In this edition, Brian Flanagan (Founder Director) shares some of his experiences and those of his wife Martina when they travelled to Calcutta in June 2016.
From November 2015 several months had passed since I had been in India. Three family weddings have taken place since then, all happy joyous occasions with our son Richard being married to the lovely Leah on 12th December, my wife Martina’s nephew, Colin Freeman marrying Joanne in mid- March and on the 1st of August my Godchild Alison and sister to Colin completed the trio of marriages when she took the hand of Mick Nally to become Mrs Ali Nally.
How quickly time has passed; in the latter case it hit home as I had driven Ali’s Dad, my brother-in- law, Harry to his wedding thirty three years earlier almost to the day in 1983! Now my passengers were Ali and proud Dad Harry and of course a very proud Godfather at the wheel.
Three young couples starting out in life and just wonderful to witness their love for each other.
In between all the excitement of these family weddings Martina and I had planned our return to Kolkata in mid-June. We wanted to spend the first two weeks volunteering and then head south to have a holiday exploring Kerala and Goa.
I’m sure you remember as a child looking forward to a holiday and the excitement building as the time drew near. We had, as in previous years, promised to take our 20 children and staff from Bekind Boys’ Home for a break, this time to Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas.
For weeks the boys had been asking, on a daily basis, “When are Brian Uncle and Martina Aunty coming?“. The care staff were almost driven to distraction!
So the day finally arrived for our departure with the boys by night train from Sealdah Station, Kolkata to Siliguiri some 10 hours later where jeeps would transport us on the final leg of the journey up the twisting mountain roads to Darjeeling. Teeming rain and low clouds could not suppress the mood as we sang and laughed our way along. Spending time with these kids is a tonic and their good humour never fails to amaze me.
The children had a ball as they enjoyed the cool temperatures of the hills instead of the intense humidity of Kolkata. Our accommodation was close to the main square in Darjeeling enabling us to visit the local attractions: the Buddhist temples, the zoo, local shops and cafes. A large screen in the main square provided great entertainment showing the Euro soccer matches and of course our Bekind Boys were cheering for Ireland – much to the amusement of the locals!
The local press had heard about our arrival and were out in force with cameras and reporters to interview us on the day we took the children on the toy train from Darjeeling to Ghoom (the highest railway station in India at 2257 M).
When commenting on accommodation people often say: “The place was basic but clean”. Our place was just “basic”! As Martina described it: “You would wipe your feet on the way out!”
Later locals came to us and shook our hands saying how pleased they were that we had brought the children to their town and welcomed us warmly. This was in sharp contrast to our first evening’s experience in Darjeeling when Martina and I were originally booked into a guesthouse close to where the boys were staying. We had met this rather loud man when we went to our room who announced that he “hadn’t heard voices around here in some time”. He was strange as we introduced ourselves and we both agreed we would give this guy a wide birth, he was the only other guest staying in that place. The area just outside our room was like a large living room with couches and chairs and I thought it an ideal place to bring the children for a movie. I have a small projector which the kids love. Asking permission that evening from the landlady the children were welcome on the condition that they removed their shoes downstairs as it was raining quite heavily. Good as gold, they took their seats and just as the movie started our “loud” guy appeared from a room down the corridor which I had noticed was ajar. Well over six feet tall, grey hair tied up in a ponytail, he roared “What is the meaning of this?” When I suggested that he close the door to his room he went ballistic and became seriously aggressive using foul language in his American accent and gesticulating with his index fingers right in front of the boys and their shocked carers!
I can still feel the bite marks on my tongue as I tried desperately to retain composure. Everybody retreated to our room and we packed and checked out. What really angered me was that many of our boys had been subjected to violence and aggression in their former lives as street children and we had, with Hope Foundation, taken them away from that existence to a protection home where they are treated with respect.
We discussed it later with the children and they all agreed he was “a very bad man Uncle”. We explained to them that sometimes people have mental problems and are disturbed. Disturbed he was as we were to learn he had fallen out with most people in the town. Strange…he reminded me of someone running for the American presidency!
With modern communications we were never far from breaking news like the Brexit vote which left many with a sense of incredulity. Even locals in Darjeeling could not believe the outcome. That morning as we drove from the train station and I read the jaw-dropping news on my phone. Our youngest little Bekind Boy, Bapi, slept soundly on my lap without a care in the world.
Those modern communications which have shrunk our world allowed me to carry on business back in Dublin where my son Ricky and my colleague Ciaran were busy selling some of the cars in stock at Motorvalue GTi. They would text me the vehicle and customer details and thanks to my system provider, I could sell the car online and the invoice/order form could be printed in Dublin and signed by the customer. I never thought I would be in a dingy cyber café in the Himalayas selling cars! A busman’s holiday perhaps but needs must.
Back to the boys in the hills and how much fun they had with day trips to waterfalls where they could run free and release lots of energy, climbing, running and exploring this beautiful part of India.
For the staff too who work so hard caring for the boys all year round, it was a welcome change of scenery. Our trip to Tiger Hill where, if the weather is fine, you get a panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains was spoiled by low clouds but again the children ran around and played football pretending they were Irish soccer players!
Pony rides and picnics, night time movies and games made our five day holiday with them fly and soon “Team Bekind“ – all 28 of us, returned to Kolkata where their normal routine would start again with school and studies.
Martina and I spent a week as volunteers in Kalighat, home for the dying and destitute set up by Kolkata’s now newest saint, Mother Teresa back in 1952 when Mother was in her early forties. Much has been written about this home over the last half century, documentaries have been screened. It has received praise and criticism and controversial comments but it is a very special place and has eased the pain of death for countless numbers of unfortunates who would have died a horrible death if left on the streets unwanted and unloved. I have witnessed, many times over the years, those who recover and have been given another chance in life and those who die with dignity.
While volunteering there, my thoughts often returned to my own beloved Dad Ronnie as his time drew near 10 years ago and how he needed our help for all the most basic things. For our parents most of us would do anything, but carrying a stranger in your arms, one who weighs less than a young child, is very sobering – humanity in its raw state. Day after day volunteers from around the world come to work with the Sisters in this place and in so many homes for the poorest of the poor founded by the little Albanian nun who was really always a saint.
We will soon start on the Bekind to Kolkata 2017 campaign and ask for young volunteer students from transition year and 5th year to join us in India for two weeks next June. Their fundraising efforts will enable us to keep supporting vulnerable children and continue to give the children we protect a childhood. For the young volunteer going to a developing country, it is an education. In excess of 50 students have travelled to India with Bekind since 2008, with several returning over the years.
Donations and sponsorship allow Bekind to continue to run and fully fund the Bekind Boys’ Home for 20 children, provide educational support for underprivileged girls in Loreto Sealdah, support 16 boys in Rupayan, sponsor 12 special needs children in Sanchar, and keep a further two boys and six girls under sponsorship within the Hope Foundation.
A special mention to a very special lady as she marks a significant birthday, Maureen Forrest. Maureen founded the Hope Foundation over 17 years ago and has changed the lives of thousands in Kolkata. Your strength of character and determination has inspired us all.
For your help we at Bekind are so grateful,
Bekind (IRL) Ltd is an Irish private limited company (Company Number: 448441) and Irish registered charity (Charity Number: CHY 17971), with its offices at 33 Woodpark, Castleknock, Dublin 15.
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