…The day after I arrived, our students suited up in their new winter uniforms and set out for their special class while regular school is still out of session for winter break. For the winter season, we purchase our students new uniforms, including sweaters, sweater vests, blazers, and long pants or skirts to stay warm. They look terrifically handsome and beautiful yet striking against the background of their foggy homes and surroundings.
Our students rarely go anywhere alone. As I expected, they have become best friends over the past few months. Hand-holding even among men is common in India and our students walk everywhere hand-in-hand.
For those of you just joining us, these students you are looking at live in a slum and are members of the lowest castes in Indian society. No one has believed in them enough before to give them the opportunity of a world-class education, or any education for that matter. Even now, many people here are skeptical about their abilities to succeed.
We, however, do believe in them. Over the next few months, I’m going to prove to you why. These students first started school 10 months ago. At that time, they knew only the English alphabet and how to count from 1-100. They could not read, write, or speak to any greater extent. Even in Hindi, their native language, the could only recite the alphabet.
For the past 10 months, they have been studying 7.5 hours a day (2.5 hours longer than regular students) and six days per week at the Carmel Convent School, a well-renowned English-medium private school near their slum. Before I left, our students and I could hardly communicate at all beyond body language. Now, they understand much of what I am saying and can even translate for me when people approach us on the street to ask me questions.
When we walk places, they call out and spell the names of everything they see. They will point at, for instance, a picture of a elephant and yell, “Elephant…e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t!!!!” or see a rickshaw passing by and yell, “Rickshaw…r-i-c-k-s-h-a-w!!!”
They also happen to have spectacular senses of humor. They have always made me laugh with their actions but they do so now with their words as well. When passing a field where many people go to dispose of their human and material waste, the children point and yell, “Park…Dirty park!…Very dirty park!!” as they wiggle and rotate their hands back and forth to signify ‘do not enter.’
The vast majority of our students can now read entire pages of books out loud and without any hesitation, even material they have never seen before. I brought “The Cat in the Hat” along and we were able to read it together for the first time.
They also understand that they’re all in this together. They help one another when they are struggling and congratulate those who receive high marks on tests or homework. They are like a large 21-person family.
Every class begins and ends with a prayer thanking God for the ability and opportunity to study. It is a precious sight to behold.
When school ends, the children return to their dwellings in the slums and change back into their tattered clothing. Many of them return to bare feet and quickly become indistinguishable from the other children in the slum. They begin their chores and often perform most of the work to maintain their homes. At about 8pm, most of the students begin their homework and study for 1-2 hours before going to bed.
These kids are among the most fascinating and inspiring I have ever met. They lead two completely different lifestyles now and yet fit into both of them remarkably well given their circumstances. I am proud of them and hope you are too.
…There are few times in life when someone gives you the chance to change a life, or two…or thirty-six. However, that is exactly what the sisters at the Carmel Convent School have done for us.
I was not expecting any more seats to open up at the Carmel Convent School until next April. However, I was wrong! Very early on Sunday morning, Sister Pushpa called to inform me that applications for admission to a new class at the Carmel Convent School kindergarten are now open and that she and the other sisters have reserved 15 additional seats specifically for Squalor to Scholar.
Just like the admission season last spring, the sisters are leaving the decisions of whom to enroll entirely up to us. We have been given two weeks to make our selections.
As you can imagine, this is an enormous responsibility. From 8,000 miles away, I have been put in charge of finding 15 of the highest potential three-and-a-half-year-old-girls from the Patel Nagar slum to admit to the Carmel Convent School. These 15 students will join the 21 who began last spring, bringing the total to 36 by the end of October.
I have informed Mamta and a new volunteer named Brenna Masterton, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, of the tremendous opportunities and responsibilities that await us. They have enthusiastically agreed to be the boots on the ground leading this selection process for the next two weeks. This was my first time speaking with Brenna and, as I explained the situation, I could tell that she was beginning to cry. Brenna has spent considerable time in the slums with the children and understands their plight first-hand. She was crying tears of joy to be able to participate in this important and transformative selection process.
