...Today was one of the most special days of my lifetime. It was meaningful, magnificent, and memorable on a level that I could not have even imagined six months ago. It was made possible by weeks of tireless effort and sacrifice of nearly a dozen people and by the compassionate generosity of donors from around the world. Words can no longer adequately convey the extent of my love for our students, my gratitude for your support, and my pride to be a part of the miracles that are occurring all around me. Today was an event that I did not anticipate to see until this week. It was the first day of the new school year and our 18 students were the most glowing in attendance.
I had no trouble waking up before dawn today because it was one of the most significant days of our students' lives. Forty-six days ago, none of this was even a dream. Most of these children were never going to spend a day of their lives in a classroom. Today, however, this new dream became a striking reality.
In only 46 days, the lives of this entire community have been changed. These 18 students do not inconspicuously head out to school or return quietly home. They are radiant symbols of hope to a society that desperately needs it. Their pristine red, white, and blue uniforms convey the power of knowledge to people who do not value the concept of school. They are discrete packets of a society hindered by discrimination and poverty that now socialize and study with children from opposite walks of life. Over the years, they will assimilate into the structure of higher levels of society but will unlikely ever lose sight of their roots. Although they go off to a school with the wealthy and privileged, they return home every day to the squalor and filth around them. These students, more than any others, have the ability to open eyes and instate change to radically improve the world in which we live.
Our children are already ambassadors of the poor and suffering. I never thought that first graders and kindergarteners could teach me this much about life, happiness, and success. But they have. The feelings of pride and fulfillment that I receive here every day may never be duplicated. No amount of money or fame could ever satisfy me like a day here in the slum watching our children cherish their new lives and ferociously devour the influx of knowledge we are delivering.
When we arrived in the slum at 6:11am, I was surprised to find that our students were already rinsed, dressed, and on the streets ready for their first day of school. Bright white shirts and red hair ribbons could be seen running around from hundreds of meters away.
You can't wake up most 7 to 10-year-old kids at 5:30am (while it's still dark), have them shower under cold water from an outdoor communal hand-pump, watch them dress themselves in uniforms that they washed by hand without your help, and be excited for school as if they were going to Disneyland. However, these are not most kids. They are more driven, more passionate, more enthusiastic, and more responsible than any children their age that I have ever seen. Their zest for life brings tears to my eyes. I was proud of them this morning as if they were my own little brothers and sisters. In fact, that is now exactly what they are. I am their big brother, their role model, their liaison, and their biggest fan.
The picture above was taken only 46 days ago. It was the day that I accompanied Gudiya, Neha, and their parents Guyatri and Ramotar to the Carmel Convent School for the first time. It was the first day Sister Pushpa met any of our students. It was the spark that opened eyes and hearts around the world and right here in this community.
Forty-six days ago, Neha and Gudiya walked inside the Carmel Convent School barefoot, illiterate, and unaware of what lay ahead. Today, Neha and Gudiya walked into the Carmel Convent School with shoes on their feet, the ability to read entire passages in English, and with striking understanding of what a revolutionary opportunity this is for them.
In the slum, we walked around quickly to see as many kids getting ready as we could. I was stunned to find that each of them was either already dressed or just putting on the final touches of their uniforms. There was not a hint of grogginess or tardiness. In fact, much of the community also awoke to see our students departing for their first big day at the best school in town.
Smoke from a cow pie burning stove and a sense of excitement were billowing out of Manisha's house as we arrived. As I poked my head in the door, Manisha and her parents jumped up with enormous pleasure that we had come to escort everyone to school.
Next, we caught up with Rani, who was just climbing down the ladder from her family's small rooftop dwelling to head out for her big day.
We found Roshan riding to school on the back of his father Rajesh's bicycle.
Some students went to school with their parents, others came with us, but everyone was walking (or in Roshan's case, riding) on air.
Although they no longer need to walk to and from school in a line, the students want to. Everywhere they go, they become the center of attention and discussion. Even as we entered school for the first time, with intimidating older students all around, their confidence and pride were unwavering.
Our children face an uphill battle that would cripple the spirits of most children their age. But our students don't back down from challenges, they demand more of them. They grasp wholeheartedly the grandeur of the opportunity that we have bestowed upon them. Even though they are struggling to understand most of what their teachers are saying, you won’t find any of them complaining about it.
While the students joined their new classes and friends, we used more of your donations to buy their 144 books that had just arrived at the bookstore as well as 18 of the strongest backpacks we could find.
On our drive back from the bookstore, I noticed an unfortunate woman moving an entire wall of bricks by putting each and every one on her head.
