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 This $500 can be withdrawn by the second daughter once she turns 18.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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The Hunt for Fifteen…

…With a deadline of ASAP, we have set out on a mission to determine who will be among the chosen 15. This is a crucial step and one that we are giving great care. We are not just choosing individual children at this point but their families as well. Everyone involved needs to be highly motivated, committed, and persevering. This is the time to evaluate risk and determine potential problems before they arise. The last thing we want is for a student to drop out due to reasons beyond our control. We have expanded our selection pool to include another school affiliated with our volunteer program. There is so much potential here that will never be realized without our combined intervention and donations.

–At only 8 years old, Rahul shows incredible maturity and a strong desire to learn–

–Madhu, age 10, with her parents and four siblings, whom she cares for–

Although we have a few set criteria, we are taking into account a myriad of factors and learning as we go.

–Gudiya, Golu, and Ajit–

First, we are looking for students primarily in the 6-8 year-old range. Some are older, some are younger, but 6-8 is our target. The older the students are, especially for female students, the higher risk they face of marrying before completing 10th standard. Gudiya, for instance, is 9 years old. She will be 19 when she graduates from 10th standard and 21 when she graduates from 12th standard. If she doesn’t go to school now, she never will. We determined that her potential for greatness outweighed the risk that she will marry early. Our hope is that she, Neha, and their family will learn to understand the benefits of education and chose to put off marriage or labor until their educations are complete.

–Kashak, age 6, is incredibly bright, optimistic, and well-mannered–

Second, we are looking for students who are intelligent, outgoing, and industrious. I have been keeping records of each student’s reading, writing, and math capabilities as well as notes on their demeanor, attitude, leadership, participation, and eagerness to learn. We don’t just want intelligence, drive, or personality, we want the whole package.

–Kashak with her mother, Gudiya, who never went to school and is illiterate–

Third, we are trying to evaluate the educational risk faced by each student. In other words, what are a student’s chances of never going to school? What are his or her chances of going to a public school, low-end private school, or high-end private school? These questions are best answered in interviews with the families, especially through histories of elder siblings. Now that I think of it, the interviews we conduct are very similar to medical histories and evaluations.

–Soni is 16 and never went to school. Without intervention, neither will her siblings–

We begin the parental interviews by saying how proud we are of their child’s work in school, that we recognize exceptional potential, and that we want to make sure that their child receives the best education possible. We then introduce ourselves and gather names, number of children, ages of children, etc. If there are older siblings, I like to find out if they attend or have ever attended school. If they have, I like to find out where they go or went.

Next, I figure out who works in the family, where they work, approximately how much they earn per month (this is, apparently, not an offensive question), their expenses, their highest levels of education, and their educational goals for their children. My motive, through all of these questions, it to find out what will happen to these students without our intervention.

Over the past 11 days, I have comprehensively evaluated approximately 80 students and interviewed 37 families at their homes. It has been an exhausting and emotionally draining process even though I try to stay as impartial as possible. The entire process reminds me of serving as jury foreman signing verdicts before I left home. We have the power now to radically alter or essentially neglect the lives and futures of these children. Needless to say, this is an enormous amount of responsibility.

Our interviews and evaluations have taken us through narrow alleys, up ladders to rooftops, and far down the canal. Wherever we go, we command enormous attention. While interviewing Rani and Rekha’s parents in their tiny rooftop enclosure, dozens of children and adults watched from the surrounding buildings even as far away as 75 meters. Even if we aren’t directly impacting many of the children here, our presence and message about the importance of education are indirectly affecting many.

–Left to right: Rani, Rekha, and Manisha–

The highlight of my day was going to interview a beautiful, proper, and respectful 8-year-old girl named Manisha. Before visiting her home, I had found out that she was one of five children. She has two illiterate sisters who are married and two brothers who live with her grandparents in a different sector. Her parents, Moni and Ramesh, are also illiterate.

Manisha led us from Rani and Rekha’s rooftop, down the ladder, and around the corner to her tiny, dark, poorly-ventilated home. Although it was 6 pm, both of her parents were still in the factory. Manisha immediately went to work moving around items in her bare feet on the dirt floor of her home.

The flash from my camera was the only light source in the room. All of her family’s possessions were strung up to the walls or ceiling, leaving just enough room on the floor for the three of them to sleep or cook.

After a few moments of wondering what Manisha was doing, she began to light a small portable burner in the corner of the room. It became apparent that she was trying to make us chai tea. It was probably one of the most adorable and humbling events I have ever watched. I shook my head in sheer amazement of her maturity and generosity at only 8 years old.

As the sun began to set today, we walked out of the slum incredibly excited by the changes and opportunities we are bringing. I am receiving great feedback from readers and some donations are already starting to flow. I will acknowledge these generous contributions properly in later posts. To everyone who has donated or considered it, thank you. Please stay tuned.

