116 Slum Superheroes…

…Without giving away too much too soon, Squalor to Scholar will soon be surpassing a momentous milestone. Plans are well underway with multiple schools that will allow us to surpass the century mark and bring the total number of our students to 116! As you know, these children are viewed as inferior, less capable, and sometimes even unworthy of a world-class education. It is our intention, however, to prove otherwise. In less than a year, our 21 original students have proven to themselves and the world that, indeed, they are worth it.

JCS_7558–Three of our newest students: Simran, Roshani, and Seeta–

Approximately 200 million people in India are of the Scheduled (aka Untouchable, Dalit, or Shudra) caste that I mentioned in the previous post. We will soon be supporting 0.00005% of this often ignored population! Sure, that’s a small percentage but it is an undertaking that is sustainable, effective, and inspirational. As my father would say, the camel’s nose is in the tent. We will spring from here to tackle the educational and public health challenges of India on a much more macro level while remaining fully aware of the needs and issues of the people our work will target.

Our pursuit here, however, has been and will be focused on quality, not quantity. These children are more than numbers or statistics; they are breathing, vivacious human beings who not only yearn for knowledge but have the potential to teach us about ourselves.

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All in all, the 116 children who will soon be under our care will receive every resource necessary to excel in their top-tier schools, graduate from 12th standard (the equivalent of high school), and attend college or vocational school. Over the next 12-14 years of their primary and secondary educations, our students will, combined, rack up nearly 2,500,000 hours of classroom learning! That’s the equivalent of more than 285 years!

_Laughing Hard

I was walking and laughing with our current students the other day when the boys started energetically impersonating superheroes. They acted like they were shooting webs from their wrists, simulating roundhouse kicks, and flying as fast as possible down the street. I joined in as Ironman and pretended to fire up the rocket engines in my boots and gloves. Ajeet ran over to me and, quite seriously, said, “John Bhaiya…you…are…superhero!” I asked, “Which one? Spiderman? Superman? Batman? Ironman?…” He stopped walking and contemplated with his hand on his chin and eyes looking toward the sky. He then responded with a big smile on his face, “No…you…are…Johnman!”

_Superhero AjeetThe true heroes here, however, are our talented students, their perseverant families, and, of course, the generous sponsors and donors who make all of this possible! Just think…this time last year, we still did not have a single student enrolled in school. Within the next couple of weeks, we will surpass 100!

_Goat in Dirty Park

Last night, a close friend of mine from home was on CNBC providing market analysis after the closing bell. I watched the video of it tonight online. There he was in a suit and tie, looking great at age 25, making his predictions as a burgeoning expert in the field. I told my fellow volunteers who jokingly noted, “And look at you, sitting inside a mosquito net next to a slum wearing a ski hat to stay warm!”

I laughed at the irony. However, there is nowhere I would rather be (ok…I lied…a hot shower at home and some of Mom’s lasagne would be pretty stellar right now). However, from this mosquito net, I can trade stocks, follow world news, promote human rights, and conduct research on local and international levels. I can bring thousands of people around the world together and shine light on problems that are overlooked even by those who live right next to them. Welcome to the 21st century!

_Aarti

One of the first questions I am often asked about Squalor to Scholar is, “How do you choose the students?” To me, this is the hardest part of our job. Not a day goes by when a mother or child does not beg me for admission into a school. Many criteria go into each selection and it is difficult to convey why we can help some people and not others. It’s one thing to deny someone money or food here because that individual will, sooner or later, likely obtain what they need. That’s an instinct of survival. However, education is not an immediate necessity. Among the “to-do list” of the poor in India, education usually ranks pretty low, somewhere near long term personal health.

Over the past year here, however, we have brought the topic of education to the forefront of every parent’s mind. That, in and of itself, is a victory.

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Three days ago, we printed out formal applications containing our important criteria and sat down unannounced in the slum at 9:30am. We planned on registering just a few children. The news spread like wildfire. Members of our team filled out applications continuously for the next 11 hours!

Due to such an overwhelming response from the community, we’ve begun creating a database of all eligible slum children ages 2-10 so that we have a permanent record of their biographic and family information. In three days, we’ve processed more than 200 applications. Each application takes considerable time and effort, as nearly every parent in the slums is illiterate and a member of our team must fill out the entire form.

