As the 7am Barbil - Howrah express train sped back towards Calcutta, filled to capacity with passengers, hawkers, musicians, singers and the char wallers, I thought of the news I had received earlier when my wife phoned me telling me of the passing of my old school pal Paul Flanagan, who had suffered from a debilitating illness for several years. He had just turned 51.
I thought of our student/teacher group embarking on their journey. They were leaving Ireland to take a step into a very different world, a different culture. With check-in, transfers etc. the Dublin-Frankfurt-Dubai-Calcutta trip takes approximately twenty hours. Add the 4 ½ hour time difference and it can leave a body exhausted.
I had arranged for our 14 children from the "Rupayan Home" to be in arrivals to welcome the weary travelers. It was a touching moment and a shriek of joy from teacher Anne, who had met the children on her last visit to India in 2009, added to the excitement and surprise. Bonding with these children had started as they were to play a special part in our lives during the two weeks that followed.
To give a day by day account of every experience would prove too lengthy so I requested comments from this year's volunteer group as to what impacted upon them during their time in India.
Teacher Anne said:
"During our time in India we witnessed numerous amounts of inspiring programs being carried out by amazing people. An experience I often reflect on is that of our visit to the brickfields. The education program, Towards Future, being run on the brickfields is an amazing project. We were shown two schools by Supriya Roychowdhury and a wonderful man called Supriyo. The school on one field is run under a shelter and the other under a mango tree. In comparison to the classrooms we are accustomed to they have minimal resources, with students sitting on rugs on the ground, their teachers and the "Towards Future" foundation have made maths and rhyme boards and the students have chalk boards to write on. The children are taught how to read, write, add, subtract, multiply and about hygiene. The school also allows the children time to be children - to play games and make fun figures out of the clay. We were told on our visit many of the girls who are part of the community are married at 12/13 years of age. Boys from as young as 7/8 help their mothers work in the fields and girls of the same age cook food and mind the younger children. The "Towards Future" program is helping in providing a practical and much needed education system were previously there was none. They say that currently there are no plans to try and link the program into the main stream education but are focusing on the areas most practical to the children's lives."
Teacher Sue wrote regarding the Hope Foundation:
"I have many moments that impacted me in different ways so it's been hard to pick one in particular!
A memory that will stay with me forever is the time we visited one of the girls' homes/orphanages. We went to the rooftop and the girls put on a great show of dance and poetry. As the sky above us got dark, the girls cranked up the volume of the dance music and got everyone up dancing!! They showed us all the moves to the dance routine with huge smiles on their faces! I was astounded by their spirit. In spite of all their troubles, the fact they had no families and the struggles they had faced in their short lives, their spirits could not be crushed. I was amazed at the resilience of the people in Kolkata. Irish people could learn a lot from them."
Teacher Oonagh wrote:
"The Rupayan children provided a source of joy and excitement on the trip. The children aged between 4 and 12 live on the top floor of an apartment block outside Kolkata. They have been rescued from train stations, addiction and troubled family backgrounds. The boys are well cared for by Mama Didi and the carers at Rupayan. The boys danced, meditated, performed acrobatic movements and sang for us. They were a welcoming committee at the airport and provided a welcoming smile and companionship from the moment of our arrival. The children accompanied us to Goethals school in Kurseong, where Bekind Ireland brought them on a little holiday with the assistance of 2 of their carers Tapan and Ajay and of course the 11 CCC students who found themselves caring fulltime for the boys; looking after them during the day, at mealtimes and the endless games. Perhaps the most moving aspect of the Kurseong trip was when myself and another teacher bought shoes for one of the boys - Bapi. He was complaining that his shoes were tight and we picked up a cheap pair of runners in town.
With the help of his CCC minder we tried to sneak the shoes to Bapi without the other boys noticing but that was not to be. Bapi was so excited at the prospect of new shoes that he performed cart-wheels, danced and paraded his new footwear for all to see as a smiled beamed across his face. I was in awe of his gratitude and it really brought home to me just how little these children have. What seems like such a small contribution can go so far and the work of Bekind endeavors to make that contribution."