–Prianka, age 8–

–Rahul, age 8–

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8 Days, 150 Years…

…Sister Pushpa and I met only 8 days ago. Today, however, we formed an incredible partnership to start a brand new 1st standard class for 15 of our slum children and fully commit to their educations until they graduate in 2022! WOW! Mathematically, that’s 150 people-years of education at the Carmel Convent School, the equivalent of more than $55,000 of scholarships.

Although some of our children are incredibly bright, they are far behind the other Carmel Convent School students of the same age. If we put them directly into regular classes, they would fall behind immediately, become discouraged, and unlikely ever catch up.

Instead, we are are creating an entirely separate class for them. However, since every classroom is in use during school hours, our students will come in as the others leave. Their school day will be from 2-5pm. Three 1st standard teachers have volunteered to stay after school. Each of them will teach for one hour in the same classrooms using the same technology as the regular students. Our students will have access to the same computers, labs, library, and resources as every other student.

With help from this separate class, members from our community, volunteer teachers, and donations from this very blog, our students will undergo an accelerated program to bring them up to speed and give them every available opportunity.

As our students become ready, they will be individually transferred into regular classes. Instruction of our separate class will grow with our students. Next year, for instance, 2nd standard teachers will teach our students at the 2nd standard level in 2nd standard classrooms. This process will continue until 2022 or until all of the students assimilate into regular classes.

In 10 years, our 15 students will be fluent in English, adept in calculus, have mastery of computers, and be on track to attending prestigious universities anywhere in the world! I have never been a part of something so fulfilling or miraculous.

It is now my responsibility to select students, obtain the commitment of families, acquire or legally request birth certificates, purchase custom-tailored uniforms, and buy shoes, books, backpacks, and supplies. Furthermore, we will be the primary “academic guardians” for all 15 children, responsible for their educational well-being and futures.

I have never doubted Sister Pushpa’s ability to make things happen but I have been amazed by the zeal and alacrity with which she has devoted energy and resources to our cause. I can hardly believe this is all occurring so rapidly and seamlessly. For me, it is a dream come true.

Again today, Sister Pushpa was teeming with inspirational one-liners and an undeniable passion to, as she puts it, “make humans better human beings.” She is certainly changing my life and, from what I can see, making better human beings out of everyone around her.

Many readers and followers have expressed interest in donating supplies or money to help our students from the slum. Your chance has finally arrived! You have been incredibly patient and I thank you. I wanted to make sure that if I took control of your hard-earned money, it would go to a truly magnificent cause where it would make the biggest impact possible and allow me to show you where your money went. This is the cause I have been waiting for.

With donations from this blog, we hope to provide all 15 students with every opportunity to not just succeed but thrive. Keep an eye out for Donation buttons like these all around the site:

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Clicking any of these buttons will take you to a site where you can see more about the cause including some examples of what your money can buy. If you decide to donate, there is a simple, secure way to donate via credit or debit card.

If you would rather donate by check, we can accept those too! We have an account set up for the Squalor to Scholar Program at Bank of America.

Make your check payable to:

Bank of America
6501 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85250
NOTE: For Credit to Account #4570 2450 0663

On behalf of these amazing children, thank you! There are many more updates to come soon.

Dig Deeper; Look Around…

…The community is really taking notice of the multiple initiatives we have underway. Today, as I passed the Carmel Convent School, two recent graduates whom I have met before asked to join me on my way to the slum school. “Of course!” was my response. They began to walk with me immediately. Amazingly, both of the young men have been students at the Carmel Convent School since kindergarten yet have never been into the slum right next to it.

–Joyson (left) and Ruben (right)–

In India, schools operate on what they call a 10 + 2 (“ten plus two”) schedule. Essentially, all students study the same subjects from standards one through ten (what we would call 1st through 10th grade). After 10th standard, students take the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) Exam. Their performance on this 3.5 hour exam determines what types of educational opportunities and career paths they will be allowed to pursue. Needless to say, it is an incredibly important test and hurdle! By about age 16, students have to know what career they want to pursue and have the work ethic to get them there.

Once students graduate from 10th standard, they enter 11th and 12th standards (the +2 part) in their respective tracks. However, in our vicinity, only a few schools offer the +2 curriculum. Competition to enter these programs after 10th standard is very tight, especially for the medical or technical tracks.

Both of these 16 year-old men have been raised in Catholic families and are very religious. Joyson aspires to become a doctor and Ruben wants to become an officer in the Indian Army. Both will be taking the CBSE Exam in a few weeks and have vowed to help our slum school and multiple programs once the exam is over.

