Viewing entries in

Returning to India with Mom...


Returning to India with Mom...

...Over the weekend, Mom and I embarked on the longest flight of our lives, a 12,000 km 15-hour trip aboard an Air India 777 direct from Chicago to New Delhi. Surprisingly, we both felt that the flight seemed much shorter than we thought it would. We cleared customs and met Shri just outside the only international arrival door. Mom agreed that the flight itself was nothing compared to the two-hour drive from the airport to Faridabad that, even on Sunday afternoon, felt like riding a roller coaster through a cloud of exhaust and dust. At the first stop in traffic, a haggard beggar pressed her young face and hands against my window. Her ring and fingernails scraped against the glass. Mom could hardly watch.


Mamta, Naysa, and Naima were waiting with open arms when we arrived just after sunset. Mamta was already preparing rajma rice and malai paneer, two of my favorite dishes. I then went over to the convent to say hi to the sisters, who had also been looking forward to our arrival. We talked and laughed and were excited to be reunited. Exhausted by the 28 hour journey door-to-door, Mom and I were in bed by 9.


We were up again by 3:30 a.m. and, after everyone else woke up, walked Naima around the corner to school. Naima also attends the Carmel Convent School now, where 76 of our students across 4 grade levels and 11 classes attend. We were outside the entrance for the youngest children when some of our oldest students, Priyanka, Ankit, Neha, and Kajal, spotted us from around the corner. They waved and jumped up and down yelling, "John bhaiya, John bhaiya!," then sprinted toward us with smiles from ear to ear.

After giving me huge hugs and an outpouring of optimism, they turned to Mom and did the same. They had certainly been looking forward to the moment as much as we had. Mom needed no introductions.


We went home to wash up and eat breakfast before making the complete rounds of Carmel Convent School, KL Mehta School, and the slum. Mom met Sisters Pushpa, Asha, Sweta, and Namrata for the first time. In every classroom and office, we were greeted with songs and poems and even dances that all the children had learned. It was incredible to see their progress over just a few short months.


Nearly all of the students are making rapid progress. Many are even excelling with almost perfect grades and evaluations. Many of the youngest students have learned to read and write both English and Hindi since April. Some of the kindergarten students are even multiplying already!


We made it to the slum by late afternoon. Children and adults came out from every building to say hello and shake our hands. Many of the men made a point to shake my hand, look in my eyes, and say, "Thank you." I'd never had that happen before. Some of the children who had never seen Mom before even came up and said, "Hello Mary ma'am!"


Please take a second to blow up the previous three photos and try to digest the emotions of these sisters and our students Anita and Sindu. They live the hardest lives of any healthy children I know. I'll discuss their situation and circumstances later as they are complex and we have some work to do to get to the bottom of it all.


We also passed by an intellectually disabled boy in the slum who was being held in a woman's lap while healing from a burn sustained from an open fire.


Despite the difficulties of living in a slum and occasional pockets of extreme despair, life is largely vibrant and enthusiastic. At one point, my shoulder was grabbed by some of the fathers and local men. Despite my demonstrative objections, Mom and I were all but forced to sit down on a bed in the street and enjoy a cold orange soda. A crowd of 30 people of all ages gathered around to watch us sip. I enjoyed mine, as I knew our hosts would be disappointed if I did not. However, I think Mom was a bit overwhelmed by the situation. It's tough to receive a gift here, especially when you know that person worked for a few hours to be able to afford that soda.


Although the first 24 hours here were as much of a roller coaster as the ride in, excitement was the overarching feeling of the day. In the photo above, Ankit runs to greet us as fast as his little legs will carry him.



1 Comment

Top Shots: Day-to-Day Life...