Like the 21 students who were selected before them, 15 young girls in the Patel Nagar slum will soon receive educational possibilities beyond their wildest dreams. We don’t yet know who they are, and neither do they. However, their lives and ours are about to change drastically over the coming weeks. The children we select will be taken from paths of poverty and illiteracy and placed on a path toward becoming doctors, engineers, or professionals in whatever fields they choose to pursue.
Numerous sponsors have been on the waiting list to sponsor a child for this class. Those individuals will receive notification about their new students soon and will have the opportunity to follow them for at least the next 14 years. If you are among this group, I thank you for your patience. Imagine having conversations with these students when they grow older and are fluent in English. What will they say? Where will they go? What will they do? I hope you’re as excited as I am to find out!
If you are interested in sponsoring a child within this new class, now is your chance! All it takes is a few clicks below to redirect an entire family’s future for generations to come.
Many thanks to Brenna and Mamta for your tireless work. I know you are both dedicating every waking moment to making sure these decisions are fair and justified. Having been in your shoes before, I know how hard it is to determine the fate of a human life with a single difficult decision. God bless you and keep your heads up high.
…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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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!
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…The second day of school was just as magical as the first. The students could not be prouder. Neither could I. They are taking to school like ducks to water.
Today, we took a break from class to use the playground. You can only imagine the excitement!
The kids’ favorite device is definitely the merry-go-round. Ok, it’s my favorite too. If you haven’t noticed, I’m really just a big kid at heart. You might also be wondering what is on my face.
Although I had been invited to a Holi (pronounced “holy”) party by our neighbor last week, I hadn’t given in much more thought. Only this morning did I find out I was the chief guest! To make a long story short, our neighbor, Meenakshi, owns and runs a women’s polytechnic institute here in Faridabad. A few weeks ago, the other volunteers and I were discussing sending some women from the slum to her school for vocational training. Meenakshi has become one of our biggest local supporters. Through me, she met my host mother and the two are rapidly becoming close friends.
I found out that I was the chief guest about 30 minutes before the event was about to start. I jumped in our family car and rode with Shri, Mumta, and Naisa to the polytechnic school. We were given an honorary Indian welcome. I received a fresh rose, a tilak on my forehead, and a plethora of traditional sweets and soda. We sat down on a couch facing about 50 female students. I received gracious praise for my work here and then was asked to make yet another impromptu speech. Luckily, I have a lot of things to talk about.
Next, we witnessed a full fashion show and a few excellent dancers. Then, as I had feared, I was asked to display my own dancing in front of everyone. By now, awkward moments and expectations no longer surprise me. I looked around to verify what was expected of me and happily gave the crowd what they wanted.
Much to everyone’s amusement, I pulled up many of the ladies to dance with me. One thing Indians love to do is dance. Dancing can seemingly break out whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason.
In traditional celebration, we “played Holi.” Playing Holi consists of placing colored powder (simply called ‘color’) on another person and having them color you back. The celebration ends up turning into a massive cloud of brightly colored talcom powder as everyone throws handfuls of color at one another. It’s a janitor’s worst nightmare.
Holi itself isn’t until Thursday, but Indians love to celebrate, even if it means having to jump the gun a little bit. After my dancing exhibition, we rushed back to the school to meet the students as they arrived. After recess, Sister Pushpa sent me home to shower before I could go back to class.
…Twenty-eight days ago, I snuck into the Carmel Convent School with high hopes and low expectations. I knew that it was one of the best schools in Faridabad, that thousands of people applied for only hundreds of seats, and that I was unlikely to be able to do anything but see it. Luckily, I was wrong, very wrong.
Today, I couldn’t have snuck in anywhere. Thanks to the loving benevolence of four Carmelite nuns from throughout India, generous donations and sponsorships pouring in from around the world, my supportive volunteers, Mitlesh, my host family, and my unwaveringly supportive family back home, I entered the Carmel Convent School this afternoon with 16 spectacular and deserving children behind me who stood taller and walked prouder than any students I have ever seen.
