A Special Goodbye Gift…

…When my fellow volunteer Crystal Graham arrived in India in February, I guarantee that she never dreamed of leaving like she did tonight. Her surprise farewell this evening was the most special I have ever been a part of. As revealed in previous posts, Crystal’s mother and sister have committed to supporting Anita and Ankit for their entire educations. The community here cherishes Crystal and her family’s generosity and this fact showed brilliantly tonight.


–Indu serving as Anita’s mother–

As we left class with all of the students at 5:00pm today, our children and their guardians escorted us to the slum. Underlining how the influence of our efforts has impacted these families is Anita’s sister Indu (age 12). Indu takes Anita to and from school nearly every day. While Anita studies, Indu goes to work by herself cleaning homes in nearby neighborhoods to make $22 per month. Anita and Indu’s mother, Rani, works incredibly hard but is still unable to support her five-person fatherless family by herself. As always, Indu was there today with a smile on her face, and without a hint of jealousy, to watch her sister obtain the most valuable gift their family will ever receive, a single seat at the Carmel Convent School.

We arrived in the slum thinking we were just going to play with the kids for a while and say goodbye. We were wrong. As we sat in the slum school, the kids and their families started to pour in.

Not knowing what was in store, Crystal hugged all of the mothers goodbye as some of them wiped tears from their eyes.


–Hugging Ankit’s mother, Rekha–

Ankit arrived looking better than ever. Thanks to Crystal and her family, his life has also been revolutionized over the past eight weeks.

In a move that even I did not anticipate, we were soon seated for a more formal ceremony. As a big shiny gift sat in the corner, everyone was given tasty bread pakora and refreshing soda.

Then, the party gathered around as I pointed out on a map and globe where Crystal would be flying over the next 24 hours. I pointed to Faridabad, India on one side of the globe and Guatemala City, Guatemala on almost the exact opposite side. I told them that when we go to bed tomorrow night, Crystal will be waking up there, on the other side of the planet. None of our children or their parents has ever been on or even around an airplane. For them, going such a distance is as unfathomable as going to Mars.

The power went out momentarily so we all went outside where we could see. All 18 students gathered for a photo and to present, in unison, their gift to Crystal.

All 18 kids reached out and up to get at least one hand on the gift as they passed it to Crystal. Although it doesn’t seem possible, I think these students love us as much as we love them. Mithlesh joked that Crystal’s gift, a giant laughing Buddha, wasn’t supposed to make her cry.

As Crystal broke into tears, our kids and families realized just how meaningful these experiences have been for us as well. We have given them knowledge but they have taught us lessons about life and happiness that we would likely never have learned without meeting them.

As dusk faded into night, 47 people walked us out of the slum. While talking with some of the kids, I found Madhu crying alone as we walked along. She is truly an angel. I ran her up to Crystal who was leading the parade. As we reached the busy road that divides the slum and our neighborhood, Crystal stopped to say her final farewell. To pay their respects and ask for blessings, the children ran up to Crystal, bowed to touch her feet, and touched their foreheads and chins. We crossed the street and walked into the distance as the crowd of nearly 50 students, mothers, fathers, and community members stood waving goodbye.

Ever since Crystal departed, our kids point to every plane in the sky and shout, “Crystal Didi!!” Best wishes in Guatemala, Crystal and in the remainder of your back-to-back circumnavigations of the globe. You have a new home here with dozens of people who will always welcome you with open arms if you ever feel lonely anywhere else. Safe travels from all of us here in Faridabad. Thanks for the memories.

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Moni, Manish, and Chandni…

…On Sunday, two new highly motivated volunteers joined us. Merril Guzman of South Lake Tahoe, California, and Win Le of Vancouver, Canada, could not have arrived at a more inspiring time. Yesterday, they met our slum children as we accompanied them to school for the first time. Today, the three of us took Moni, Manish, and Chandni to the hospital to see the plastic surgeon.

When we arrived in the slum, all of our patients were waiting with their mothers and one grandmother. We walked a few hundred meters out of the slum to the nearby Delhi-Agra highway that serves as the main road through Faridabad.

Like crossing any streets here, there are no crosswalks, street lights, or stop signs. Even to cross the main road between a city of 18 million people and a city of 2 million people, the common procedure is just stick out your hand and signal traffic to stop while you start walking. This is partially the reason why it takes so long to drive anywhere in India. Even on the main highways, traffic is always stopping for pedestrians, animals, and slow vehicles to cross the road.

Once safely on the other side of the highway, we became the center of attention for passing traffic as we waited to flag down an auto-rickshaw going our direction.

There are two ways to take auto-rickshaws here. The most common way is to take a ‘shared’ auto. Starting at 7 rupees (14 cents) per adult for most distances within 5 km, you just hop in with up to 17 strangers going the same general direction. The other option is to hire a ‘separate’ auto. The cost for separate autos is essentially what it would cost to buy all 8 seats to go the same distance.