...Over the past three weeks, we've registered and vetted more than 150 children and their families, visited and evaluated 13 local schools, conducted a half dozen women empowerment seminars, organized and enabled an upcoming surgery for Prianka, prepared our students for their first final exams, and tried to win a $5,000 voting competition at (which we are unfortunately currently losing by about 400 votes...please help!). Here are some of my favorite photographs from the past few days:

_Salutes at Government School

--Students at a government school salute me upon entry to their classroom

_Sister Jaya Mary in Hallway

--Sister Jaya Mary gives me a tour of St. Joseph's Convent School's new wing for 11th and 12th standards

_In line for KG

--Kindergarten students at the Carmel Convent School line up for morning assembly


--A little boy shows us his ability to write the alphabet and numbers 1-10


--Mira, Bethea, and Faith register, evaluate, and photograph applicants


--Smoke from constantly burning rubbish engulfs the slum (It's good for the lungs!)

_Ankit in Ajeets Home

--Ankit ensures that I take a moment of rest and enjoy a cold soda that Ajeet's family bought me

_Chalk Flying

--Instructions are written in Hindi with chalk on a wooden door in the slum. We rely on scattered literate parents to convey these messages by word of mouth. We can reach about 60% of the slum's residents in 24 hours this way.

_Mother Reading List

--A mother looks for her son's name on a newly posted list of accepted students. He wasn't on the list.

_Annoucing List

--A local social worker, Ranjan, reads a list of selected children to a group of illiterate mothers and grandmothers.

_Able Charity School Reading List

--A slum school teacher announces the same list


--Priti unfortunately had to be left behind

_Kanchan with Mom

--Kanchan's mother has had trouble sleeping all week waiting for our final decisions. Fortunately for her, Kanchan was accepted!

_Mom with Polio

--Himanshu entering the Carmel Convent School for the first time with his mother, Sunita, who suffers from the effects of polio

_Mothers Waiting

--Mothers and their children listen intently to instructions from Mamta and the Sisters

_Arti Evaluated by Sister Pushpa

--Arti, who now has a glass eye after suffering from eye cancer, is evaluated by Sister Pushpa

_Announcing Plans

--Mothers and children listen to plans and expectations


--Tailors measuring the last of our 86 Carmel Convent School students

_Sindu Cooking

--Sindu, age 9, cooking a meal for her family

_Sindu Close Up

--Sindu on her way home after a final exam

_Bucket Shower

--A boy bathing under cold water from a bucket

_Ajeet Cricket

--Ajeet has never taken cricket lessons...but look at his eye-hand coordination!

_Girls Graduation

--Girls attend their "Farewell," the equivalent of our graduation, at a large government school


--A microphone and hundreds of young women await one of my speeches about the importance of higher and vocational education

_Frog Race

--Students take part in a frog race on a school holiday


--Akanksha, our student being promoted to upper kindergarten this year, enjoying a game with her friends

photo (11)

--Prianka had a large abscess drained from her face this week. She is being treated with antibiotics. She will go home while her treatment continues and return to Delhi in 4 weeks for another surgery to remove residual tumor shown on a recent CT scan. Thanks Mom and Dad for funding Prianka's care!

_John with Sisters

--Me with Sisters Jennifer and Jaya Mary

We're working hard here...very hard. Please don't forget to vote at and have your friends and family vote too. If each person reading this blog voted, we would win!

More good news: If your fingers are tired like mine from typing, worry no more. This blog can now be accessed by simply visiting!

1 Comment

Tangible Untouchables...


Tangible Untouchables...

_Machine Shop

...It's a rainy, gloomy day here in Faridabad. The streets are flooded and the slum is a sea of thick mud and cow dung. For the first time in more than a month, I am the only foreigner living in Mamta's home. It is eerily peaceful for India. The ever-present sounds of chanting salesmen, children shouting, impatient drivers honking, and sputtering engines billowing clouds of smoke are nothing but memories of sunnier days. All that I hear are the patter of rain, the distant pounding of nearby metal factories, and the faint call to prayer from a faraway minaret. The air, for once, is fresh. The usual airborne industrial debris seems to have vanished. The smoke has cleared. The dust has been beaten to the ground by drops of water. Taking deep breaths and being able to listen to my own thoughts have never seemed like the luxuries they are now. --Women working in a dimly lit unventilated machine shop--

Life among the slums here is tiring. Trying to make a difference is exhausting. Throw in a little 'Delhi Belly,' a common cold, and some water scarcity and it would be tough for anyone not to miss the comforts of home.