From today’s photos, it might be hard to believe that these precious children live in a slum, that their parents are illiterate, that they are members of society’s lowest castes, and that many of them would have lived their entire lives without ever entering a school. Today, these students lit up the faces of their entire community, made a powerful statement about education, and are serving as an inspiration to hundreds of people from nearly every continent in the world.
I arrived early to the slum today to watch the kids getting ready for school. Gudiya and Neha were already putting the final touches on their pristine summer uniforms, the first they have ever owned. As I rounded the corner and saw them for the first time, I could hardly believe how magnificent they looked.
We walked together to the slum school, where everyone was designated to meet at 1pm. The students quickly started amassing from every direction. With the sun blazing overhead, they tried as hard as they could to maintain their perfect hair and use their handkerchiefs to stay dry. It was adorable to watch.
To stay cool, we moved into the slum school to perfect the uniforms and take some more pictures. I couldn’t help but think about how good they looked and how proud I was of them and their families. The students could have been models for a uniform company.
We then set out for the most memorable walk of my life. In a single-file strand, the 16 students wove through the slum like a string of ducklings. From store fronts, rooftops, and moving vehicles, people stopped what they were doing to watch our sensational students set out on a path toward new lives. It was the most powerful statement about education that one could make. I don’t think anyone looked at them without feeling a sense of pride in his or her heart.
After several minutes, we arrived at the Carmel Convent School. The children lined up and celebrated under a sign near the main gate. I had walked past this sign dozens of times during my first two months here. However, I had never imagined that I would look at it quite like this.
The parents bid us farewell at the gate. After saying goodbye, the kids never looked back.
We made our way upstairs to classroom 1B. The students scurried to their new desks with smiles from ear to ear.
The students impressed all of us with their unsurpassed enthusiasm and passion. They literally jumped out of their desks to answer even a single question. The weeks of tutoring we have given them showed marvelously. Their answers were even better than the sisters anticipated. It was as if the students had been waiting their entire lives for this opportunity. Perhaps they have been!
Rules, manners, and discipline were some of the first lessons taught. The students learned how to keep their desks clean, how to ask to use the restroom, how to ask if they can drink water, how to address teachers, how to greet guests, etc.
If I were a student, I would want Sister Pushpa as my principal. She kept the students moving and interacting while creating an ideal atmosphere of comfort and discipline.
After an exciting first day, we filed back out the same way that we came in. With pep in all of our steps, we made our way back to the slum.
The students made their way back to the slum school and then dispersed to go home and change. I thought they were going home to play as well, but I was wrong again.
Instead of going home to play and goof around, they went home to wash their uniforms! School hadn’t been out fifteen minutes and Ajeet was already washing his socks when I passed his home. He was scrubbing and picking at every spec of dirt. To watch Ajeet treat his socks like a new car was both humbling and fulfilling. I have no doubt that he and his 15 classmates are going to thrive at the Carmel Convent School and in life.
Whenever people ask me, “How do you define success?” I will know what to tell them. I will tell them about today. No amount of money, fame, or power will ever give me the feelings of pride and satisfaction that I sensed watching 16 children from the slums of India walk into their first day of first grade at the best school in town.
Donors and sponsors, this would not be possible without you. I hope that you are now beginning to see exactly where your money is going. The students you are sponsoring are wearing the best uniforms and shoes available and learning in the best classroom within the best school in Faridabad. Like the underdogs of a great rivalry, these 16 children have a fan base that blankets the entire globe. People from nearly every continent are checking in to watch their progress. However, this is just the beginning. This is the first day of 10, 12, or maybe even 18 years that these children will attend school. To be involved in something like this is truly special. There are still a few students left to sponsor. I know they would love to meet you.
…On Sunday night, I fell victim to another cold and my first case of the dreaded ‘Delhi Belly.’ I also got a cold after the first wedding I attended so I’m certainly experiencing a high correlation between weddings and illness. Needless to say, I’ll be going easier on the food at the next marriage.
