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Returning to India with Mom...

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Leading Two Lives...

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Leading Two Lives...

Sonu and Pritest in Uniforms 2

...The day after I arrived, our students suited up in their new winter uniforms and set out for their special class while regular school is still out of session for winter break. For the winter season, we purchase our students new uniforms, including sweaters, sweater vests, blazers, and long pants or skirts to stay warm. They look terrifically handsome and beautiful yet striking against the background of their foggy homes and surroundings. --Sonu and Pritesh--

Our students rarely go anywhere alone. As I expected, they have become best friends over the past few months. Hand-holding even among men is common in India and our students walk everywhere hand-in-hand.

Poornima and Anita Walking to School 2

--Poornima and Anita--

Roshan and Mother

--Roshan and his mother--

First View of All in Winter Uniforms

For those of you just joining us, these students you are looking at live in a slum and are members of the lowest castes in Indian society. No one has believed in them enough before to give them the opportunity of a world-class education, or any education for that matter. Even now, many people here are skeptical about their abilities to succeed.

We, however, do believe in them. Over the next few months, I'm going to prove to you why. These students first started school 10 months ago. At that time, they knew only the English alphabet and how to count from 1-100. They could not read, write, or speak to any greater extent. Even in Hindi, their native language, the could only recite the alphabet.

For the past 10 months, they have been studying 7.5 hours a day (2.5 hours longer than regular students) and six days per week at the Carmel Convent School, a well-renowned English-medium private school near their slum. Before I left, our students and I could hardly communicate at all beyond body language. Now, they understand much of what I am saying and can even translate for me when people approach us on the street to ask me questions.

When we walk places, they call out and spell the names of everything they see. They will point at, for instance, a picture of a elephant and yell, "Elephant...e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t!!!!" or see a rickshaw passing by and yell, "Rickshaw...r-i-c-k-s-h-a-w!!!"

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They also happen to have spectacular senses of humor. They have always made me laugh with their actions but they do so now with their words as well. When passing a field where many people go to dispose of their human and material waste, the children point and yell, "Park...Dirty park!...Very dirty park!!" as they wiggle and rotate their hands back and forth to signify 'do not enter.'

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--The "very dirty park"--

In the Classroom Winter Uniforms

The vast majority of our students can now read entire pages of books out loud and without any hesitation, even material they have never seen before. I brought "The Cat in the Hat" along and we were able to read it together for the first time.

Sky View of the Classroom

They also understand that they're all in this together. They help one another when they are struggling and congratulate those who receive high marks on tests or homework. They are like a large 21-person family.

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Gudiya Ready for Prayer

Every class begins and ends with a prayer thanking God for the ability and opportunity to study. It is a precious sight to behold.

Walking Through the Slum

--Walking home from school--

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--Manisha returning home to begin cooking--

When school ends, the children return to their dwellings in the slums and change back into their tattered clothing. Many of them return to bare feet and quickly become indistinguishable from the other children in the slum. They begin their chores and often perform most of the work to maintain their homes. At about 8pm, most of the students begin their homework and study for 1-2 hours before going to bed.

These kids are among the most fascinating and inspiring I have ever met. They lead two completely different lifestyles now and yet fit into both of them remarkably well given their circumstances. I am proud of them and hope you are too.

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--Madhu cooking with her mother--

 

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Now Selecting 15 New Scholars...

...There are few times in life when someone gives you the chance to change a life, or two...or thirty-six. However, that is exactly what the sisters at the Carmel Convent School have done for us. I was not expecting any more seats to open up at the Carmel Convent School until next April. However, I was wrong! Very early on Sunday morning, Sister Pushpa called to inform me that applications for admission to a new class at the Carmel Convent School kindergarten are now open and that she and the other sisters have reserved 15 additional seats specifically for Squalor to Scholar.

Just like the admission season last spring, the sisters are leaving the decisions of whom to enroll entirely up to us. We have been given two weeks to make our selections.

As you can imagine, this is an enormous responsibility. From 8,000 miles away, I have been put in charge of finding 15 of the highest potential three-and-a-half-year-old-girls from the Patel Nagar slum to admit to the Carmel Convent School. These 15 students will join the 21 who began last spring, bringing the total to 36 by the end of October.

I have informed Mamta and a new volunteer named Brenna Masterton, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, of the tremendous opportunities and responsibilities that await us. They have enthusiastically agreed to be the boots on the ground leading this selection process for the next two weeks. This was my first time speaking with Brenna and, as I explained the situation, I could tell that she was beginning to cry. Brenna has spent considerable time in the slums with the children and understands their plight first-hand. She was crying tears of joy to be able to participate in this important and transformative selection process.