After a few tries and only about 60 seconds of waiting, we found a shared tuk-tuk going directly toward our destination. We jumped in with two families who must have wondered what in the world was going on with three foreigners and three disfigured children boarding their auto.


–Chandni with her mother, Reena–


–Manish with his mother, Dolly–

Down the road, we stopped at the gas station so the driver could fill up on diesel while Manish appeared to try some calculations.


–Moni with her grandmother, Pyaree–

After about 20 minutes and less than a dollar spent for the entire ride, we arrived at the hospital and waited to see the surgeon.

Manish was the first to see the doctor, who took dozens of photos and measurements of Manish’s hemangioma and called the pediatrician to let him know we were coming to see him too.

Before today, Moni had never been to a doctor. Cleft lips can usually be repaired as early as 3 months old and cleft palates as early as 6 months old. Now, she is 5 and is suffering socially and psychologically because nobody around her seemed to know that such surgeries were even possible. She wasn’t very happy about her first visit with the doctor. Little does she know how much a surgeon is soon going to change her life.

In government hospitals like B.K. Hospital where I volunteered for a month, cleft surgeries are free. However, we are treating these children as if they were our own. I want to get them the quality of care and service I think they deserve. Unfortunately, here at this hospital, the cost for a cleft lip surgery is Rs 45,000 ($900).

That’s when the doctor got on the phone. Thirty seconds later, we were scheduling an appointment with another doctor at a well-regarded hospital in Delhi who operates in partnership with the US-based charity Smile Train. We will visit him on Monday to schedule a surgery generously paid for by Smile Train.

The crying and waiting finally wore Moni out. She slept for most of her visit with the pediatrician.

Chandni, who is 6 months old, was next. We learned that she has a condition called hemifacial microsomia (HFM). HFM is the second most common facial birth defect after clefts, with an incidence of about 1 in 4,000 births. It is caused by lack of oxygenation or blood supply to cells that have already differentiated to become parts of the face during about the 4th week of gestation.

Nothing can be surgically treated yet for Chandni. If the surgeons operated now, they would risk exacerbating the problem by damaging growth centers. Chandni will have to wait until she is seven for her face to develop to an extent that surgery will be safe and maximally beneficial.

In the meantime, we will get Chandni a Brainstem Evoked Response Audiometry (BERA) test to ensure proper functionality of the inner ear as well as an ultrasound to check for renal and cardiac malformation (other defects occasionally seen in combination with HFM).


–Chandni’s underdeveloped ear is called a microtia–

To me, what is even more shocking than these deformities themselves is the fact that all of these children live within an area only slightly larger than a football field. It makes me wonder just how many children are out there just like them.

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The Day of a Lifetime…

…Today was one of the most special days of my lifetime. It was meaningful, magnificent, and memorable on a level that I could not have even imagined six months ago. It was made possible by weeks of tireless effort and sacrifice of nearly a dozen people and by the compassionate generosity of donors from around the world. Words can no longer adequately convey the extent of my love for our students, my gratitude for your support, and my pride to be a part of the miracles that are occurring all around me.

Today was an event that I did not anticipate to see until this week. It was the first day of the new school year and our 18 students were the most glowing in attendance.


–Anita, Gudiya (left), and Neha (right)–

I had no trouble waking up before dawn today because it was one of the most significant days of our students’ lives. Forty-six days ago, none of this was even a dream. Most of these children were never going to spend a day of their lives in a classroom. Today, however, this new dream became a striking reality.

In only 46 days, the lives of this entire community have been changed. These 18 students do not inconspicuously head out to school or return quietly home. They are radiant symbols of hope to a society that desperately needs it. Their pristine red, white, and blue uniforms convey the power of knowledge to people who do not value the concept of school. They are discrete packets of a society hindered by discrimination and poverty that now socialize and study with children from opposite walks of life. Over the years, they will assimilate into the structure of higher levels of society but will unlikely ever lose sight of their roots. Although they go off to a school with the wealthy and privileged, they return home every day to the squalor and filth around them. These students, more than any others, have the ability to open eyes and instate change to radically improve the world in which we live.


–Komal and Gudiya–

Our children are already ambassadors of the poor and suffering. I never thought that first graders and kindergarteners could teach me this much about life, happiness, and success. But they have. The feelings of pride and fulfillment that I receive here every day may never be duplicated. No amount of money or fame could ever satisfy me like a day here in the slum watching our children cherish their new lives and ferociously devour the influx of knowledge we are delivering.


–Ajeet–

When we arrived in the slum at 6:11am, I was surprised to find that our students were already rinsed, dressed, and on the streets ready for their first day of school. Bright white shirts and red hair ribbons could be seen running around from hundreds of meters away.

You can’t wake up most 7 to 10-year-old kids at 5:30am (while it’s still dark), have them shower under cold water from an outdoor communal hand-pump, watch them dress themselves in uniforms that they washed by hand without your help, and be excited for school as if they were going to Disneyland. However, these are not most kids. They are more driven, more passionate, more enthusiastic, and more responsible than any children their age that I have ever seen. Their zest for life brings tears to my eyes. I was proud of them this morning as if they were my own little brothers and sisters. In fact, that is now exactly what they are. I am their big brother, their role model, their liaison, and their biggest fan.


–Neha and her mother Guyatri–


–Gudiya and Neha on February 9–

The picture above was taken only 46 days ago. It was the day that I accompanied Gudiya, Neha, and their parents Guyatri and Ramotar to the Carmel Convent School for the first time. It was the first day Sister Pushpa met any of our students. It was the spark that opened eyes and hearts around the world and right here in this community.

Forty-six days ago, Neha and Gudiya walked inside the Carmel Convent School barefoot, illiterate, and unaware of what lay ahead. Today, Neha and Gudiya walked into the Carmel Convent School with shoes on their feet, the ability to read entire passages in English, and with striking understanding of what a revolutionary opportunity this is for them.

In the slum, we walked around quickly to see as many kids getting ready as we could. I was stunned to find that each of them was either already dressed or just putting on the final touches of their uniforms. There was not a hint of grogginess or tardiness. In fact, much of the community also awoke to see our students departing for their first big day at the best school in town.


–Manisha with her parents Ramesh and Munni–

Smoke from a cow pie burning stove and a sense of excitement were billowing out of Manisha’s house as we arrived. As I poked my head in the door, Manisha and her parents jumped up with enormous pleasure that we had come to escort everyone to school.

Next, we caught up with Rani, who was just climbing down the ladder from her family’s small rooftop dwelling to head out for her big day.


–Rani leaving home for her first day of school–

We found Roshan riding to school on the back of his father Rajesh’s bicycle.

Some students went to school with their parents, others came with us, but everyone was walking (or in Roshan’s case, riding) on air.

Although they no longer need to walk to and from school in a line, the students want to. Everywhere they go, they become the center of attention and discussion. Even as we entered school for the first time, with intimidating older students all around, their confidence and pride were unwavering.

Our children face an uphill battle that would cripple the spirits of most children their age. But our students don’t back down from challenges, they demand more of them. They grasp wholeheartedly the grandeur of the opportunity that we have bestowed upon them. Even though they are struggling to understand most of what their teachers are saying, you won’t find any of them complaining about it.

While the students joined their new classes and friends, we used more of your donations to buy their 144 books that had just arrived at the bookstore as well as 18 of the strongest backpacks we could find.

On our drive back from the bookstore, I noticed an unfortunate woman moving an entire wall of bricks by putting each and every one on her head.

Then, I recognized her. It was Anita’s mom, Rani. I knew that Rani worked hard to keep her daughters alive, but I didn’t know that she went to this extreme. As a widow and now single mother of five children, Rani is illiterate, unskilled, and partially blind. However, as you can see, Rani’s motherly love is undeniable.

I made sure to wait until she had unloaded her bricks across the street before I approached her. When she saw me, a massive smile came over her face. She shook my hand and allowed me to take some pictures of her cautiously going about her work.

It is one thing to help people who need it, but this is almost surreal. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of our support than a woman and family like this that works so hard just to put food on the table. Today, Rani humbled me to my core. I wanted to give her a big hug but I was already gathering enough attention from her construction site. I tried as hard as I could to let her know what a special lady I think she is.

Forty-six days ago, Rani wasn’t interested in even allowing Anita to attend school. Anita can’t make money or help out around the house if she is sitting in a classroom. However, this morning, Rani and Anita were some of the first people out on the street.

As Rani worked diligently to move an entire wall, brick by brick, her daughter Anita sat in her first class ever assembling walls of knowledge, brick by brick, in her mind. Anita has the determination and level-headedness of her mother, which she has used to rapidly become one of our best students. I get the sense that her mom is very proud of her.

We returned to the slum to run a few more errands. While our students still studied away in the Carmel Convent School, their friends woke up late in the slum, ran around barefoot, and played under the water pumps with no plans for their futures.

In the slum, we set out to find a precious 4-year-old girl named Moni with a cleft lip and cleft palate. I called this morning and scheduled an appointment with the surgeon to bring her in for her first visit ever to a hospital. We went to tell her and her family that we will be going to see the surgeon tomorrow morning.


–Moni–

I have never seen Moni smile and I cannot blame her. She should have been taken to a hospital when she was an infant. Now, she lacks confidence and is an outcast from society; she rarely speaks and cannot enunciate much when she does; and she is malnourished from the inability to properly chew many foods.

Fortunately for Moni, she was outside when we walked past her home yesterday on another errand. Tomorrow, she will see the surgeon and within a few weeks she will have a beautiful smile on her face and so will everyone else around her.

Our next stop was to visit a little girl named Chandani, who has facial deformation on the right side of her face and head. We told her mother that we would also like to take her to the plastic surgeon tomorrow morning. She agreed without hesitation.

And, of course, no one can forget Manish. He is now a week into his steroid treatment and is experiencing the expected side effects. His tummy is filled with gas and he is not as hungry as he used to be, but he is just as cute as can be and will also join us for his weekly trip to see the plastic surgeon tomorrow morning.

Then, we went home for lunch. Yes, that was all just one morning in India. I wish every morning could be as productive and meaningful as that one.

As we ate lunch, our students also went home from school to have their own. While all of the other Carmel Convent School students stayed at home for the rest of the afternoon, ours returned to the school from 3-5pm for their special class. They are in boot camp now and they love it. They were just as enthusiastic to come to school this afternoon as they were at six o’clock this morning. We distributed the new books and backpacks to all of the students, each of whom thanked us for every single book as we handed them out.

Forty-six days ago, Ramotar’s cycle-rickshaw was used to carry his family home to the slum. Today, it was a school bus that carried the hopes and dreams of his community to and from their new lives.

You can see from the photos the elation that your donations are giving to these children and their families. The smiles on their faces are smiles of gratitude and appreciation the likes of which I have never seen before.

I said 46 days ago that I could not wait to buy Neha and Gudiya their backpacks and supplies, to put them in brand new uniforms and shoes, or to watch them attend school for the first time. When I made that comment, I never thought that we would achieve these same goals for them and 16 other students in less than seven weeks.

We have been the facilitators and ambassadors, but you donors and sponsors have been the real heroes. We are here on the front lines but you are the ones sending us resources and supplies to stand up for what we all know is right.

Your donations are not just providing lessons for our children, they are teaching an entire slum society of 25,000 people about the importance of education. Every day here is a new opportunity to not just see a need but do something about it. Today, as Rani carried bricks on her head to feed her five children, her daughter became the first person in her family to ever attend school. Rani and the community now fully understand what we are trying to accomplish here. She and her neighbors realize that if Anita and the other children use their heads to learn now, they won’t have to carry bricks with them later.

Please know that medical expenses for children like Manish, Chandani, and Moni are not coming out of your donations to the Squalor to Scholar Program. For the time being, my family and I are covering these expenses. If you would like to sponsor an operation or its associated costs, please email me at squalortoscholarprogram@gmail.com and I will get back to you.

There is a backlog of fascinating events that I have yet to tell you about. I apologize for the delay of this post. However, please know that I am always thinking about your support. Thanks for staying tuned in and please consider a donation if you haven’t yet. These lives and smiles (some of which still need to be surgically corrected) are worth every penny. Thank you.

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Poornima (aka Kashak)…

…I know I have great friends; but I didn’t know they were this great! Recently, my friend and fellow Washington University in St. Louis alumnus and recent graduate Laura Pridmore decided to sponsor one of our deserving children for an entire year. I am excited to present Laura with her new “daughter,” Poornima.

In many previous posts, I have referred to Poornima by her “house” name, Kashak. In the slum, Kashak is still Kashak. However, at her new school, the Carmel Convent School, she is known only by her real name, Poornima. In a way, this duality of names underscores the double lives that she and our students now live.


–Poornima riding in the tuk-tuk to get the shoes and uniform Laura bought her–


–Poornima trying on her first pair of real shoes–


–Gudiya, Versha, and Poornima arriving at the Carmel Convent School for the first time–


–Poornima with her sister Versha in Sister Puspha’s office–

Poornima and Versha’s parents, Gudiya and Rustam, are steadfastly appreciative of our efforts here. They have insisted that I come to their home two times now, where both times they have had an ice cold Limca soda waiting for me. As I sit on the bed that takes up most of their home, I always make a point to show my satisfaction after every sip. To receive such heartwarming gratitude and hospitality from people who have so little to give away is truly special.

Rustam works as a machine operator in a local shirt factory. His family may not have many clothes, but the ones they do have they wear with beauty, pride, and dignity. They continually look better than most people with 100 times the income.


–Gudiya climbing the ladder into their home with Poornima’s uniform in hand–

Like Ajeet, Poornima also runs home to wash her uniform after school even if it isn’t dirty. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.

I took this picture of Kashak on January 2 so that I would be able to remember her name. Now, I will never forget either of her names. She has become a part of the Squalor to Scholar family and will remain as such for many years to come.

Laura, I hope Poornima and her smile melt your heart as much as they do mine. Her beautiful mother, Gudiya, is illiterate. However, thanks to you, Poornima will not be. You can consider Poornima’s home your own. If you ever come to India, Laura, your new family will be waiting to welcome you with open arms, a seat on their bed, and an ice cold refreshing Limca.

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Pedal to the Metal…

…I was under the impression that our students would not start first standard with the other students. However, as usual, the plans have changed. Over the past week, we have been gearing up for the first day of the 2012-2013 school year on Monday, March 26. Late March and early April in India are the equivalent of Late August and early September for the American school year. Our timing for starting the Squalor to Scholar Program could not have been more fortuitous. To take children without any education who live among the chaos and filth of this…

…to the peace and serenity of this…

…to their first day of actual school at the best school in town in under six weeks has been a massive undertaking. Many thanks to my fellow volunteers Natalie Wills and Heather Barnes, our wonderful sponsors, the Carmelite sisters, and our patient teachers for their help in preparing these 18 students and their families for the big day.

Six days a week for the past three weeks, every student has shown inspirational enthusiasm to attend school. They walk single-file in perpetually pristine uniforms to and from school as if they own the streets. They do their homework at night and show up early the next morning to attend the slum school, where we provide tutoring and more homework. When we assign homework, they shake their heads, wiggle their index fingers, and say, “No” while indicating that we did not assign enough work. I have never seen students ask for homework before. When we started, I just hoped our children would enjoy school. Now, they can’t seem to get enough of it!

One of my favorite parts of the day is taking attendance in our afternoon classes. I know that all of our children are present every day. No student has missed a day of school yet, or even been late. But I began taking attendance at the teachers’ insistence and am glad that I did. Each student will jump out of his or her seat with a hand raised high and beaming voice call back, “Present, Sir!” The first time I took attendance, the kids just about brought tears to my eyes.

Discipline, manners, and values are subjects of much emphasis for the teachers. The regular Carmel Convent School students are accustomed to sophisticated, strict, and rule-abiding ways of life. Our students, on the other hand, have grown up in an environment with little order and few concepts of propriety. Our students are used to hitting one another, going to the bathroom wherever they want, and running around with reckless abandon. Changing these core instincts takes time.


–Getting treats and saying thank you to the sisters–


–Sister Prasanna, Sister Asha, and Deepa–

Deepa is our neighbor and one of the most adept teachers I have ever seen. She has been a blessing from the beginning. Deepa is a full-time first standard Carmel Convent School teacher. Fortunately, she fully understands our goals and needs. Deepa told me, “Your dream for them is my dream too, we will fulfill our dream.”


–Versha in her brand new uniform–

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Diagnosis…

…This morning, we returned to Fortis Escorts Hospital to see the plastic surgeon, receive a full diagnosis, and discuss different treatment options for little Manish. For the first time, Manish’s father Kusun was also able to come along.

It is apparent that Manish’s condition is quite unique. The chief radiologist, chief plastic surgeon, and chief pediatrician at Fortis Escorts, as well as physicians at the All India Institute of Health Sciences in Delhi, have had difficulty pinning down what is causing the tumor on Manish’s face. Is it a vascular malformation or a hemangioma? I wish we could say with certainty, but even the best doctors in Faridabad and New Delhi cannot definitively diagnose his condition.

While three of the top doctors in Faridabad stopped their other patient flows to discuss the case even further, we had Manish’s blood drawn for a CBC (complete blood count). The doctors wanted to see if Manish’s tumor was hogging platelets. Manish was adorable as he looked with such curiosity at the needle before realizing the pain that it would inflict.

The doctors finally agreed that, given the flow patterns on the contrast MRI scans, the tumor is most likely a hemangioma. The pediatrician prescribed Manish (9.52kg) with tablets of Omnacortil (20mg) to be taken once daily. This is a strong steroid treatment that will hopefully slow or even stop growth of the hemangioma until it enters the involution stage.

The bad news is that Manish may have to live looking like this for the next 5 to 8 years. We could perform a surgery now, but any hemangiomatous tissue left behind could still continue to proliferate. The risk of infection, especially so close to the eye and brain, caused by opening the tumor is prohibitively high. It is far better for Manish to be disfigured for his youth than to become permanently blind, develop meningitis, or die. This has been an incredibly educational few weeks for me. I had no idea something that looks so out-of-control could actually take care of itself with time. Although I feel somewhat powerless, this is yet another lesson that we are all just human. Life, even if it is disfigured, is still beautiful.

The great news is that Manish is otherwise healthy and will hopefully respond to the medication in time for it not to proliferate to the extent that it covers his right eye. Manish was on medication previously, but not a proper dosage. If you live in a slum in India, you can’t just call up the public hospital to ask about your prescription. They would laugh at you on the phone. It sounds like Dolly and Kusun have been confused about proper use of the steroidal syrup they were prescribed before. Since Manish showed no typical signs of steroid medication (such as swelling, lack of appetite, or gaseousness), the doctors here at Fortis Escorts believe that Manish’s previous treatment has had little if any impact.

We bought Manish’s tablets at the pharmacy and his parents will start his treatment today. Next Tuesday, we will return to the hospital to see how Manish is reacting to his treatment and determine the extent of its side effects on him.