Inspired by growing labor support from many of the locals, I was curious to see what else we could accomplish without spending any money. I decided to tackle the dilapidated bookshelf and desk in the back corner of the school to see if I could find anything that would be useful.

With gloved hands and mask, I rummaged through the rat droppings and dust in the poorly ventilated room for a few hours. Mamta helped for a while, then Shri, and then Madhu. I found an unused shelf accumulating dust and insects in an adjoining building. We cleaned and organized every resource by subject, grade level, condition, and usefulness. I couldn’t believe how many things were being wasted.

Other volunteers have been complaining that the kids didn’t have any crayons or chalk, that they didn’t have any notebooks or workbooks, and that they had no materials for creativity. VOILA!

What a lesson I learned! Before you go spending tons of money and throwing supplies at people, dig a little deeper first. And, once you think you have dug far enough, keep digging. This has all been right under my nose for two and a half months!

This afternoon, students were writing with brand new pencils in their brand new notebooks reading brand new stories that have all been donated by previous volunteers but were thrown into a pile and never seen again.

–A perfect room used by a government official once-a-month–

Now on a mission, I had adjoining rooms unlocked so I could see what were inside them. One was full of junk–well, what appeared to be junk. I will get to it soon. The other was a perfectly maintained office for a government social worker who, from what I understand, comes to sit here once every month or two. Instead of sitting vacant 98% of the time, it is now a classroom for women who come to learn sewing, English, and arts and crafts.

–Sarswati riding with Gudiya outside of our school–

Mass With the Sisters…

…Over the past week, the sisters in the convent have taken me under their wings. When I asked Sister Pushpa if I could attend mass with them on Sunday, she looked at me like I had just made her day.

This morning, I dressed in the finest clothes I brought with me and arrived to mass 15 minutes early. Sister Pushpa greeted me at the door of the small church adjoining the convent dormitory. I left my shoes outside like everyone else and she showed me to my seat, which was right with the other sisters in special, individual pews! I sat down next to Sister Prashanna while the others quietly welcomed me and comforted me with instructions.

For the next fifteen minutes, we sat in silent prayer and contemplation. The congregation of approximately 50 locals filed in slowly until the parish priest, who had been on leave to care for his ill mother, arrived. Two musicians on a keyboard and guitar in the balcony above provided upbeat music for the many songs. The sermon was ironically concerned with scriptures about leprosy and the isolation lepers. Having seen multiple cases of leprosy over the past month, such passages now take on a whole new meaning. The service was almost entirely in English with occasional phrases of Hindi.

Worshiping with the sisters made the entire experience incredibly memorable. There is a definite presence about the nuns that invokes a sense of spirituality, purity, and safety.

After mass, Sister Pushpa came over to tell me to stay for chai. I visited with members of the congregation outside who were each eager to know who I was. The head of the maternity ward in the hospital I have been volunteering in was also present and made a point to say hello. I met at least 20 people and was invited into about six homes, including the priest’s.

The Sisters then signaled me to come in for chai. Soon thereafter, I was eating breakfast and sipping chai with the priest and three sisters in their private dining room. Could this Sunday get any more special?

After lunch, the sisters gave me a more thorough tour of the school and we all laughed and joked about how Sister Sweta had thought I was a threat when she sternly and authoritatively dragged me to Sister Pushpa’s office on the Monday before. We also talked about the fact that I am a non-veg living in a veg household. I confessed that I do visit the local KFC about once a week and know most of the staff by name. After much laughter, Sister Pushpa insisted that I take all of the sisters with me the next time I go to KFC. Oh, how I cannot wait for that!

The Word is Out…

…Word has spread that I will help provide care to children with deformities. Today, I went back to check on Manish, the two-year-old boy with a large growth on his nose. The doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi were still unable to determine the cause of the growth. They have given him 40 more days of medication, after which they will discuss surgical intervention if the growth does not dissipate.

While talking to Manish’s family, a woman brought me her daughter, Chandni. Chandni was born without a right ear. However, it sounds like an MRI showed evidence of an ear canal and normal inner-ear structure. With a surgery to open her ear canal, she might regain proper hearing. The family is going to investigate surgical options next month. I offered to help in any way that I could and will investigate cosmetic options. Again, I’ll keep you posted.

Next, a beautiful little girl named Chanchal came by to visit. She was born with a cleft lip but had it surgically repaired when she was younger. A story like that made her sweet smile even more precious.

Scouting for Schools…

…As I continue to interview with families throughout the slum, I am amazed by the lack of emphasis on education. The children of illiterate parents are especially at risk. When I ask illiterate parents about their children’s education, all I get are blank stares. Most of the families have no idea that their children show enormous potential.