Then, I recognized her. It was Anita's mom, Rani. I knew that Rani worked hard to keep her daughters alive, but I didn't know that she went to this extreme. As a widow and now single mother of five children, Rani is illiterate, unskilled, and partially blind. However, as you can see, Rani's motherly love is undeniable.
I made sure to wait until she had unloaded her bricks across the street before I approached her. When she saw me, a massive smile came over her face. She shook my hand and allowed me to take some pictures of her cautiously going about her work.
It is one thing to help people who need it, but this is almost surreal. I can't think of anyone more deserving of our support than a woman and family like this that works so hard just to put food on the table. Today, Rani humbled me to my core. I wanted to give her a big hug but I was already gathering enough attention from her construction site. I tried as hard as I could to let her know what a special lady I think she is.
Forty-six days ago, Rani wasn't interested in even allowing Anita to attend school. Anita can't make money or help out around the house if she is sitting in a classroom. However, this morning, Rani and Anita were some of the first people out on the street.
As Rani worked diligently to move an entire wall, brick by brick, her daughter Anita sat in her first class ever assembling walls of knowledge, brick by brick, in her mind. Anita has the determination and level-headedness of her mother, which she has used to rapidly become one of our best students. I get the sense that her mom is very proud of her.
We returned to the slum to run a few more errands. While our students still studied away in the Carmel Convent School, their friends woke up late in the slum, ran around barefoot, and played under the water pumps with no plans for their futures.
In the slum, we set out to find a precious 4-year-old girl named Moni with a cleft lip and cleft palate. I called this morning and scheduled an appointment with the surgeon to bring her in for her first visit ever to a hospital. We went to tell her and her family that we will be going to see the surgeon tomorrow morning.
I have never seen Moni smile and I cannot blame her. She should have been taken to a hospital when she was an infant. Now, she lacks confidence and is an outcast from society; she rarely speaks and cannot enunciate much when she does; and she is malnourished from the inability to properly chew many foods.
Fortunately for Moni, she was outside when we walked past her home yesterday on another errand. Tomorrow, she will see the surgeon and within a few weeks she will have a beautiful smile on her face and so will everyone else around her.
Our next stop was to visit a little girl named Chandani, who has facial deformation on the right side of her face and head. We told her mother that we would also like to take her to the plastic surgeon tomorrow morning. She agreed without hesitation.
And, of course, no one can forget Manish. He is now a week into his steroid treatment and is experiencing the expected side effects. His tummy is filled with gas and he is not as hungry as he used to be, but he is just as cute as can be and will also join us for his weekly trip to see the plastic surgeon tomorrow morning.
Then, we went home for lunch. Yes, that was all just one morning in India. I wish every morning could be as productive and meaningful as that one.
As we ate lunch, our students also went home from school to have their own. While all of the other Carmel Convent School students stayed at home for the rest of the afternoon, ours returned to the school from 3-5pm for their special class. They are in boot camp now and they love it. They were just as enthusiastic to come to school this afternoon as they were at six o'clock this morning. We distributed the new books and backpacks to all of the students, each of whom thanked us for every single book as we handed them out.
Forty-six days ago, Ramotar's cycle-rickshaw was used to carry his family home to the slum. Today, it was a school bus that carried the hopes and dreams of his community to and from their new lives.
You can see from the photos the elation that your donations are giving to these children and their families. The smiles on their faces are smiles of gratitude and appreciation the likes of which I have never seen before.
I said 46 days ago that I could not wait to buy Neha and Gudiya their backpacks and supplies, to put them in brand new uniforms and shoes, or to watch them attend school for the first time. When I made that comment, I never thought that we would achieve these same goals for them and 16 other students in less than seven weeks.
We have been the facilitators and ambassadors, but you donors and sponsors have been the real heroes. We are here on the front lines but you are the ones sending us resources and supplies to stand up for what we all know is right.
Your donations are not just providing lessons for our children, they are teaching an entire slum society of 25,000 people about the importance of education. Every day here is a new opportunity to not just see a need but do something about it. Today, as Rani carried bricks on her head to feed her five children, her daughter became the first person in her family to ever attend school. Rani and the community now fully understand what we are trying to accomplish here. She and her neighbors realize that if Anita and the other children use their heads to learn now, they won't have to carry bricks with them later.
Please know that medical expenses for children like Manish, Chandani, and Moni are not coming out of your donations to the Squalor to Scholar Program. For the time being, my family and I are covering these expenses. If you would like to sponsor an operation or its associated costs, please email me at email@example.com and I will get back to you.
There is a backlog of fascinating events that I have yet to tell you about. I apologize for the delay of this post. However, please know that I am always thinking about your support. Thanks for staying tuned in and please consider a donation if you haven't yet. These lives and smiles (some of which still need to be surgically corrected) are worth every penny. Thank you.