Omit Has Dreams

The past few weeks Hannah has been holding interviews with some of the children and women in Lakhtokia. She is doing this to help us get to know them better so that we can identify their wants, needs and challenges. Hannah is a natural with everyone, I am not surprised that she easily got people to open up to her even through a translator. Her energy and compassion just shines; when she came back from a trip to the slums last Wednesday I could tell that some of the stories had really affected her. She said she had talked with one of our favorite children named Omit, a boy we all love to bits. One thing Hannah and I have noticed is the stark contrast in his personality when we see him on the street versus in the slum. We have both run into him a few times while he is out picking recyclables and he hangs his head, diverts his eyes from ours and seems full of shame. It breaks me. I have had this happen and then seen him in the slum literally five minutes later; he runs up and gives me the Omit smile and a huge hug. Like he is not the same boy, and I couldn't understand why this was. What Hannah learned made us both break down in tears as she recounted his thoughts:

"Omit has lived in the Lakhtokia slum his entire life. He is an 8 to 9-year-old boy (he does not know his exact age), he has an older brother, and his other two siblings have died of unknown causes. His dad was a victim of human trafficking one year ago. He has no idea where his dad is or what his dad is doing. He does know one thing: “I will never see my Dad again.”

Most of Omit’s time is spent picking up trash. The money he collects each day supports his older brother, his mom, and himself for the day. He said in an average day he can collect anywhere from 20 Rs (37 cents) to 100 Rs (2 dollars), and, “if I am lucky, 200 Rs (4 dollars).”

Unlike most boys, Omit does not sniff dendrites. He did not explain why but I assume it is because he spends most, if not all, of his day wandering around Guwahati with a massive bag on his back sifting through the dumpsters and does not have time to get high. Like most other people in the slum, Omit is very scared of the police. But he continues to work hard to support he and his family.

Every interview that I did, I asked people, “What is your biggest dream in life?” When Trideep (the translator) asked this question to Omit, he sort of sat there for a little while thinking. After ten seconds of what looked like intense thoughts running through his head, Omit said, “I want to be a good person. I want to be different from everybody else.” Trideep then asked him, “And how will you do that?” He sat there again, thinking very hard about how he was going to be different. “Hmm… hmm…” and then his Assamese poured out. Trideep turned to me and said, “Be prepared: He said, ‘I haven’t quite figured that part out yet.’”

And so it goes.

Pratyasha is here for this: to help those who are stuck in this cycle and cannot get out, to help Omit learn how he can become different from everybody else, to provide opportunities that can help kids accomplish their far fetched dreams. Now you understand why Omit is so shy and ashamed when we run into him on the streets as he throws cardboard into his trash bag. He wants to be different, he is not proud of where he comes from, or how much trash he collects during the day. Omit wants something totally outside of this. Instead of being graded on the quality and quantity of trash he collects, Omit wants to be graded on the knowledge that is inside his churning brain.

I collected a ton of stories. And after this day, I realized that every single person has an amazing story to tell in the Lakhtokia slum. Girl, boy, woman, man, young, old, jobless, student, shack owner, tea stall worker, and trash picker: they all have some sort of story. They all have something to relay. And they were all so happy to tell someone.

Just the fact that someone was interested in what they do on a day-to- day basis meant a lot. They do not care what I do with these stories. But they care that I want to know about their life, where every day is a constant battle.

Sending smiles from India,

Photo courtesy of Operation Smile- Peter Stuckings 


Operation Smile/Pratyasha Foundation

I have probably written this many times before but I consider myself extremely lucky to work for an organization that knows and supports the fact that in the free time I work with the children in Lakhtokia. Last year Operation Smile offered to send their photographer with us one Sunday to see what went into our weekly meals. I happened to be out of town that week but excitedly said yes to their offer. What Peter Stuckings was able to capture so perfectly told the story of what Sundays are like for us in Guwahati. 

 Every Sunday morning we prepare and cook 5.5kg (12lbs) of rice, 9 litres of dal, a load of in-season vegetables and 80 bananas. We cook in our kitchen (okay when I say 'our' I mean Rosie and Hannah's flat which I lived in as well up until recently) and it takes roughly two hours to prepare 80 meals. On average this costs 550-650 rupees or around 12-15 cents per child. 

After the food is finished cooking we load it up in a vehicle or auto-rickshaw. With us we bring re-usable thali plates, 100% biodegradable leaf plates, soap, clean water, and a little extra salt for taste! We arrive at this small Hindu temple which we are allowed to distribute food from. It is located in the railway slum of Lakhtokia, just on the edge of the tracks. 

 The kids love helping to distribute the food to one another. This is something we have never asked them to do, they just jump up and help. Every now and again with certain kids I can tell that they want help because they want some type of control (especially of the bananas) but mostly, they just give their time and manage to muster up as much patience as they can with the crowd. They have become some of our biggest advocates and help keep track of all the equipment. 

  Then it is picnic time! After hand washing, the kids get in line, as best as we can manage,  and then all sit down together to eat. Every single week I look out and see them sitting and crouching, chatting away, giggling and playing and get filled with so much happiness. They are typical kids, some don't want veggies, some want more salt, somes eyes are bigger than their stomachs, some have a huge apetite and EVERYONE loves their banana. 