It appears the new shoes had an impact on Bapi's minder too. We were to discover shoes got mixed up between some of the boys, hence the problem. The children actually had their feet measured months earlier but boys will be boys.
Student Keith wrote:
"It's hard to pick one moment or one thing that had an impact on me while over in Kolkata. There were lots that impacted on me, some good, and some bad. But after some thought I decided to tell a positive, happy story of an event that had a lasting impression on me. Whilst up in the Himalayas we each were given one child to look after, mine was a small boy called Bapi who I had met for the first time the night before when we left to get the night train. I had noticed Bapi was walking funny and figured maybe he suffered from some sort of injury or disability. I was unable to ask him for he had very little English. The next day I asked Brian Flanagan was there something wrong with Bapi causing him to walk funny and Brian said no, there's nothing wrong with Bapi at all.
Later that night, Bapi was running around with his friends and having a great time. I stood and watched and was pleased at the joy we had brought to the kids. the next morning as I was getting him dressed Bapi moaned as I went to put on his shoes, I then thought to myself how come Bapi was struggling to walk yet was running around like mad the night previous, then I realised Bapi had no shoes on the night before when running around and maybe it was the shoes that were causing the problem. I then had to gently force Bapi's little feet into his shoe's only to discover they were too small for him. I carried Bapi down stairs, reluctant to let him walk in shoes that were hurting him and asked my teachers who were going down to the local town to buy him a pair of shoes for me and I'd pay them back when they got back and they were happy to do so.
They returned an hour or two later and discretely gave me the bag with the shoes in it, so as not to make the other kids jealous. I quietly took Bapi inside and sat him down on the stairs. I asked him to take off his shoes and he did. I then took out the new shoes and gave them to him.
At first he looked a bit confused, so I took a shoe and started to put it on his foot and said "these are for you Bapi". Bapi gasped and his face lit up with excitement. I put both shoes on him and he jumped into my arms and gave me a big hug and then started dancing around the stairs with delight. I tried to explain to him not to make a big deal out of his new shoes to his friends but it was pointless, Bapi ran outside and showed everyone. In all my life I've never seen a child so happy about a pair of shoes. Bapi then took me by the hand and walked my over to a seat and sat me down. He kissed me on the hand and then started to cartwheel and skip for me, a child who 10 minutes earlier could barely walk for me. Being able to do that for Bapi was the best feeling in the world and definitely the thing that impacted on me most."
Student Emily: (It is fair to say every member of the group felt so deflated when we learned less than two weeks prior to departure, that Emily would not be joining us.)
"Being unable to travel to Kolkata with the group due to illness was hugely disappointing to me. For months we had held meetings regarding fundraising for the trip and the excitement was electric. Being a part of the group was very special to me. Each of us embraced the importance and significance of it. I needn't have worried about not being actually able to travel as I was included in every aspect of the group's journey and time there. Regular phone calls, photos sent over the internet and of course Skype kept me very much in the centre of the action. I got to see a group of children dancing and they smiled and waved to me as if I was there. Brian Flanagan's narration was fantastic and the memory of Kolkata will live with me for a very long time. When I met the group at the airport on their return, nothing could contain my excitement and it was wonderful to hear first hand their experiences. The stories I heard were very moving, and I was delighted to find out just how much of an impact the whole group had on the lives of the people they met over in Kolkata. I sincerely hope to get there in the near future - it's my wish."
"The most memorable moment and most meaningful moment for me was when we went to the Loreto Entaly Orphanage, where Sister Ena works. It was there that I finally realised the extent to which we can touch the lives of the children we met, not only in Entaly but in all of the organisations. One little girl, Rinki, came up to our group as we came in and Sister Ena introduced her to us. Rinki sang for us and this started all of the girls off singing to us. When she was done with her song she grabbed my hand and brought me around introducing me to all of her close friends. It touched me deeply that she would do that for someone she had just met.