JCS_7805–Volunteer Mira Patel speaking to a parent who has come for registration–

Luckily for us, volunteer Mira Patel speaks Hindi! She has been an incredible addition to our team and has certainly boosted productivity. Mira, Mamta, and Mithlesh do all of the speaking and documenting to assist families.

JCS_7746–Volunteer Bethea Robertson evaluating one of the applicants–

Bethea then evaluates the students individually and attempts to determine their basic knowledge, interactivity, estimated potential, current abilities, and degree of family support. Faith and I then obtain their photographs for our ability to recall, find, and identify the children later.

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_Testing

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_Lucky

Lucky might just turn out to have the perfect name! We’ll let you know in a couple of weeks where he ends up.

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Our 15 newest students are thriving in the classroom and impressing even the sisters. These are some recent photos of them leaving school this week. Their pristine new uniforms are currently being made.

_Roshni Looking Up and Smiling

–Roshni (above)–

_Chandani Holding Moms Hand

–Chandani–

_Angali and 3 Others on Bicycle

–Anjali (the third one on the bicycle)–

_Sadna and Raj Nandani in Cart

–Sadna and Raj Nandani in the back of a cycle wagon–

_Ajeet Neha and Gudiya Walking Home 2–Neha, Ajeet, and Gudiya walking back to their homes after walking me home–

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Last night, Prianka returned from Bihar to re-visit her surgeon in Delhi. She had a smile on her face and tears in her eyes when she saw me. Her benign tumor has continued to grow despite her previous surgery. She was admitted to the hospital today and will have another highly invasive surgery tomorrow morning. She’s my superhero tonight. Her surgeon will be her superhero tomorrow. Please keep her and her loving father in your thoughts and prayers.

To all those who have supported us this year and made the educations of 116 children and surgeries like Prianka’s possible, thank you!

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Tangible Untouchables…

…It’s a rainy, gloomy day here in Faridabad. The streets are flooded and the slum is a sea of thick mud and cow dung. For the first time in more than a month, I am the only foreigner living in Mamta’s home. It is eerily peaceful for India. The ever-present sounds of chanting salesmen, children shouting, impatient drivers honking, and sputtering engines billowing clouds of smoke are nothing but memories of sunnier days. All that I hear are the patter of rain, the distant pounding of nearby metal factories, and the faint call to prayer from a faraway minaret. The air, for once, is fresh. The usual airborne industrial debris seems to have vanished. The smoke has cleared. The dust has been beaten to the ground by drops of water. Taking deep breaths and being able to listen to my own thoughts have never seemed like the luxuries they are now.

_Machine Shop
–Women working in a dimly lit unventilated machine shop–

Life among the slums here is tiring. Trying to make a difference is exhausting. Throw in a little ‘Delhi Belly,’ a common cold, and some water scarcity and it would be tough for anyone not to miss the comforts of home.

But, then I go outside. Even though I sleep on a wooden plank, wash my clothes in a bucket, and use a cup to rinse my body in a candle-lit bathroom, I realize that what is important in life is not what we have but what we are able to do with what we have.

_Squatting Boy

I have the ability to read and write, I was born free and equal, and I am loved by a family that would move heaven and Earth to ensure my health and safety. I’m set. Much should be and is expected of me. The children and young adults here, however, can’t read or write, they are neither free nor equal, and their families can hardly afford to put food on a table they don’t even have. Despite living at the bottom of what will soon be the most populated civilization in history, however, the children here are among the happiest I have ever met. They exude hope even when others have lost it. They are skin and bones but tough as nails. They act as though they have everything going for them even when everything is actually going against them.

_Daulati on Stepping Stones 2

The slum’s residents have every right to be angry at the world. Throughout their lives, they have been treated as inferior 4th class citizens. They perform back-breaking, unhealthy, and often demeaning work without ever second-guessing their status. They and their ancestors have been denied healthcare, education, and opportunity for so long that even when they are offered such services they do not trust or understand them. When I take patients and their families to the hospitals, some doctors scold the parents for waiting so long and having to have a foreigner bring them in for treatment. However, are they really the ones to blame? I don’t think so.

Living in India is no longer the novelty it once was to me. Being 8,000 miles from home now seems pretty normal. I no longer flinch when I round a corner to meet a massive bull staring into my eyes from three feet away. I no longer want to fumigate myself or my clothing after spending the day in a slum.