Feeling very ill, I slept through most of leap day. However, I woke up about an hour before sunset to the sound of the church vehicle’s distinctive diesel engine and the callings of Sister Pushpa out front. To my complete surprise, not one, not two, not three, but all four sisters left the convent to come visit me and check on my health. They came in, sat down, and ensured that I was taking it easy and doing everything possible to recover quickly. Their combination of motherly love, pious spirit, and Indian hospitality truly made for a curative visit. How many people can say that they had four Carmelite sisters come visit them in a foreign country when they were sick? It certainly lifted my spirits.
Before I fell sick, I had also started a new project to help the sisters. Although very time consuming, the project has given me the chance to meet even more sisters from Haryana and neighboring states. The six Carmelite sisters from the St. Joseph’s Convent School in Sector 5 have now also taken me under their wings.
Sister Jaya Mary is one of the sweetest humans I have ever met. She exudes bubbly optimism and grace and is the ‘Superior’ of the St. Joesph’s Convent. She has a beautiful smile and a myriad of snacks and sweets waiting for me every time I arrive. With short rapid steps, she seems to float briskly around the convent.
Let me give you another example of their unsurpassed hospitality. The other day, I was at the St. Joseph’s Convent, sitting at the head of the dining table in the company of seven nuns, and eating almonds from a dish with three other snack options. Sister Annabelle stood up from her seat down the table, walked over, and rotated the dish so that the almonds were now the closest snack to me. The dish was already so close that it was touching my placemat. However, she didn’t want me to have to fully extend my arm to reach for the farthest item. I couldn’t help but smile in disbelief.
On Sunday, I ate lunch with the sisters and met two more who traveled 5 hours by train just to visit for the day from Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh (don’t worry, I still can’t pronounce it either). No matter where they are from, the sisters insist that I not lift a finger.
All of these sisters are members of the Carmelite Sisters of St. Teresa (CSST). They follow the mission and vision of their foundress, Mother Teresa of St. Rose of St. Lima, in caring for and educating the poor and marginalized. As with all Carmelites, the sisters seek to share the “compassionate love of God” through contemplation and selfless service. They are known throughout the world for the power of their prayer. Their primary goal is not to spread the word of God so much as to spread his love. Sister Pushpa has told me many stories of people questioning her motives. Her answer is always, “My goal is not to make humans Catholic, but to make humans better human beings.”
As you can see, we are getting along like peas and carrots. I have the distinct feeling that these are friendships that will last for decades no matter where the sisters are posted in the world.
These sisters are truly fulfilling what they have vowed and set out to accomplish. I cannot imagine a more loyal or devoted group of people to care for the young treasures we are sending to them. You know that feeling when everything just seems to be falling into place perfectly? I’m feeling it.
…I eagerly returned to mass with the sisters this morning. I took with me the three new volunteers who arrived last Sunday night. We sat right behind the sisters. The sermon and hymns were scheduled to be in Hindi today. However, the priest and choir switched some parts of the service to English so that we could participate. It was a sweet gesture.
One of the English hymns they chose to sing, called “Here I Am Lord,” was particularly gripping.
However, my favorite hymn so far is one from last week. I can’t seem to find a recording of it, but these are the lyrics:
Walking with the Lord,
We are walking in the morning,
Lift up your hearts,
For you are walking with God.
Singing to the Lord,
We are singing in the sunshine,
Lift up our hearts,
For you are singing to God.
Hand in hand with everyone,
We’re walking, walking,
Black and white and brown,
Together, walking, walking,
Singing new songs now,
Living new lives,
Building new bridges,
Walking distanct miles,
Well we’re walking with the Lord….
Rain and storm will not prevent us,
Faith and hope and love,
Will send us walking, walking.
Crossing all barriers,
Climbing all stiles,
Breaking through fences,
Walking distant miles,
Well we’re walking with the Lord….
Taking into account all of the current circumstances, I seems like a perfect soundtrack for the month. If anyone has heard it before, please chime in! I have had it stuck in my head all week.
Once again, I met with nearly the entire congregation. We took pictures with the priest and some of the exceptionally welcoming parish members. We went home, changed, and headed out to the slum for our meeting with the parents.