 After the meal is over the kids are encouraged to wash their hands again. Many of them stay and play, talk with us, sing, practice a tiny bit of English and all around just have a good time.  

The weekly meals serve two purposes: 
To give a child a healthy warm meal
To create a strong relationship with them and their family (especially the mothers) based on love and consistency. This is key in getting them to participate in other programs and setting the path to help them break out of this level of poverty. 

Honestly, sometimes I am so scared that all of this will crumble beneath my feet. Every time I am around them though the only thing I see crumbling is the cycle that living in a slum creates. Thank you Peter Stuckings and Operation Smile for capturing this process, the very basis of our program on which so much is being built!

All photos in this entry are compliments of Operation Smile- Peter Stuckings, please do not use these pictures without permission. 


730 (Seven Hundred and Thirty) Days

Has it really been two years since I moved to India? It's interesting how sometimes you begin to measure time based on major life events as opposed to the calendar year, I wonder for how long I will reflect back on May 2nd as the day that everything changed.

My first three hundred and sixty five days were some of the most life altering I have ever experienced. They changed me so much that what was originally supposed to be a temporary six months here has clearly become so much more.

The very beginning of my second year here left me wordless as a group of pediatricians stood up and stepped into the slum for the first times in their life, giving free health check ups to all of our kids.

My emotional bond with the children in Lakhtokia grew and grew making me submit whole heartedly to the transformative love I was witnessing. 

I started spending more time getting to actually visit the inside of the homes of the ones I love. Each time we step into one of the homes I am humbled like never before.  

In June the amazing doctors at Wintrobe recognized and diagnosed one of the mothers with tuberculosis, despite that we found so much hope in that moment. She and I met each and every morning for medicine until she was declared free of tuberculosis. She will always remain one of my favorite women and her daughter steals every person's heart she comes across. 

The kids in the slum invited us to celebrate Eid with them in August, we felt welcomed and loved in a way we had not experienced before. 

In the fall I traveled to Silchar, India where Operation Smile created 99 new smiles, Mount Frere, South Africa for 34 new smiles and Cebu, Philippines for 180 smiles! What a busy season it was!

This year the government has razed the slum multiple times. I can't describe adequately how hard this is to see. It affects the children so much to have their tiny bit of stability literally knocked down in front of them. This action makes us stand by each other even closer and motivates us to help the kids and their families to find a way to break the cycle of poverty.

In late January I travelled with some of my coworkers to carry out a local mission at a tea estate hospital in Chabua, Assam, India and 73 new smiles later, it surprisingly ended up being my favorite mission I have been on (even though they are all incredible.)

In February Hannah started taking a handful of our girls to a local evening school. It has been a huge challenge and there is still so much to do in order to get them motivated to continue on and grow but it is the realization of so many dreams. One of our star girls, Khusitan, will actually be starting full time, regular school in the coming month!

My dad visited in March and we celebrated Holi together! Having him here to see and share everything was absolutely incredible. It passed by too quickly but I am so grateful for that time we had.

I most recently took a little vacation  to South Korea where I was able to step back and refresh my spirit. I spent a lot of time there finding peace, filling my belly and (temporarily) satisfying my never ending obsession with Asia. 

This past month Hannah, Rosie, Kelly and I have been working hard to incorporate Pratyasha Foundation and to apply for non-profit status! Of course, the work we actually do does not change at all but it means even more doors will be opening and that we can (and will) continue to grow. Getting to know the children we serve on a more personal level has been the biggest blessing of this year, motivating us all to give everything we have to continue to love on them. I anticipate a lot of very big and very positive changes in all of our lives. 

Over five thousand patients have received surgery in Guwahati at the surgical center since I moved here in May 2011. The total for Assam is nearing 9,000. We are so close to our goal of making Assam cleft free! The staff I work with has continued to grow professionally, becoming some of the most expert cleft care providers in the world and the patients... oh the patients! My heart explodes on a near daily basis thanks to these cuties! 

It has most certainly been quieter on this blog over the last 365 days. Not only have I been occupied with all of the above, but there have been a lot of challenges that I haven't shared on here. This year was extremely difficult emotionally and personally. I lost my grandmother, friends and the sense of family that I grew up knowing. When I visited home this past year things felt different, but that is life. It is fluid and ever changing; I think the last year was proof that life does not pause back home when I'm gone. No, things change, some for better some for worse. I guess that is where the shock comes in when you drop in and out of a place/sense of life you used to know so well. In North East India over the last 8 months, we have had major power supply problems, the internet availability and quality has also taken a dive. Skype doesn't work for me anymore but I have found other amazing applications like Viber that help keep me connected. (I highly recommend downloading Viber if you have family abroad.) It has been an emotional life saver over the past month. More times than ever I have found myself saying "India wins again!" But mostly, it has been quiet because there are just so many beautiful things happening here. Things that leave me too exhausted to type at the end of the day but beautiful things none the less. Here is to seven hundred and thirty days, and countless more to come.