But, then I go outside. Even though I sleep on a wooden plank, wash my clothes in a bucket, and use a cup to rinse my body in a candle-lit bathroom, I realize that what is important in life is not what we have but what we are able to do with what we have.

_Squatting Boy

I have the ability to read and write, I was born free and equal, and I am loved by a family that would move heaven and Earth to ensure my health and safety. I'm set. Much should be and is expected of me. The children and young adults here, however, can't read or write, they are neither free nor equal, and their families can hardly afford to put food on a table they don't even have. Despite living at the bottom of what will soon be the most populated civilization in history, however, the children here are among the happiest I have ever met. They exude hope even when others have lost it. They are skin and bones but tough as nails. They act as though they have everything going for them even when everything is actually going against them.

_Daulati on Stepping Stones 2

The slum's residents have every right to be angry at the world. Throughout their lives, they have been treated as inferior 4th class citizens. They perform back-breaking, unhealthy, and often demeaning work without ever second-guessing their status. They and their ancestors have been denied healthcare, education, and opportunity for so long that even when they are offered such services they do not trust or understand them. When I take patients and their families to the hospitals, some doctors scold the parents for waiting so long and having to have a foreigner bring them in for treatment. However, are they really the ones to blame? I don't think so.

Living in India is no longer the novelty it once was to me. Being 8,000 miles from home now seems pretty normal. I no longer flinch when I round a corner to meet a massive bull staring into my eyes from three feet away. I no longer want to fumigate myself or my clothing after spending the day in a slum.

The hardest part about my return to India has not been adapting to the culture but adapting to the scale of India's problems and the widespread lack of regard for them. Education of the poor here is a disaster and I believe it is the central root of India's vast poverty, overpopulation, and massive public health dilemmas. To make matters worse, the caste system cripples altruism and any attempts to promote equality. Some of the high-caste locals who only know the basics of our work think that our impoverished children from the slums cannot perform to the same standards as "normal" students. In true Indian honesty, they tell me directly that I am "wasting my time." All someone needs to do is meet one of our students to know that this is not true.

How can you think I am wasting my time if you have never met our students? How can you understand their problems if you never go to their communities? How can you stand to watch them suffer and even die without wanting to find a solution?

I experienced the most egregious and bewildering example of the caste system last year in, of all places, church. It was my last Sunday mass with the sisters before returning home and I planned a special, surprise event.


--Above: Moni, Manish, and Chandani. Below: Prianka--


During mass, I had all of the pediatric patients I had been caring for (and their families) come meet me at the church entrance. When the parish priest finished his sermon, he signaled me to come address the congregation (all of whom speak perfect English). I walked down the aisle from the back of the church with six severely deformed children and their parents following me. We all turned around and faced the congregation. I took the podium and introduced each of the children, their medical conditions, what I had done for each of them to date, and when their operations and/or treatments were scheduled. I then made one simple request for help transporting the children to and from the hospitals and physicians that would cure them. I thanked the congregation in advance for their generous help and for their hospitality during the three months I had attended their church.

Once the service ended, I stood at the back as everyone passed to shake my hand, hug me, and thank me for my work here. They then passed by the children, entered their cars, and drove away. No one ever said a single word about helping these unfortunate and astonishing children. Even when I brought devout lifelong Catholics children with obvious and dire problems and explained exactly what each of them needed and when, they unanimously declined to help.

When I told the sisters that no one had offered to support us, Sister Pushpa said, "We knew that no one would help you but we did not want to crush your hope."

India, like these children, has so much potential. A relatively recently liberated democratic republic with 1.25 billion hard-working and patriotic people should be one of the world's most formidable economies and superpowers. Yet, the ultimate definition of success here is the ability to leave. It's a race to the top and every man for himself. The brain drain and caste system are debilitating and undeniable problems for India and its future.


Several of our new students this year, including Raj Nandani (above) are of the Scheduled Caste, otherwise known as the Untouchables, Dalits, or Shudras. They are members of the the lowest castes that make up approximately 16% of India's population.