Like the 21 students who were selected before them, 15 young girls in the Patel Nagar slum will soon receive educational possibilities beyond their wildest dreams. We don't yet know who they are, and neither do they. However, their lives and ours are about to change drastically over the coming weeks. The children we select will be taken from paths of poverty and illiteracy and placed on a path toward becoming doctors, engineers, or professionals in whatever fields they choose to pursue.

Numerous sponsors have been on the waiting list to sponsor a child for this class. Those individuals will receive notification about their new students soon and will have the opportunity to follow them for at least the next 14 years. If you are among this group, I thank you for your patience. Imagine having conversations with these students when they grow older and are fluent in English. What will they say? Where will they go? What will they do? I hope you're as excited as I am to find out!

If you are interested in sponsoring a child within this new class, now is your chance! All it takes is a few clicks below to redirect an entire family's future for generations to come.

Many thanks to Brenna and Mamta for your tireless work. I know you are both dedicating every waking moment to making sure these decisions are fair and justified. Having been in your shoes before, I know how hard it is to determine the fate of a human life with a single difficult decision. God bless you and keep your heads up high.

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Kajal...

...On behalf of seven-year-old Kajal Kumari, I would like to now thank Sarah Watson of Paradise Valley, Arizona and Dane Vrabac of Kansas City, Kansas for their thoughtful generosity. Because of Sarah and Dane, Kajal has everything she needs to not just enter into but thrive at the Carmel Convent School for the next year.

Sarah and Dane, ages 25 and 26 respectively, know a little bit about the power of education. Sarah, a friend and classmate of mine from Phoenix Country Day School, went on to study Psychology at Yale University and is currently earning her Juris Doctor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Dane attended my other alma matter, Washington University in St. Louis, and went on to graduate school in Applied Mathematics and Statistics at Georgetown University. Understanding the enormous value of education, Sarah and Dane have selflessly passed on their knowledge and resources to this deserving young girl.

--Kajal on her first day of school...ever--

Kajal, age seven, is the youngest of five daughters and one son. Although her parents Lalita and Tuntun claim they have always wanted to send their children to a government school, that goal does not seem to have been achieved. Severely limited finances, absence of initiative, and lack of knowledge about local opportunities severely constrain the educations of many children here. For instance, Savita, Kajal's 10-year-old sister, is still a student in our slum school. Pinki, Kajal's 15-year-old sister, attends our vocational courses to learn sewing but is otherwise unskilled and illiterate.

--Lalita, Kajal, and Tuntun--

--Kajal holding tightly her new uniform and backpack--

March 4, the day Sarah and Dane made their donation, was also the day that Pinki, Kajal's sister, was married in the slum. I felt proud to be invited to such an important milestone in their family's life. However, although I had expected a simple wedding, I had expected it to be more celebratory than it seemed. I must put this observation in perspective, however, by pointing out that we were not able to stay for the entire event. For fears about safety, we returned home from the slum before dark, long before the main festivities geared up. From the early ceremonies that we did participate in, I found the mood was strikingly routine and austere.

I can imagine why Pinki did not have a big smile on her face. To be young, poor, uneducated, uncertain about the future, and exported to another slum with a man whom she knows little about but will spend the rest of her life with must wreak havoc on her emotions.

--Savita's bare feet, with those of many other girls and women, were painted like this--

--Pinki with her new husband one day after the wedding--

Pinki's new husband lives in another slum upstream of ours, in Sector 3. Pinki will soon move there permanently, where she will likely live for much if not all of her life. I would not also be surprised if she is already a mother by this time next year.

--Kajal holding a toothbrush donated by my dentist from Scottsdale, Dr. James Stowitts--

Six weeks ago, Kajal suffered from the same absence of opportunity as her sisters. Were it not for the Squalor to Scholar Program and donations like those from Sarah and Dane, Kajal would likely follow in the footsteps of her sister, Pinki. This not to say that there is anything wrong with being illiterate, poor, living in a slum, and serving as a housewife for one's entire life. This is exactly how most of the women live here and provide vital and loyal care to their children and husbands. However, I believe such a lifestyle should not be Kajal's only choice.

Thanks to Sarah Watson and Dane Vrabac, living her entire life in a slum will not be Kajal's only option. I see Kajal improving rapidly every day. On behalf of Kajal, Savita, Pinki, Lalita, Tuntun, and the rest of their massive family, thank you Sarah and Dane for sharing what you know is the most powerful tool for progress, knowledge.