She chattered on to me, all the time holding my hand, and then suddenly jumped and pulled me off down towards the back of the hall where there was another classroom with much younger children who hadn't seen us, though I am sure they could hear us. That Rinki remembered them in the midst of all the hulabuloo and fun that was happening emphasised the way in which all of these children were still so generous and thoughtful of others despite what had happened to them in the past.
It was only during this that I realised the impact we had on the kids even in just a few hours, and just as strong, the impact that they had on us. The bond I formed with her in just that time is as strong a connection as I formed with the children we brought to the Himalayas and is just as important to me."
"Here is my "two-cents" on my special moment: I have two small memories that are particularly vivid when I think about our trip to Kolkata. Neither of them seems like huge, life-changing moments, they're both very simple.
The first was when Caitríona and myself were returning to a bus just after we'd seen one of the homes Mother Teresa set up, which I think is still under re-construction now. As we passed people in the busy street, they'd call out to us, asking for money. Just as we got to the bus a crowd of five or six young children came running towards us. But instead of begging or asking for anything, they pointed at Caitriona's camera. As she got the camera ready, the children posed and danced for the photo. I don't really know why I remember that so well, maybe it was because these children, who had so little, had some of the happiest smiles I have ever seen, could laugh, and could dance with the pros.
The second memory is just as simple, in Kurseong with the children from Rupayan. In the mountains we spent most of our free time keeping the children entertained. Some of the group had brought bouncy-balls for the kids, so they were playing. I was late coming down from our rooms, and as I walked over to the group, I heard Amit, the boy I was responsible for, call out "Auntie!" I turned around, and he launched himself at me. Amit is ten, but I was still able to pick him up and hug him to within an inch of his life.
I think we'd known each other for about a day and a half by this point, but when the language barrier is there, small gestures like holding someone's hand or even knowing their name was important, so we got close very quickly. I suppose this moment of the trip was so important to me because it just showed us that no matter what awful things we saw on our trip, whoever we couldn't help, we did make a difference in those boys' lives, and I'm certainly not going to forget that in a hurry."
"An experience which impacted on me during our time in India was our visit to the Hope Foundation, in particular the Hope hospital. The way in which the hospital was run was so professional and well managed, much like the rest of the Hope Foundation's projects. The way in which they run their facilities was so impressive to me, they had excellent systems which made so much sense and it was all implemented without fault in my eyes. Seeing this well managed organization and the benefits it reaped on the lives of all the people it helped was truly inspiring. Seeing the patients in the ward was a tough experience for me, how broken they seemed, and yet how much joy the simplest actions brought to their day. This was an amazing day which really impacted on me."
Well, where to start…?
I guess what really hit me was the brick factory. It was hard for me to grasp the fact those people, the poorest of the poor endure such hardship everyday... And what got to me was that barely anything could be dome to help them break the vicious cycle they have to go through. The little baby was adorable and had no idea what it would have to go through in the future. :( At least everywhere else you could see the absolute amazing work being done to help people with such tragic lives, but at least they had some sort of future.
I also loved the bond you could share with the people we encountered on the trip despite the language barrier. That was moving. I still have the picture of myself and Armand's hands as my iPod screensaver. It's a daily reminder of the great memories we shared with the kids, not that I need a reminder.
I guess another thing I found hard was the fact that Sooo many people needed help. Seeing people on the streets living off basically nothing, outside very fancy shopping centres shows the dramatic contrast of lives people have in India. All in all, the overall trip is an experience I'll never forgot and will treasure forever, and plan to relive in the future.
"Well something that had a huge impact on me in total was the actual children in all of the homes and orphanages. We met some of the nicest people and children in these shelters, boys and girls that you wouldn't hesitate to try and bring home with you. Yet behind every single child, every smiling face, there were stories of sadness, poverty and abuse, but no matter what their story was, in the face of despair they never stopped smiling, they were always content and always happy to see new people and new experiences.
My favorite memory of the trip was bringing these children on possibly the trip of their lifetime to the Himalayas and getting to spend time with them to let them know that there are people, even though they may live 1000's of miles away, that they do care about them and got the chance to prove it, and even though they might not remember our names or understand what we said to them, I hope that memory will stay with them forever."