Many of our students' parents are so illiterate they cannot even sign their names. The photo above is of a mother having to use her fingerprint to sign her daughter's application for school.


I took the above photo of Manisha 13 months ago, when we wrote her name because she could not.


This is Manisha now, holding up her impeccable homework that has been marked "excellent" by her teacher. When people believe in you, you believe in yourself; you become proud of your work and you try even harder the next time. All these beautiful children need are opportunities for challenging learning and positive feedback when they succeed. We have done this at Squalor to Scholar and in one year our students have shattered everyone's expectations of them.


Once our students are finished rocking their exams later this month, I'll be heading out into the slums before dawn every morning with an iPad to Skype with sponsors and donors all over the world. I'll be in touch soon to organize the video hangouts and share with you in live broadcasts some of the most inspiring children you'll ever meet.

_Facetime in an Alley



What a Year!...

...It was 365 days ago today when I walked into the Carmel Convent School and met Sister Pushpa for the first time. She sat me down in her office and, for the next hour and a half, we had a conversation that I knew would change my life. We discussed such topics as the purpose of our existence, the plight of the poor, and the perseverance of the human spirit. Little did I know, however, that I would walk into that same office one year later with more than three dozen slum children under our wings, that we would celebrate their outstanding academic and athletic achievements, or that I would be back here in India.

_Ajeet with Ice Cream --Ajeet enjoying an afternoon at the local park with his much deserved ice cream--

As of this time last year, Ajeet had no plans of ever attending school. He is now the top student among his high-end class of 160 students. In only a year, he has learned how to read nearly anything in English or Hindi, have entire conversations in English, and multiply and divide in his head even faster than I can. He didn't have any dreams for his future 365 days ago. Now, he wants to become an engineer. NASA, I think you should get ready for one of the best employees you'll ever have.

_Daulati MRI --MRI of Daulati's Pott's Spine--

Daulati had never been to a doctor before her condition became severe and her family brought her to us. She has now had full radiology and lab workups and is under Directly Observed Treatment (DOTS) for her disease: tuberculosis of the spine. DOTS officials will visit her every other day for the next 9 months to administer her medication. More about her recent hospital visits is coming soon.

_Priyanka Ladder on Roof --Prianka was rescued again--

Marital and family disputes ended in violence for Prianka (our student) and her mother. Fearing for their lives, they fled together to a place no one could find them. After searching far and wide for over a month, we finally found Prianka and have returned her to the peace and love of our care. She is not only safe but happy and excited to return to her friends in the classroom. We have arranged temporary transportation to and from school for Prianka until her mother and she can find permanent and safe housing.

_New Slum School Group --The first day of Mamta's new school--

Inspired by our progress over the last year, Mamta started her own slum school this week. She found a bilingual teacher and is fundraising on her own to begin a new chapter for herself and many children in the slum. On the first day, 53 children and families showed up. Within the first three days, more than 100 children came for admission.

_Mamta in Car --Mamta and Shri taking supplies to her new school--

_Looking Through the Gate --Children waiting to enter the new slum school--

_Versha with Writing Competition Certificate Prize --Versha holding her recent award--

This week, Versha (our student in Lower Kindergarten) won "First Place" in her English Writing Competition among 164 of her classmates. We always knew she was talented; now, everyone else does too.

_Roshan on Rickshaw --Roshan--

Many students have had impeccable attendance. However, Roshan's has been nearly perfect with 222 days of attendance since we started recording last March. One must remember that our students attend school from early in the morning to late in the afternoon 6 days per week. This young man is dedicated, ambitious, and as photogenic as they come.

_John with Slum School Children

_Green Lighting with Kids --Searching for talented, driven children in need of an opportunity--

As you know, we've been hard at work looking for more high-potential children to give the chances of a lifetime. There are thousands who deserve our help. Some, however, stand out immediately. It's like they've been preparing for our arrival all year...or perhaps their entire lives.