The hardest part about my return to India has not been adapting to the culture but adapting to the scale of India’s problems and the widespread lack of regard for them. Education of the poor here is a disaster and I believe it is the central root of India’s vast poverty, overpopulation, and massive public health dilemmas. To make matters worse, the caste system cripples altruism and any attempts to promote equality. Some of the high-caste locals who only know the basics of our work think that our impoverished children from the slums cannot perform to the same standards as “normal” students. In true Indian honesty, they tell me directly that I am “wasting my time.” All someone needs to do is meet one of our students to know that this is not true.

How can you think I am wasting my time if you have never met our students? How can you understand their problems if you never go to their communities? How can you stand to watch them suffer and even die without wanting to find a solution?

I experienced the most egregious and bewildering example of the caste system last year in, of all places, church. It was my last Sunday mass with the sisters before returning home and I planned a special, surprise event.

psIMG_6298–Above: Moni, Manish, and Chandani. Below: Prianka–

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During mass, I had all of the pediatric patients I had been caring for (and their families) come meet me at the church entrance. When the parish priest finished his sermon, he signaled me to come address the congregation (all of whom speak perfect English). I walked down the aisle from the back of the church with six severely deformed children and their parents following me. We all turned around and faced the congregation. I took the podium and introduced each of the children, their medical conditions, what I had done for each of them to date, and when their operations and/or treatments were scheduled. I then made one simple request for help transporting the children to and from the hospitals and physicians that would cure them. I thanked the congregation in advance for their generous help and for their hospitality during the three months I had attended their church.

Once the service ended, I stood at the back as everyone passed to shake my hand, hug me, and thank me for my work here. They then passed by the children, entered their cars, and drove away. No one ever said a single word about helping these unfortunate and astonishing children. Even when I brought devout lifelong Catholics children with obvious and dire problems and explained exactly what each of them needed and when, they unanimously declined to help.

When I told the sisters that no one had offered to support us, Sister Pushpa said, “We knew that no one would help you but we did not want to crush your hope.”

India, like these children, has so much potential. A relatively recently liberated democratic republic with 1.25 billion hard-working and patriotic people should be one of the world’s most formidable economies and superpowers. Yet, the ultimate definition of success here is the ability to leave. It’s a race to the top and every man for himself. The brain drain and caste system are debilitating and undeniable problems for India and its future.

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Several of our new students this year, including Raj Nandani (above) are of the Scheduled Caste, otherwise known as the Untouchables, Dalits, or Shudras. They are members of the the lowest castes that make up approximately 16% of India’s population.

_Fingerprinting

Many of our students’ parents are so illiterate they cannot even sign their names. The photo above is of a mother having to use her fingerprint to sign her daughter’s application for school.

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I took the above photo of Manisha 13 months ago, when we wrote her name because she could not.

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This is Manisha now, holding up her impeccable homework that has been marked “excellent” by her teacher. When people believe in you, you believe in yourself; you become proud of your work and you try even harder the next time. All these beautiful children need are opportunities for challenging learning and positive feedback when they succeed. We have done this at Squalor to Scholar and in one year our students have shattered everyone’s expectations of them.

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Once our students are finished rocking their exams later this month, I’ll be heading out into the slums before dawn every morning with an iPad to Skype with sponsors and donors all over the world. I’ll be in touch soon to organize the video hangouts and share with you in live broadcasts some of the most inspiring children you’ll ever meet.

_Facetime in an Alley

What a Year!…

…It was 365 days ago today when I walked into the Carmel Convent School and met Sister Pushpa for the first time. She sat me down in her office and, for the next hour and a half, we had a conversation that I knew would change my life. We discussed such topics as the purpose of our existence, the plight of the poor, and the perseverance of the human spirit.

Little did I know, however, that I would walk into that same office one year later with more than three dozen slum children under our wings, that we would celebrate their outstanding academic and athletic achievements, or that I would be back here in India.

_Ajeet with Ice Cream
–Ajeet enjoying an afternoon at the local park with his much deserved ice cream–

As of this time last year, Ajeet had no plans of ever attending school. He is now the top student among his high-end class of 160 students. In only a year, he has learned how to read nearly anything in English or Hindi, have entire conversations in English, and multiply and divide in his head even faster than I can. He didn’t have any dreams for his future 365 days ago. Now, he wants to become an engineer. NASA, I think you should get ready for one of the best employees you’ll ever have.

