorable one.

Chuckling to myself as I climbed up to the stage, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had mental talking points ready to go but was taken aback by the sheer number and discipline of the students. After music from a choir and small band, the so-called ‘head-boy’ approached the microphone and called, “Attennntion!” In unison, 3200 heels clicked as spines straightened and chins raised. “At ease,” he called.

Sister Pushpa gave me a wonderful, sweet introduction and then welcomed me up to the microphone. I felt like a general preparing his troops for battle. I just spoke from the heart, telling the students how fortunate they were to study where they do, under sisters and faculty who make students’ success their own priority. I talked about what I was doing in India, some of the lessons I have learned, and tried to give them motivation to study hard and take advantage of their opportunities to help people around them. Secretly, I was picturing our little students standing out among the others. I look forward to the day that it is a reality.

I then handed out awards and medals to some of the best students, who seemed intimidated to shake my hand in front of the entire school. We gathered for a picture before I was taken back inside for chai with Sister Pushpa.

–In response to, “Who is planning to go to college?”–

Sister Pushpa took me on a tour of the school. We visited and talked to classes from the 5th to 9th standards. Sister Pushpa’s quiet and respectful demeanor seems to garner incredible love from the students as well. The quality of her leadership is undeniable.

I questioned the students about their life goals and plans. Their English was impeccable. I was incredibly impressed. When I asked a 5th grader what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said, “I want to be a cardiologist!” Wow! I don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up with that kind of precision.

–Children bringing donations–

We then returned to Sister Pushpa’s office, where the continued collection of donated notebooks and supplies was being amassed. Sister Pushpa has been asking for supplies all week to give to our children from the slum who will soon be joining the Carmel Convent School. Every day, hundreds of valuable resources are being collected. We both looked in amazement at the outpouring of support for our cause.

–Contemplating just one day of donated books, clothes, and supplies–

As shown here, even small contributions from many can supply these children with vast resources! Thank you again for those of you who continue to donate. You are truly changing lives. I’m watching it happen.

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