Goodbye India…

…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.


–Neha, our first student admitted to the Carmel Convent School–


–Komal, Gudiya, and Roshan, each of whom are excelling with nearly perfect marks–


–Ajeet, who when folded is conveniently the same size as my carry-on luggage–


–Anita, the girl who will turn around her family’s incredible misfortune–


–Akanksha–


–Pooja and Manisha–


–Kajal–


–Akshansh, Ajeet, and Sonu–


–Manisha and Akshansh–


–Our talented and devoted teachers, Deepa and Priya–


–Manisha, Anita, Neha, Gudiya, and Ankit–


–Madhu, Roshan, and Sonu–

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.


–Manish and his mother, Dolly–


–Neha, Saraswati, Ankit, Sonu, Madhu, and me in Ankit’s home–


–Moni with her father, Dablu–


–Madhu, which means “honey” in Hindi–


–Gudiya waiting for Ajeet while he prepares his gift for me (in Ajeet’s home)–


–Ajeet in front of his old slum school–


–Rani, the widow who carries bricks to keep Anita, Sindu, Indu, and Surendar alive–

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!”


–The two youngest members of my host-family, Naima and Naysa–


–The ice cream cart made me especially popular–


–Sister Pushpa and the most touching family I have ever met–


–Manish’s cousin, Anisha, who can often be found taking care of the little tyke–

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.


–Rani–


–Ajeet–


–Prianka, who will have her biopsy on Wednesday–


–Manish, who will be admitted to the hospital next week for new medications–


–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.


–A plaque on a cabinet door in the Carmel Convent School main office–

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.

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Message to Sponsors…

Dear Sponsors and Donors,

Over the past two weeks, we have been conducting Skype chats in the slum school, in the Carmel Convent School, and in our children’s homes to fulfill the commitment I made to you when you made your donations.

As I have told some of you, this is the first time any of these kids and families have ever used the internet. Most of them look like deer in the headlights as they try to fathom what is going on in front of them. However, they are loving the ability to see the special people sponsoring them around the world, from Beijing, China to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

I have attempted to contact all of you by email but have not heard back from everyone. There are only six days left for me to provide you with the ability to Skype your student. This is the last call for any sponsors wishing to take advantage of this incredible opportunity.

If you haven’t already, please email me at squalortoscholar@gmail.com with the following information:
1. If you would still like to Skype with your student
2. Your mailing address
3. Your phone number
4. Your Skype username (if you have one)
5. A full-resolution photo of you (as an attachment)

I will then get back to you with instructions and availability for a Skype chat.

Thank you for your continued patience and support. I can’t wait to fill you in on what has been happening.

Yours gratefully,
John

P.S. Joy Walker, I’m sorry but I do not have your email address and have therefore been unable to contact you. Please email me at squalortoscholar@gmail.com when you have the chance. Thank you for your generous donation!

Race Against Time…

…I sincerely apologize that posts have been delayed recently. With only three weeks remaining in India, I am now in a race against time to ensure that our students have the best opportunities in place to maximize their success and arrange operations for as many deserving children as we can. Without giving away too much too soon, I want to give you a preview of some pictures and stories to expect in coming weeks.

After only eight weeks in school, our 18 students from the local slum are surpassing even my own optimistic expectations. In February, they could hardly write their ABC’s and had never attended a day of school in their lives. Today, they are reading with moderate fluency, writing with better cursive than my own, and showing potential to rapidly become some of the best students in their classes.

These children, their parents, and this entire slum community of 25,000 people are extraordinarily proud of our students and grateful for your continued donations and support. Without you, these students would have likely never set foot inside any school, not to mention the best private school in town.

What began as a small endeavor to help Manish find a cure for his disfiguring case of infantile hemangioma has now turned into a full-fledged medical support network. We no longer have to search for children to help. They are coming to us from as far away as Bihar, a state 600 miles away.

I have so many meaningful experiences to share with you now that I would hate to spoil them by rushing to get posts out the door. On behalf of our enthusiastic students, trusting patients, and dedicated volunteers, thank you for your patience and continued benevolent support. None of this would be possible without you.

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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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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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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–