_Daulati MRI
–MRI of Daulati’s Pott’s Spine–

Daulati had never been to a doctor before her condition became severe and her family brought her to us. She has now had full radiology and lab workups and is under Directly Observed Treatment (DOTS) for her disease: tuberculosis of the spine. DOTS officials will visit her every other day for the next 9 months to administer her medication. More about her recent hospital visits is coming soon.

_Priyanka Ladder on Roof
–Prianka was rescued again–

Marital and family disputes ended in violence for Prianka (our student) and her mother. Fearing for their lives, they fled together to a place no one could find them. After searching far and wide for over a month, we finally found Prianka and have returned her to the peace and love of our care. She is not only safe but happy and excited to return to her friends in the classroom. We have arranged temporary transportation to and from school for Prianka until her mother and she can find permanent and safe housing.

_New Slum School Group
–The first day of Mamta’s new school–

Inspired by our progress over the last year, Mamta started her own slum school this week. She found a bilingual teacher and is fundraising on her own to begin a new chapter for herself and many children in the slum. On the first day, 53 children and families showed up. Within the first three days, more than 100 children came for admission.

_Mamta in Car
–Mamta and Shri taking supplies to her new school–

_Looking Through the Gate
–Children waiting to enter the new slum school–

_Versha with Writing Competition Certificate Prize
–Versha holding her recent award–

This week, Versha (our student in Lower Kindergarten) won “First Place” in her English Writing Competition among 164 of her classmates. We always knew she was talented; now, everyone else does too.

_Roshan on Rickshaw
–Roshan–

Many students have had impeccable attendance. However, Roshan’s has been nearly perfect with 222 days of attendance since we started recording last March. One must remember that our students attend school from early in the morning to late in the afternoon 6 days per week. This young man is dedicated, ambitious, and as photogenic as they come.

_John with Slum School Children

_Green Lighting with Kids
–Searching for talented, driven children in need of an opportunity–

As you know, we’ve been hard at work looking for more high-potential children to give the chances of a lifetime. There are thousands who deserve our help. Some, however, stand out immediately. It’s like they’ve been preparing for our arrival all year…or perhaps their entire lives.

_John with Chanda
–Taking down Chanda’s information–

_Caitlin Teaching Class
–Preparing our newest and youngest students for their first day of official school–

We’ve chosen our 15 young girls for the class of 2027 and have begun preparing them for the first day of school on April 1st, 2013. In coming days, I’ll be introducing them to you.

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–Simran, age 4, showing off her ABC’s–

_Seeta and Geeta with Sister Sweta
–Nurturing our newest and youngest students–

We are not the only people nurturing and caring for this new class of students. Our older students have, as I expected, begun treating our newest students like their little sisters.

_Indu Carrying Gopika
–Gopika (age 3) being carried by Indu after being separated from mom for the first time–

This time last year, Indu was sweeping homes to support her family with an additional income of $20 per month. We took her and put her on an entirely different track. She is now one of the most hard-working students her teacher has ever seen. I wonder why!

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–Santosh before his surgery–

Santosh died in January, shortly after his first birthday. His mother wailed and cried in my arms when I visited his home the day after he passed. Even though his death was caused by easily treatable diarrhea, his family has carried on. His 3-year-old sister is a student in Mamta’s slum school and his mother has already given birth to a new baby boy.

_Santosh's Little Brother
–Santosh’s mother and new little brother–

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–My farewell sendoff last May–

In only a year, we have impacted directly and indirectly thousands of people’s lives. We have promoted the value of education, the importance of healthcare, and, perhaps most importantly, the ideals of equality that sometimes seem so absent here. We are small, so small; but our determination and long-term outlook certainly set us apart.

_John Reunited with Priyanka
–Welcoming Prianka back…I can only imagine what she has been through–

Although many lives have been transformed here, I feel that I am the one who has grown and learned most from this epic journey. Over the past year, I have learned more about public health, business, education, politics, poverty, corruption, illiteracy, religion, spirituality, web design, photography, charity work, and humanity than I could ever learn in a classroom. As a strikingly honest and insightful physician correctly concluded earlier this week during my visit to a government hospital, I’m slowly transitioning toward a much more macro level of thinking and problem solving.

To the hundreds of people who have volunteered their services and donated their money to Squalor to Scholar over the past year, I am and will be forever grateful for your vital and unwavering support. None of this would have been possible without you.