As part of our voluntary work in India, a short four day break had been organized for the children from the Rupayan Home. I had kept it as a surprise for the children until the Irish group arrived. This journey covered several aspects, a short holiday for the 5 to 14 year old former street children, a chance for the Irish student volunteers to take care of them, the experience for the whole group to see another part of incredible India and to spend time with the girls who attend the Edmund Rice Free School, at an altitude of 5000 feet, the only Christian Brothers Girls' School in the world. Funds from Bekind Ireland now cover transport to and from remote villages for some 110 girls. The school currently has 180 pupils.
The journey to Kurseong on Easter Sunday with the group had been much anticipated albeit with somewhat nervous trepidation. I had been monitoring the political situation closely and had made several phone calls to our host, James Joseph of Goethals Memorial School. The school was named after Paul Goethals, the fist Archbishop of Calcutta who died on 4th July 1901.
Assured all was calm in the hills and that the local elections were over in Gorkaland, I in turn reassured our group that it was safe to travel.
Fourteen very excited and hungry boys had arrived at our guest house and despite arranging for food for them, the normally very good and modestly priced restaurant close by let us down with a bang. With empty bellies we had to depart by bus for Sealdah train station to catch the 10pm night train, the Darjeeling Mail, to New Jalpaiguri.
Student Kate: (Here Kate refers to one of our sponsored boys, Bikas who originally before starting a new life in the Rupayan home in 2008, lived rough in Sealdah train station.)
"The moment throughout the whole trip that was the most special to me had to be on the night train to Kurseong when the boys recognized Bikas, I suppose it shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that he would know people seeing as he had lived there, but for some reason up to that point despite the fact I knew his background, the reality of the situation never really hit me. Seeing those poor boys and knowing that at one point Bikas was like them, at first really upset me, but now it makes me happy to know that there is help out there for the street children of Kolkata. That is the moment I found most special throughout my experience."
The tickets for the 10 hour journey had been purchased months in advance in order to ensure all of us were together in the one carriage and teacher Sue had taken charge of the sleeping arrangements and bunk allocations.
Seeing the hungry on the streets of Calcutta gesturing with hand from tummy to mouth is difficult to deal with when it's not your fault, but seeing our Rupayan boys make the same gesture was really difficult to say the least. Shared biscuits and snacks with water was the best we could manage as our little men settled down for sleep.
Warned in advance not to take anything, sweets, drinks or food from strangers no matter how nice the fellow passengers seemed our group settled down with one eye open, just in case.
It is rare but several cases have been reported where someone is drugged onboard an Indian train and wakes up in a bath tub in some town missing a kidney or a vital organ!
Arriving in mist and rain to the end of the line we stepped out onto the platform of New Jalpaiguri, glad of the warm clothes we had brought for more Irish like temperatures of 15 or 16 degrees.
A bedraggled one-eyed beggar girl carrying a baby blocked our path, her hand out repeating the word baby, baby. Other beggars seeing us foreigners joined her in harassment and they poked and pulled at our Indian boys in jealous frustration.
A quick headcount and we headed for our awaiting transport, a bus and a jeep that would take us on the two hour climb from the flat plains up the winding and monsoon beaten narrow roads to the town of Kurseong. A journey not for the fainthearted but as the clouds cleared the views were so stunning and the landscape totally at variance with the mostly flat lands of West Bengal.
Despite it being Easter Monday all the students, 180 of them, had come from near and far in uniform and in local traditional dress to welcome, dance and sing especially just for us in the gardens. What a wonderful welcome from the girls and I realized how much work and effort had gone into the preparation.
Our accommodation was in Mount Carmel, a former novice retreat/training centre, a 10 minute walk/climb from the main school. It had been opened in 1914, closed in 1940 due to a fall in vocations but re-opened in 1959. Some 52 years on it was all newly painted and decorated, again specially for the Irish group. Our rooms were partitioned with open ceilings which meant any careless whisper, cough or involuntary body noises were clearly audible!
The principal, Br. Sabino told us that many years ago evidently the mandatory practice of "self-flagellation" by young novices took place there as part of their "life experiences"! From the privacy of the partitioned quarters the slash of the whip followed by a groan, howl or scream could be heard even if a "pillow" was often the recipient of the lash, the human painful sound effects still followed. A case of don't believe everything you hear perhaps! Thank God these practices no longer exist there or indeed in the class room!