In these cases, we can’t really blame the parents. When both parents are illiterate and have never attended school, it is impossible for them to evaluate the potential and capabilities of their own kids. Education was never a part of their lives and most of them have no idea what school even entails. They simply do not understand the benefits of knowledge. Therefore, most of these children will not go to school even if they are incredibly intelligent and their parents can afford the remarkably low tuitions. Recently, I have learned that much can be achieved with just a little initiative. For many of these people, all we have to do is open their eyes and show them the way.

–Soni (center, in green) is 16, beautiful, and smart but has never been to a day of school–

To accomplish this goal, I will be starting a program this week to incentivize families to send their children to private schools if they can afford to do so.

Of the few slum children I have been meeting who attend private schools, the vast majority go to one of two institutions: the Public High School or Nehru Academy. With tuitions starting at only $3 to $4 per month, both schools target low-income families but still provide many more resources than the government options. To better understand the resources at our disposal, Mitlesh (my trustworthy translator) and I visited both schools and talked with many of their administrators and students.

–A group of boys that always greets me on my way into the slum–

–A bank of the canal–

Our first stop was the poorly named Public High School. It is neither public nor a high school. It is a Hindi medium private school with 13 classrooms providing classes from pre-school to 10th standard. There are 250 students here with a boy:girl ratio of 4:1.

For a tuition of only $3 per month, I was highly impressed by the conditions as well as by the respect and politeness of the students. Most of the students aspire to attend college.

The girl closest to the camera in the photo above used to attend our slum school. She is now a successful student in 6th standard. She is a perfect example of using the slum school as a pipeline into the private or public school systems.

The next stop was the Nehru Academy. Although classes had ended for the day (keep in mind, this is Saturday), there were some after school programs underway. The tuition here was slightly more expensive: $4 per month for Hindi medium and $6 per month for English medium classes.

We then went back to the slum and I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with kids and sitting with numerous locals to people-watch and enjoy the beautiful day.

Disciples of Hope…

…At 5 o’clock last night, with the sun beginning to set, I received a call from an unfamiliar number. It was the convent. The sisters were wondering if I could show them where I have been teaching and take them on a tour of the slum. Four minutes later, I was sitting in the convent dormitory talking with all four of the nuns. I could not have felt more spirit in the air if I had been sitting with the Pope in the Vatican. After a short talk, Sister Pushpa, Sister Prasanna, Shri, and I set out on foot toward the slum, leaving the other two sisters to watch over the convent.

Although classes were already over for the day, the single empty room of the school seemed to humble even the sisters. I could tell their minds were busy thinking of additional ways they could help.

As we continued our tour of the slum, an atmosphere of hope and safety encompassed us everywhere we walked. The sisters greeted and placed their arms around nearly every child we came across. The locals, who seemed to understand who and what the sisters represented, welcomed them with utmost reverence and respect.

–Sister Prasanna (left) and Sister Pushpa (right)–

These two little children captivated all of us. They were working with their mother to thread holes and insert screws into casings for ceiling fan mounts. The nuns were impressed by such an initiative as well as by the children’s dexterity and work ethic at such young ages. The sisters told me that children like them sometimes grow up to make the best students. They will, no doubt, have great dexterity and work ethic.

–Previous student of the Carmel Convent School evening class with her mother–

After about an hour of walking, a teenage girl in a government school uniform came running out of an alley. Sister Prasanna and the girl recognized each other immediately. Years ago, the Carmel Convent School had an evening program for slum children up through the fifth standard. Funding, however, dwindled and the program was shut down. This teenage girl had been a student in that program and will soon become one of the few women in the slum to have graduated from 12th standard. With tears in her eyes, the teenage girl graciously thanked and praised the sisters.

Still Managing to Smile…

…Yesterday, while walking through the slum to meet Gudiya and Neha, I noticed a small child I hadn’t seen before. I knew I hadn’t seen him because he has the most striking facial deformation I have ever seen. He was being held by his mother, who maneuvered back into the shadows. I took note of the location so I could come back later with someone to translate for me. One of my dreams is to work for a project like Operation Smile, which is devoted to repairing cleft lips in children around the world. Although this wasn’t a case of cleft lip, it was something just as significant.

I returned last night and found out that the boy’s name is Manish. He is two years old and was born with a small “chick-pea sized” growth on his nose that has progressed slowly to its current state. The family had saved up for an Rs 5000 ($100) MRI but seems to be avoiding surgery. Doctors have had him on 15 mg of Predon every other day for 80 days. The growth seems to have stopped enlarging but has not decreased in size.

I took my photos to a few doctors in the hospital today to see what they thought. They seemed baffled by the little boy as well. Manish is due for a checkup tomorrow, so I will report back with their findings. Regardless, I offered to help fund a surgery if one is necessary. His family seemed very grateful for the offer.

Even Manish managed to let out a smile: