…When I flew to India on the night of my 24th birthday, I flew out of my comfort zone. I flew toward 1.2 billion people without knowing a single one of them and toward a culture that mystified me. As the 747 climbed away from home and the lights of Phoenix disappeared behind, I remember looking out at the austere darkness and feeling very alone. When I landed in New Delhi the next night, I had no idea where I would go, what I would do, or whom I would meet. All I was told was to meet a man outside of customs who would be holding a sign with my name on it. The uncertainty was endless and anxiety stronger than I had ever felt.
Standing here tonight, five months later, I can hardly believe all that has happened since then. It just doesn’t seem possible even though I lived through it all. I came here to volunteer in hospitals and gain a more global awareness of medicine. I never planned on exploring slums, deciding which slum children would go to school and which ones would stay behind, or scouring entire communities for handicapped and disfigured people neglected by society. I never expected that I would be taken under the wings of Carmelite nuns, that my host family would treat me like their only son, or that I would feel like a relative to dozens of slum families among the lowest castes of Indian society. I never dreamed that I would bathe in the Ganges, ring in the New Year at the Taj Mahal, or be taken in a speeding ambulance to drink hot milk fresh from a buffalo.
I came to India because I wanted to make a difference and learn something that I could not from the comforts of home. I came with a positive attitude and a desire to expand my horizons. But I never imagined that I would be rewarded so magnificently by people from nearly every aspect of society.
This afternoon, I went to my final class with our spectacular students. Over the last three months, I have watched them go from a destiny of illiteracy and poverty to one of renowned educations and endless opportunities. Their lives have been changed forever and so has mine.
We returned to the slum so that our students could change for my farewell party and I could say goodbye to the rest of the community.
We then returned to the Carmel Convent School where the final farewell was to take place. As suggested by Crystal and Heather, I bought an entire ice cream trolley full of delicious treats for anyone who wanted one and rode around the community with the kids all yelling, “Ice cream wala!”
Then the presents started to come. Nearly every family in attendance brought me a gift. I thought I was going to need another bag just to get home with all of the packages.
–The sisters and my host family with our lovely neighbors. Ironically, Mamta and Meenakshe (our neighbor) had never met before Heather, Crystal, Natalie, and I asked to meet Meenakshe. Now, Mamta and she are best friends and the kids play together nearly every day–
I then handed out my own gifts. I gave each family my favorite pictures that I had taken of them as well as photos of my family and me in America.
We then started to say goodbye. All of the kids came up to give me a hug. Madhu started to cry and I could no longer hold back my own tears. These kids have taught me lessons that have transformed my own existence. Their optimism and zest for life despite the conditions in which they live have inspired me since the day I met them. I have seen them nearly every day for the past 100 days and have watched them grow and adapt beautifully to a way of life radically different and more demanding than what they were accustomed to five months ago. They have exceeded everyone’s expectations, including my own. These precious children have become my family, my friends, and my world. I cannot fathom ever working for anyone who will be as grateful or passionate about what they do as these children. I will leave them behind tomorrow, but they will never leave my mind.
This time last year, I was waiting tables in a restaurant. I had been rejected from 17 medical schools. I felt lost and unproductive. I decided to go out on a limb to a place where people needed me and where my limited resources and experience could still make a difference.
If I had not been rejected from my own dreams of attending medical school, these children may never have had dreams of their own. I certainly would not be here right now and would likely never have met these children, sisters, doctors, and families who have so drastically changed my life. Sometimes, even the biggest disapointments can be blessings in disguise.
I am signing off from India, but don’t worry. I have the last month to catch you up on and will do so from home. In the last five months, I’ve taken 13,320 photographs and compiled enough experiences to keep writing about for months. In case you forgot, we also have 20 stunning students to follow for the next 10-12 years as well as a half-dozen disfigured and handicapped children to watch through their medical treatments, growth, and eventual educations.
To all in India who have shown me unsurpassed hospitality, thank you for the experience of a lifetime. To my family and friends who await me at home, I can’t wait to see you and express what I could not from a distance. To those who have followed this blog and supported me throughout, I owe you a tremendous amount of posts, stories, thank yous, and photos that will be coming soon. I don’t know how I will ever convey the lessons and perspectives I have gained here but I look forward to trying.
Finally, I must reiterate my utmost gratitude to those of you who have donated to the Squalor to Scholar Program. Without you, none of this would have ever happened. The swiftness and generosity of your donations have revolutionized the lives of everyone present this evening in only a few short months. I am happy to report that all 20 of our Carmel Convent School students are now fully sponsored for the next year! Some have been sponsored and committed to for even longer. However, this does not mean that we do not need new donations. I know more than 500 talented and deserving slum children who I am leaving behind tonight without being able to help at all. Every rupee of your money has been and will continue to be spent with great care to ensure that it makes the greatest impact possible in their lives. Everything you have seen and read on this blog to this date has been accomplished with $6,000. Imagine what we could do with more! If you’re looking to make an immediate impact, Prianka and Moni will be having surgeries within the next four weeks. Prianka needs approximately $300 and Moni $150 to cover their medical and transportation expenses. When you make your donation, please specify if you would like your money to go to one of these special young girls. Thank you.