During our time there we visited the homes of several of the girls from Edmund Rice Free School. Many were only accessible on foot, modest homes perched high in the hills surrounded by the tea plantations where many parents find employment, toiling in all weathers for approximately €1 per day.
Such contrast for our special Rupayan boys, who loved the freedom, the climbing, the fresh air and being spoiled of course by their Irish "aunties and uncles".
James Joseph ensured we had plenty to eat with great choice for breakfast, dinner and tea. The Rupayan boys, even the smallest ones, devoured everything in sight and loved the fruit. Pockets were stuffed with oranges, bananas and even juicy grapes.
The group got to visit the tea factories, many of which are in existence for a century or more. They got to ride on the narrow gauge Himalayan toy train which winds its way through the hills and little villages, crisscrossing the road it shares with local traffic.
Some school children jumped and hung on for a lift home, serenading us with popular songs, shy they certainly were not.
James Joseph suggested we travel to Tiger Peaks to try and witness the sunrise. With often changeable weather conditions there was no guarantee the mountains would not be cloud covered. It meant leaving Kurseong at 3.30am for the 2 hour drive. Enthusiasm was not absent and the entire Irish group traveled, leaving the Indian children and their two Indian minders fast asleep in Mount Carmel.
We needed a second vehicle so Niall Uncle (one of Bekind's Directors) was elected driver of the schools old Mahindra jeep and he deftly managed the challenging rough roads like a true professional. Equipped with blankets from our beds and temperatures only a few degrees above freezing, we stood amongst big crowds of fellow "worshippers of the morning sun" as its golden rays crept over the snow capped mountains and the velvet sky lightened slowly to reveal the true majestic beauty of Everest in the distance and the vast mountain ranges of the Himalayas. Incredible India once again!
The return journey back down the mountain after we said our goodbyes to all in Goethals School was eventful to say the least. We had four jeeps to take us to the train station in New Jalpaiguiri for our sleeper train back to Calcutta. Multiple hairpin bends and little boys who had stuffed their bellies with a mix of everything was a recipe for several bouts of car sickness!
A little delayed and somewhat smelly we eventually rendezvoused at the station. The one-eyed beggars were there again in force to harass us as we made our way to the train.
This time we were separated into three carriages, which made life a little more difficult. As the packed train pulled out of the station we eventually found our bunks and attempted to settle down. A moment of terror occurred when Teacher Anne came to me and said she had not seen 10 year old Amit since we had departed. For several moments a frantic search took place, had we left him behind? Had someone taken him? I did a head count of the 8 kids Niall and I were in charge of for the return trip. Seven heads, how was I going to explain this to Tapan, the Founder of Rupayan, my blood ran cold.
Another search revealed Amit in upper bunk playing cards with his pal Sanjay. Panic over and time to settle down for the night.
Doubling up for several of us in narrow bunks was necessary and having the sleeping little Rajesh put his feet in my mouth was not ideal. Just dozing off when a body comes through the curtain! Prepared to tackle the intruder and not wanting any of my organs stolen, I leaped out of bed only to find that boy Amit had fallen out of the upper bunk having been pushed out by Sanjay. Fortunately he was unhurt and hardly woke as I struggled to lift him back to his bed.
Exhausted and by this stage and having done my rounds again to confirm we had not lost anyone I returned to the tight confines of my bunk and wishing that although 8 year old Rajesh was small for his age and didn't take up that much space at the end of my bed, I just selfishly wished he was somewhere else. It was a thought I was to regret and has filled me with shame since for you see the following day I was to receive the background files for four of the latest children who arrived in the Rupayan home this year and Rajesh was one of those boys. I read how for seven of his tender eight years little Rajesh had lived a homeless life as a beggar with his family on the platforms of Sealdah train station in Calcutta.
An early morning text received from Br James Joseph on 19th September was somewhat alarming. An earthquake measuring 6.8 on the richter scale had hit the area we had visited when we went to the Himilayas. Damage had been caused to the building we stayed in and landslides blocked some of the roads we had travelled. Rescue teams were hampered by the torrential rains which are persistant during the monsoons. It was hard to believe as we had been blessed with fine weather and such tranquility last April.
If you would like to read more about the news that never reached the Irish media, you can follow this link(opens in new window).
It is said the best wine is saved till last and this is true of our last day in Calcutta before returning to Ireland.
Time had caught up with us and leaving the student/teacher group to rest, Niall and I made the early morning journey across the city to spend some time in Nabo Jibon orphanage, a special place where we both originally volunteered back in 2005.