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Sugarcane...

...After spending several hours with Manish at the hospital for his first visit, I was exhausted. We took a tuk-tuk back to the slum, from which I began to walk home. As I passed by the Carmel Convent School, the church's driver, Ram Singh, was pulling out of the main gate with Sisters Asha and Sweta in the back seat. They stopped and summoned me to get in. I found out that we were going to look at land that other sisters had purchased in hopes of one day building a new school.

Thirty minutes later, we were in the rural villages and farms east of Faridabad. We passed two of the hospitals where I had worked in January as we continued east for another 30 minutes.

As the sun dropped low into the horizon, we finally arrived at our destination. Although I thought the location was a bit unusual for a school, it certainly made for scenic fields of wheat and potatoes.

I then discovered we were on a business trip. Multiple gentlemen came to sign contracts and discuss agriculture.

--The Carmel Convent School's driver, Ram Singh--

Since I mentioned during the drive that I had never eaten sugarcane straight from the stalk, the sisters sent one of the farmers' sons to chop us down some fresh sugarcane from a neighboring field. Much to my surprise, India is the world's second largest producer of sugarcane (after Brazil), the source of 80% of world sugar production.

Everyone gnawed with their molars to peel away the stiff bark. To everyone's amusement, I pulled out a pocketknife from pocket number 6 to accomplish the same task in half the time with a tenth of the trouble. I was shocked at how much liquid sugar there actually was in the stalk. Needless to say, it was delicious.

Here I was, in the middle of a wheat field in rural India, eating a stalk of sugarcane with two Carmelite nuns and their business partners. An hour and a half earlier, I had been in an urban slum playing with kids who all know me by name. Two hours earlier, I had been with the chief radiologist of a large private hospital conducting an MRI on 18-month-old Manish to determine whether he has a proliferating hemangioma or venous malformation covering half of his face. Now that's a full day!

--Villagers carrying crops and goods to town--

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International Women's Day...

...International Women's Day fell on March 8, the same day as Holi. Therefore, on Tuesday, the sisters hosted a celebration of their own. Three of the "best" moms from every class at the Carmel Convent School attended the event as well as the mothers of nearly all of our students. Instructed to wear red sarees and "look beautiful," the moms of our students looked particularly spectacular. --Students resting after their performance--

--Gudiya (Kashak and Versha's mother) and Ranju (Ajeet's mother)--

Everyone gathered in front of the stage where I spoke a few weeks ago. Prayers were read, songs were sung, and dances were performed. Much to my satisfaction, I have now fully realized that the sisters do not pursue anything with mediocrity. The schedule of events, temporary structures, performances, and food were all perfect, as usual.

--Lighting the ceremonial candles--

These boys were hilarious. Their confidence and energy were sky high as they danced to a popular Bollywood soundtrack called Desi Boys and pretended to be real ladies' men.

Fortunately, our musically talented volunteer Natalie Wills had recently bought a guitar. She sang a beautiful song that she herself had written.

Madhu even came with her mother, Rita, and youngest brother.

--Volunteers Natalie Wills and Heather Barnes with Madhu and staff from the Carmel Convent School--

After the celebration, everyone was welcomed to a massive buffet-style feast. I watched with huge smiles as Madhu and our moms enjoyed what was likely one of the best meals they have ever eaten.

--Sisters Pushpa and Sweta cooking me lunch on Sunday--

I would be remiss if I did not mention the sisters on International Women's Day. Since they discovered what I came for, they have treated me like family. They have said themselves that they consider me as a son. After church on Sunday, they had me stay for breakfast...and then lunch.

They weren't just any meals, either. Since they know I have not had eggs or pasta in months, they cooked both specially for me. Both were, perhaps even literally, ambrosia.

When my plane landed in India three and half months ago, one of the last things I would have expected is is to be taken in by an entire convent. I will be forever grateful for their generosity and care, but especially for the opportunities they are creating for "our children."

However, no amount of motherly affection will ever be able to top the care and love with which my own mother has raised me. I will never forget where home is Mom. It's where you are. Without the compassion and love that you have shown and taught me, I would not be here now doing what I am doing. Nothing can replace great parenting. Luckily for me, you and Dad are the best.

I often look back at these two photos. They were taken on my birthday, the day I left home. They don't just remind me that I am lucky, they remind me that I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. Thank you Mom and Dad. I love you and I'll be home in six weeks.

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