Manish isn’t just a celebrity in the hospital here. He is quickly gaining medical attention on the other side of the planet. I am working on having Manish’s MRI scans uploaded to radiologists and a renowned leader on infantile hemangiomas in Canada. Many thanks to these generous doctors for helping to provide truly global care to Manish.

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Kajal…

…On behalf of seven-year-old Kajal Kumari, I would like to now thank Sarah Watson of Paradise Valley, Arizona and Dane Vrabac of Kansas City, Kansas for their thoughtful generosity. Because of Sarah and Dane, Kajal has everything she needs to not just enter into but thrive at the Carmel Convent School for the next year.

Sarah and Dane, ages 25 and 26 respectively, know a little bit about the power of education. Sarah, a friend and classmate of mine from Phoenix Country Day School, went on to study Psychology at Yale University and is currently earning her Juris Doctor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Dane attended my other alma matter, Washington University in St. Louis, and went on to graduate school in Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Georgetown University. Understanding the enormous value of education, Sarah and Dane have selflessly passed on their knowledge and resources to this deserving young girl.


–Kajal on her first day of school…ever–

Kajal, age seven, is the youngest of five daughters and one son. Although her parents Lalita and Tuntun claim they have always wanted to send their children to a government school, that goal does not seem to have been achieved. Severely limited finances, absence of initiative, and lack of knowledge about local opportunities severely constrain the educations of many children here. For instance, Savita, Kajal’s 10-year-old sister, is still a student in our slum school. Pinki, Kajal’s 15-year-old sister, attends our vocational courses to learn sewing but is otherwise unskilled and illiterate.


–Lalita, Kajal, and Tuntun–


–Kajal holding tightly her new uniform and backpack–

March 4, the day Sarah and Dane made their donation, was also the day that Pinki, Kajal’s sister, was married in the slum. I felt proud to be invited to such an important milestone in their family’s life. However, although I had expected a simple wedding, I had expected it to be more celebratory than it seemed. I must put this observation in perspective, however, by pointing out that we were not able to stay for the entire event. For fears about safety, we returned home from the slum before dark, long before the main festivities geared up. From the early ceremonies that we did participate in, I found the mood was strikingly routine and austere.

I can imagine why Pinki did not have a big smile on her face. To be young, poor, uneducated, uncertain about the future, and exported to another slum with a man whom she knows little about but will spend the rest of her life with must wreak havoc on her emotions.


–Savita’s bare feet, with those of many other girls and women, were painted like this–


–Pinki with her new husband one day after the wedding–

Pinki’s new husband lives in another slum upstream of ours, in Sector 3. Pinki will soon move there permanently, where she will likely live for much if not all of her life. I would not also be surprised if she is already a mother by this time next year.


–Kajal holding a toothbrush donated by my dentist from Scottsdale, Dr. James Stowitts–

Six weeks ago, Kajal suffered from the same absence of opportunity as her sisters. Were it not for the Squalor to Scholar Program and donations like those from Sarah and Dane, Kajal would likely follow in the footsteps of her sister, Pinki. This not to say that there is anything wrong with being illiterate, poor, living in a slum, and serving as a housewife for one’s entire life. This is exactly how most of the women live here and provide vital and loyal care to their children and husbands. However, I believe such a lifestyle should not be Kajal’s only choice.

Thanks to Sarah Watson and Dane Vrabac, living her entire life in a slum will not be Kajal’s only option. I see Kajal improving rapidly every day. On behalf of Kajal, Savita, Pinki, Lalita, Tuntun, and the rest of their massive family, thank you Sarah and Dane for sharing what you know is the most powerful tool for progress, knowledge.

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Manish Goes to the Hospital…

…On August 6, 2010, Manish Pasman was born at home in a tiny village in rural Bihar, one of the poorest states in India. He had a small “chickpea-sized” growth on the right side of his nose. Only days after his birth, Manish and his family moved to Faridabad as his parents searched for higher wages and a better lifestyle in the slums of Sector 4, right where I found him.

When I first saw Manish, he was being held by his mother on the side of a road in the slum. When I stopped, she scurried off down an alley with Manish in her arms. When I asked Mithlesh about the little boy with a growth on his face, he did not know whom I was talking about. Although Mithlesh knows almost everyone in the slum, he had never seen or heard of Manish before. Luckily, Manish had been out of the house just as I walked by. When I returned with Mithlesh to translate for me, Manish’s family was pleased to learn that I wanted to help.


–Manish on February 10, 2012–

At two months old, Manish’s defect had grown slightly. His parents took him by bus to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, the best public hospital in India. The doctors told him to come back in four months. When they returned, the growth had spread across Manish’s cheek. The doctors scheduled an MRI, for which Manish and his family had to wait four more months. Now ten months old, Manish’s condition had proliferated substantially. The mass on his cheek and nose seemed to be growing out of control. Even after the MRI, doctors seemed torn as to what the condition really was. Favoring a conservative treatment, the physicians placed Manish on standard corticosteroid medication for the next 100 months (8.3 years!).