On the previous day our group had been to Don Boscos Ashalayam School adjacent to the orphanage. They had seen the great work done and the education offered to many poor children by the organization run by Fr George and his staff. They saw the offices of "Child-line" and the holding area where abandoned and rescued children are housed and counseled until they can be reunited with family or in many cases legally become wards of court and begin a life of rehabilitation in DBA.
On Easter Sunday morning our group met a little 6 year girl named Sabnam who had been abandoned as a small baby.
I wrote this piece in 2009
"A short ride from Nabo Jibon in a pedal-rickshaw with my friend Sudir led us to a girl's home where I was to meet a very special young lady. On our journey Sudir a Missionary of Charity Brother, explained how he had come across two destitute children on the street some years earlier. A small boy carried in his arms a baby girl, starving, malnourished and abandoned the boy had been scavenging in the rubbish for scraps of food. His baby sister was very ill. Sudir took them to hospital, where after weeks of care, the baby being on life support made a gradual recovery. Sudir made a daily visit and signed the necessary papers as their guardian. So poor and frightened the little boy did not even know his baby sisters name so Sudir called her Sabnam and today she calls him Dad."
I often wondered what had happened to Sabnam's brother and enquired from Fr. George, "Ah you mean Robi, he is with us in another of our homes, would you like to meet him?"
So on this departing day the boy now aged about 12 waited to meet us in the school yard. His sister Sabnam was sent for and arrived on the back of a bicycle.
I asked Robi to hold his sister in his arms again for a photo. It was a most touching moment to see them together looking so healthy and happy. The boy has done well in school and told us that he wants to be a teacher. A friend in Dublin now generously sponsors Sabnam & Robi through Bekind Ireland's child sponsorship programme.
Because of the fundraising efforts, donations and ongoing standing orders we are in a position to do the following
|The Hope Foundation||14 Children Sponsored|
|SEED||12 Children Sponsored|
|Sanchar||10 Special Needs Children Sponsored|
|Don Bosco Ashalayam||24 Students Educational Support plus 1 Child Sponsored|
|MHC Howrah||1 Child Sponsored and support for Girls' home at Mayer Asha|
|Rupayan Home||14 Boys Sponsored & 80% of running costs|
|CINI||15 Mothers and their babies sponsored Having already supported these mothers during their pregnancy,Bekind has agreed to sponsor both the mothers and their children for a further two years. This ensures the both mother and baby get the nutrition and support they need to stay healthy|
|Goethals ERFS (in Himalayas)||2 houses built to date, medical assistance provided and school transportation sponsored|
|Loreto Sealdah||Continued support of Sr. Cyril Mooney's Rainbow project|
|Loreto Entally||Bequest delivered to Sr. Ena to support the orphaned girls who live here under the care of the Loreto Sisters. A new water treatment plant is provided also from this fund|
|Loreto Lolay Project||Funds presented to Sr. Ena from a bequest. Also support to poor farming families in the Himalayas to purchase livestock|
|Jesuits of Santal||Funding for medical equipment|
|Missionaries of Charity||
I hope this account of our efforts to help those in need gives an overall view on how your donations are being put to the best use.
Without the support of and dedication of the group of teachers and students who traveled to India this year from Castleknock Community College, without the support of Principal John Cronin, his staff and so many of his pupils, who became so enthusiastically involved in the multiple fund raising projects headed up by an extra ordinary teacher, Eoin O'Maoileoin, this could not have happened.
A special word of thanks for former CCC student Grace Mulligan for nominating Bekind Ireland in the "Unsung Hero" competition organized by Enda O'Connor and staff in Blanchardstown Ford which boosted our funds by €8,000.
Thanks to the "M" family for their perseverance in procuring the proceeds of a will containing €20,000.
In India thanks again to Anil Gupta for all his invaluable help with logistics, transport and transfers for the group.
To the churches of all denominations who afford us and the CCC student volunteers a platform to share our experiences and who donate so generously.
Thanks to the many un-named who organized their own events, to support Bekind's efforts. Combined funds for this campaign exceeded a staggering €90,000!!
As many families here in Ireland struggle with this current recession and its unfolding implications for our way of life, we still reach out and give.
As I witness the young volunteers who go with us to be with the poor in India and see them give of themselves, it adds strength to those famous words, "It is in giving that we truly receive."