"In relation to what impacted me most on out trip to India it's hard to choose one as the whole experience was a non-stop series of events that I'll never forget. Each day affected me in different ways. The day we visited the brick fields stands out in my mind. As much as we'd talked about what we were going to see, nothing could have prepared me for it. I found it hard to watch the people working in such horrible conditions over a hot furnace, with the sun beating down on them, the dead heat dehydrating them and the dust and dirt everywhere. When I discovered how little these people were getting paid it occurred to me that no matter how hard they work they'll never make enough to escape from the slave labour. The people there are almost trapped with no way out and it upsets me to think of them now, only working to survive. It appalled me to see the very young children that are left for the day. They were the only children we'd met on the trip that were almost afraid of us. It was as if they'd never experienced the company of other people which highlighted how isolated and cut off from the world they are. I remember how I fell in love with a 6 month old baby on the ground playing with a leaf! I still wish I could have taken her with us! I remember thinking how unfair it was that this child was born into this life through no fault of her own and it was unlikely she was going to escape from it with the little education she would receive in the future. It was also really hard to see the older children working themselves; no child deserves to be involved in slave labour.
Although the sights we saw upset me deeply I was glad to know some of the money we raised was going into the project. Any bit of help would make a difference for these people, as they literally have nothing.
I was delighted to experience the Hope Foundation. I'd heard so much about the charity but had no idea of the extent of their work. All the children we met there were outstanding and I'll never find enough words of praise for that charity. I was absolutely overwhelmed by how much work they do, especially when we visited the hospital. I think I'm safe in saying I'm not the only one who felt this way about Hope. We were all thrilled to know that extra funds were going to them. I thought the restaurant was a fantastic idea, and the young girls working there were only delighted with themselves, it was great to see them learning new skills and becoming independent.
I'd like to sincerely thank you for everything you've done for us while I have the opportunity. Although the aim of Bekind is to help the street children of Kolkata, I realise that a huge part of the trip was to benefit myself and the other ten students who travelled, and for this I can't thank you enough! I'm now completely appreciative of everything in my life. I don't think a day has gone by when moments from our experience haven't passed through my mind! It'll be something that will stay with me for the rest of my life without a doubt. I look forward to doing more work for the poor people in India in the future, and I hope to visit other countries too. I am only delighted to share my experience with people I meet so I realize what you mean by the domino effect. I hope at least part of our experience has stayed with the people I shared my stories with. I'm so grateful to have experienced India, it's an incredible place. Although so many people are so poor, everyone is so happy and friendly. The people we met on our travels will stay with me forever, especially Dee-dee from the Rupayan home. I've so much respect for people like her who help the children who have nothing, and that includes you! It's amazing what Bekind do, so many people benefit from it. When I tell people about you and Bekind as a charity they are blown away. Thank you again for everything!"
"India was one of the best things I've ever had the chance to experience. Traveling to the other side of the world, which is the definition of "poverty", was eye opening. While I was away I became very close to Hammy, who was one of the many Rupayan boys. It was so touching to see how big of an influence we had on the children we brought up to the Himalayas.
From using their cutlery in the same manner as us, to imitating any catch phrases we repeated, to our dancing and our songs. They were thrilled with just spending time with us. Ironically they were the happiest bunch of kids I've ever met. I loved every minute of India. It's so vivacious and exciting. The amount of people we helped and the relationships we developed with everyone we met, absolutely amazing."
"For me, India was very much split into different parts. On one side are the devastating poverty and the nearly overwhelming sadness when I saw people living such destitute lives. Even still I often think about it, and it has much the same effect. But on the other side, there is all the joy and hope that I saw and experienced while I was there. The fantastic organisations and charities that does such monumental work. The best thing was the people. Those involved in our trip and the people we met were so happy and friendly. The children, who had experienced much hardship, always had a smile on their faces....except when they got sick from too much ice cream! The entire journey has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, and for that I am eternally grateful to Brian Flanagan and everyone involved in Bekind Ireland."