_John with Chanda --Taking down Chanda's information--

_Caitlin Teaching Class --Preparing our newest and youngest students for their first day of official school--

We've chosen our 15 young girls for the class of 2027 and have begun preparing them for the first day of school on April 1st, 2013. In coming days, I'll be introducing them to you.

JCS_5761 --Simran, age 4, showing off her ABC's--

_Seeta and Geeta with Sister Sweta --Nurturing our newest and youngest students--

We are not the only people nurturing and caring for this new class of students. Our older students have, as I expected, begun treating our newest students like their little sisters.

_Indu Carrying Gopika --Gopika (age 3) being carried by Indu after being separated from mom for the first time--

This time last year, Indu was sweeping homes to support her family with an additional income of $20 per month. We took her and put her on an entirely different track. She is now one of the most hard-working students her teacher has ever seen. I wonder why!

psIMG_7365 --Santosh before his surgery--

Santosh died in January, shortly after his first birthday. His mother wailed and cried in my arms when I visited his home the day after he passed. Even though his death was caused by easily treatable diarrhea, his family has carried on. His 3-year-old sister is a student in Mamta's slum school and his mother has already given birth to a new baby boy.

_Santosh's Little Brother --Santosh's mother and new little brother--

psIMG_1386 --My farewell sendoff last May--

In only a year, we have impacted directly and indirectly thousands of people's lives. We have promoted the value of education, the importance of healthcare, and, perhaps most importantly, the ideals of equality that sometimes seem so absent here. We are small, so small; but our determination and long-term outlook certainly set us apart.

_John Reunited with Priyanka --Welcoming Prianka back...I can only imagine what she has been through--

Although many lives have been transformed here, I feel that I am the one who has grown and learned most from this epic journey. Over the past year, I have learned more about public health, business, education, politics, poverty, corruption, illiteracy, religion, spirituality, web design, photography, charity work, and humanity than I could ever learn in a classroom. As a strikingly honest and insightful physician correctly concluded earlier this week during my visit to a government hospital, I'm slowly transitioning toward a much more macro level of thinking and problem solving.

To the hundreds of people who have volunteered their services and donated their money to Squalor to Scholar over the past year, I am and will be forever grateful for your vital and unwavering support. None of this would have been possible without you.



Daulati's Tuberculosis of the Spine...

_Daulati on X-Ray Table

...I spent the entire day today at the hospital with this beautiful, angelic, and incredibly unfortunate young girl named Daulati. Even among the slum's residents, Daulati's family is one of the most destitute of all. To make matters worse, she has half a dozen siblings, is severely malnourished, and can now hardly walk due to an infection that has contorted and crippled her spine. --Daulati today on the x-ray table--

I never met or even knew about Daulati when I was here last year. However, I became aware of her painful and debilitating condition nearly one month after my departure. She and her family had heard about our work treating other children and approached Mithlesh for help. Mithlesh sent me the following photo with a short description of her severe pain and evident need for immediate treatment:


--Daulati on June 21, 2012--

Not knowing at the time what this condition was, I asked Mithlesh to take her to the hospital as quickly as possible. Amazingly, Daulati's family had never sought treatment before. Mithlesh and Mamta both generously agreed and took Daulati with another of our patients to New Delhi on multiple occasions. The physicians there drained her abscess and referred Daulati to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), India's largest government research hospital, for further care and radiology.


At AIIMS, Daulati was diagnosed with "Tuberculosis of the Spine," also known as Pott Disease.

According to the NIH, India has one of the largest concentrations of patients with TB anywhere in the world with more than 6 million radiologically proven cases. I can only imagine there are at least twice or three times as many people who actually have it but never seek care. Worldwide, approximately 30 million people suffer from TB and nearly 3 million people die annually from the disease. Among all cases of TB, approximately 1-2% of patients develop skeletal tuberculosis, approximately half of which are reported to result in spinal tuberculosis.