Since then, over the past nine months, Manish’s condition has stretched and swollen even faster than before. There is even noticeable difference between when I first saw Manish on February 10 and now. Obviously touched by Manish and in disbelief that more could not be done, I set out to help him as if he were my own son. I made calls to numerous locals and was put in contact with Dr. Amitabh Singh, the leading plastic surgeon at one of the best private hospitals in town. Dr. Amitabh was enthusiastic to help. He said, “Bring him to me at 11am tomorrow.”

Fewer than 18 hours later, I was sitting in Fortis Escorts hospital with Manish, his mother Dolly, Dolly’s father’s friend Vikram, and Mithlesh. Dr. Amitabh’s first reaction was one of slight surprise. I don’t think he anticipated the case being so advanced. However, his warm personality and extensive knowledge were immediately apparent. I felt confident in Dr. Amitabh’s ability to provide the best possible care to Manish.

Dr. Amitabh explained in great detail what the condition could be both in English (for me) and Hindi (for the others). His clinical impression, given the compressibility, rigidity, appearance, and temperature of the growth is that it is a vascular malformation, more specifically a venous malformation. However, we needed more evidence. Since Manish’s last MRI was nine months ago, unavailable, and difficult to obtain, we opted to undergo a new battery of tests.

Furthermore, Dr. Amitabh wanted to specifically find the answers to multiple questions. He wanted to know if the vascular structure is being fed or drained by vessels to or from the eyes or brain. He also wanted to ensure that other vascular malformations are not present in Manish’s other organs, especially his brain or liver.

Dr. Amitabh personally escorted us to the radiology department. On the way, I was introduced to the chief of the hospital. Sixty seconds later, Dr. Amitabh and I were standing with the chief radiologist, Dr. Nirmesh, in his control room. After a run-down of our challenge, Dr. Nirmesh asked, “Is he ready today?” After fasting for a few hours, Manish was prepped for his MRI. He was given a dose of chloral hydrate syrup as a mild sedative and an IV line was started for the contrast agent.

Everywhere we walked, Manish was the center of attention. Even surgeons came out from their other work to see him and investigate his condition. Slowly, the sedative set in and we were ready to begin the MRI.

Manish was positioned and aligned as Vikram stood watch. Vikram had removed the metal from his clothes and pockets in order to stay by Manish’s side. With all systems ready, Manish was slid into the tube.

At my request, I was generously given permission to join the radiologists and technicians in the control room. For the first 20 minutes, everything went perfectly. Hundreds of cross sections were taken of Manish’s head to search for feeder vessels, vascular structure, and any potential vascular malformations within his brain.

Manish then began to show his tremendous vitality. With only ten minutes and the contrast scans remaining, Manish awoke. The test was shut down.

Manish was given one more dose of syrup and his IV line was cleared with saline while we waited to see if he would sleep once more.

After one pleasant nap and unexpectedly waking up inside of a loud claustrophobic tube, Manish showed no signs that he was going to fall asleep again. Now late in the afternoon, we were sent home and scheduled to continue the tests at 9am the next morning. Via a tuk-tuk, we returned to the slum.

The next morning, we returned to complete the contrast MRI. After 30 minutes, Manish was out cold again. However, he woke up just before the scans commenced. He fell asleep 30 minutes later, and then woke up again as he was rolled into the tube. The next time, he woke up while he was being covered with a blanket on the MRI table. After two days and five attempts at an MRI, Manish finally cooperated and slept peacefully through his contrast MRI. Noticing conflicting potential diagnoses between the contrast and standard MRI’s, Dr. Nirmesh freed up the CT scan for a third evaluation.

Dolly stood watch over Manish with a lead apron as the CT scan was completed. Next, we took Manish to a high resolution ultrasound to search for any vascular malformations in his other organs, notably his liver, kidneys, gall bladder, intestines, and urinary bladder. I am happy to report that, other than his face, Manish is perfectly healthy.

However, his face seems to be discouragingly difficult to properly understand. Although the growth clinically presents as and is supported by standard MRI to be a venous malformation, the contrast MRI patterns suggest structures more typical of a proliferating hemangioma with some features of involution.

If the growth were strictly a venous malformation without any feeders to or from the eyes or brain, clotting agents could be injected to collapse the vasculature from the inside out. If the growth were strictly a hemangioma, multiple paths could be taken but most likely nothing surgical or invasive. Surprisingly, an infantile hemangioma even of this size will eventually enter a stage of involution in which it slowly collapses on itself. However, Manish would be left with permanent scaring and excess skin not to mention the social and emotional burdens of looking like this for the next 8 years!