_Pig in Ruins

--Conditions ripe for disease...notice the pig in the center room--

Patients with TB are often poor, illiterate, uneducated, and/or live in highly dense and unsanitary conditions. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is a growing problem in India, mainly due to a lack of proper patient education. Illiterate and impoverished patients start taking their antibiotics, improve, and then stop taking all medications because they feel better and don't want to waste their time or money taking pills. Strict adherence to medication protocol over as many as 9 months is vital for curing a patient's TB. However, these patients live day-to-day and lack the awareness of the harm they do to themselves and others. As a result of their failure to adhere to instructions, they occasionally develop MDR-TB that creates entirely new and severe public health concerns.

_Daulati and Sister

People here fear TB, as they should. Mithlesh expressed his concern of being infected. I could not ask people to take on a risk that I could not evaluate or take first. Instead, I attempted to have Daulati's family take care of her on their own. However, they refused/were unable to go on their own. They live in the same room as her and breathe the same air all day every day.

_Daulati on Bed

--Daulati just a few days ago--

Even though Mithlesh and Mamta had shown Daulati and her family what to do and where to go, they would not go alone. For the past six months, Daulati's condition has continued to deteriorate. My first sight of her broke my heart. She is like a pile of mangled bones shrink wrapped in dark weathered skin. She walks bent over at a 90 degree angle with her arms assisting her every move like a primate. Watching her climb in and out of chairs or vehicles is heart-wrenching. How could her parents stand by and watch her suffer so miserably?

I never cease to be amazed by the extent of suffering people will endure here. Daulati's condition has been worsening now for nearly two years. She has had severe kyphosis (hunchback) for over a year and yet her family never took her to a doctor. As shown in the photo above, Daulati spends her days laying in a mesh bed outside of her family's little shanty in the slum.

_Daulati's Father and Home

--Daulati and her father outside their makeshift home--

The longer I stay here, the more I realize that healthcare among the poor in India is a complete mess. After experiencing the deaths of Kishan, Santosh, and numerous other precious little children who died from easily-treatable illnesses, I have realized that many of the problems are fairly simple. Rapid, early treatment could have saved faces and lives in many cases.

_Manish Portrait with Dolly

-Manish's venous malformation should have been removed when it was the size of a pea--


--Kishan should have received treatment for pneumonia before it killed him--


--Santosh needed an IV for his diarrhea. Instead, his simple illness was fatal--

Today, however, Daulati's world took a new turn. I suited up in a mask and gloves, placed masks on Daulati and her father, and then set out with them in an auto rickshaw to one of the best private hospitals in town for appointments I had made. Within 4.5 hours, we had visited multiple senior orthopedic and plastic surgeons and obtained T-and-L-spine MRIs, chest x-rays, and blood tests. She was an ideal patient and never once complained, even when her noisy, claustrophobic MRI took nearly 90 minutes.

_Daulati in Wheelchair

--Samosas and ice cream as a treat for being such a good patient--

The physicians today were not too concerned of active pulmonary TB, which is good news for her family and me. However, I will continue to take the best precautions I can.

We will return for her results and follow up on Thursday morning, when the surgeons will drain her abscess, treat her tuberculosis of the spine, and plan an operation to repair her kyphosis that would otherwise remain chronic.

How far would Daulati's family had let her health deteriorate without seeking help? After my experience alone with her father today, I fear she would have almost certainly died.

Many thanks to the donors of Healing the Hidden who made Daulati's MRI, x-rays, blood tests, transportation, and consultations possible today. Our combined efforts may very well save her life.



Top Shots: Slum at Dusk...

1 Comment

Top Shots: Slum at Dusk...

...In the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which takes place in India, Penelope Wilton's character asks Tom Wilkinson's, "How can you bear this country? What do you see that I don't?" He responds, "The lights, colors, smiles; they teach me something." I think these photos capture a bit of what he means. Click on them for the full resolution sights!

_Man on Roof at Sunset
_Tree in Center
_Up and Down Rooftops
_Deceased Dog Vertical
_Bull in Center
_Dog in Canal Looking
_Tree on Left
_Smoke Stack at Sunset
_Ring of Fire
_Geese at Wedding
_Slum at Dusk
_Big Tree in Center
_Slum at Night

1 Comment