Dr. Amitabh had departed the hospital by the time our scans were complete. On Monday, we will return to see Dr. Amitabh, determine the complete diagnosis, and discuss treatment options. I look forward to learning how we can help this precious and unfortunate young trooper. I am happy to learn that Manish is otherwise healthy but wary that our options may indeed be limited. Rest assured, we will do everything we can do for Manish. As you saw today, we’re not holding anything back to care for him. He is already a celebrity at the hospital and is receiving red carpet treatment from all of the physicians. Even if we have to let nature run its course, that course will be heavily monitored. Stay tuned as we learn more!

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Sugarcane…

…After spending several hours with Manish at the hospital for his first visit, I was exhausted. We took a tuk-tuk back to the slum, from which I began to walk home. As I passed by the Carmel Convent School, the church’s driver, Ram Singh, was pulling out of the main gate with Sisters Asha and Sweta in the back seat. They stopped and summoned me to get in. I found out that we were going to look at land that other sisters had purchased in hopes of one day building a new school.

Thirty minutes later, we were in the rural villages and farms east of Faridabad. We passed two of the hospitals where I had worked in January as we continued east for another 30 minutes.

As the sun dropped low into the horizon, we finally arrived at our destination. Although I thought the location was a bit unusual for a school, it certainly made for scenic fields of wheat and potatoes.

I then discovered we were on a business trip. Multiple gentlemen came to sign contracts and discuss agriculture.


–The Carmel Convent School’s driver, Ram Singh–

Since I mentioned during the drive that I had never eaten sugarcane straight from the stalk, the sisters sent one of the farmers’ sons to chop us down some fresh sugarcane from a neighboring field. Much to my surprise, India is the world’s second largest producer of sugarcane (after Brazil), the source of 80% of world sugar production.

Everyone gnawed with their molars to peel away the stiff bark. To everyone’s amusement, I pulled out a pocketknife from pocket number 6 to accomplish the same task in half the time with a tenth of the trouble. I was shocked at how much liquid sugar there actually was in the stalk. Needless to say, it was delicious.

Here I was, in the middle of a wheat field in rural India, eating a stalk of sugarcane with two Carmelite nuns and their business partners. An hour and a half earlier, I had been in an urban slum playing with kids who all know me by name. Two hours earlier, I had been with the chief radiologist of a large private hospital conducting an MRI on 18-month-old Manish to determine whether he has a proliferating hemangioma or venous malformation covering half of his face. Now that’s a full day!


–Villagers carrying crops and goods to town–

International Women’s Day…

…International Women’s Day fell on March 8, the same day as Holi. Therefore, on Tuesday, the sisters hosted a celebration of their own. Three of the “best” moms from every class at the Carmel Convent School attended the event as well as the mothers of nearly all of our students. Instructed to wear red sarees and “look beautiful,” the moms of our students looked particularly spectacular.


–Students resting after their performance–


–Gudiya (Kashak and Versha’s mother) and Ranju (Ajeet’s mother)–

Everyone gathered in front of the stage where I spoke a few weeks ago. Prayers were read, songs were sung, and dances were performed. Much to my satisfaction, I have now fully realized that the sisters do not pursue anything with mediocrity. The schedule of events, temporary structures, performances, and food were all perfect, as usual.


–Lighting the ceremonial candles–

These boys were hilarious. Their confidence and energy were sky high as they danced to a popular Bollywood soundtrack called Desi Boys and pretended to be real ladies’ men.

Fortunately, our musically talented volunteer Natalie Wills had recently bought a guitar. She sang a beautiful song that she herself had written.

Madhu even came with her mother, Rita, and youngest brother.


–Volunteers Natalie Wills and Heather Barnes with Madhu and staff from the Carmel Convent School–

After the celebration, everyone was welcomed to a massive buffet-style feast. I watched with huge smiles as Madhu and our moms enjoyed what was likely one of the best meals they have ever eaten.


–Sisters Pushpa and Sweta cooking me lunch on Sunday–

I would be remiss if I did not mention the sisters on International Women’s Day. Since they discovered what I came for, they have treated me like family. They have said themselves that they consider me as a son. After church on Sunday, they had me stay for breakfast…and then lunch.

They weren’t just any meals, either. Since they know I have not had eggs or pasta in months, they cooked both specially for me. Both were, perhaps even literally, ambrosia.

When my plane landed in India three and half months ago, one of the last things I would have expected is is to be taken in by an entire convent. I will be forever grateful for their generosity and care, but especially for the opportunities they are creating for “our children.”

However, no amount of motherly affection will ever be able to top the care and love with which my own mother has raised me. I will never forget where home is Mom. It’s where you are. Without the compassion and love that you have shown and taught me, I would not be here now doing what I am doing. Nothing can replace great parenting. Luckily for me, you and Dad are the best.

I often look back at these two photos. They were taken on my birthday, the day I left home. They don’t just remind me that I am lucky, they remind me that I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. Thank you Mom and Dad. I love you and I’ll be home in six weeks.