Monday, June 9, 2014

"...And Everyone Should Try."

Think about poverty.

Picture a woman. She has no shoes and her clothes are torn and dirty. She carries a baby in her left arm. The baby wears no clothes. She extends her right arm out for passersby to give her spare rupees. She has no luck so she motions to her mouth and then to the baby's mouth to show the passersby she needs money to feed her baby. Further down the street two children, one boy and one girl maybe a year a part, are begging the same passersby for money. These children belong to the beggar woman. The woman has 9 children in total. No place to call home, except a makeshift shelter out in the slums of India - no running water, no electricity. Not even a blanket to wrap up in during the winter nights. The beggar woman was a child herself on the streets. Begging all her life. She never learned to read or write. She never learned a craft or way of living. When asked why she has so many children her tired eyes hold no hope as she replies simply that people give more money when there is a baby she needs to feed - no education and no critical thinking skills, mixed with the desperation poverty creates only allows this woman to think in the short term. Never mind she now has 9 mouths to feed next to her own. But the poverty is so much, all 9 mouths do not get bread each day. When she has baby 9, baby 8, who was being breastfed, stops getting milk. The baby stops eating. At 17 months the baby girl is shriveled up, back to her birth weight. She doesn't cry. She doesn't respond at all. In addition to her poor health, her mother sells her into a child marriage in exchange for a bottle of liquor - when she reaches puberty, if she survives, she's to be married to an adult man. The little girl does survive, but she doesn't have to live the life of a beggar on the streets, married as a child, having children of her own. This little girl is given a chance.

The founder of Tong-Len Hostel in Dharamsala had to pay the little girl's mother to bring her to the medical tent of the hostel to receive care, but the little girl was brought in every day and little by little life returned to the little 17 month old. Today the little girl, Sangita, is one of the beautiful faces of the children living at Tong-Len. Her small stature is the only clue to her undernourishment and neglect in her early months here on Earth. She's an animated five year old, with a smile that will melt your heart.

In fact, all the children at the Tong-Len Hostel will warm your heart and put a smile on your face. When we arrived on Sunday the children ran out of the dormitories to greet us. They all wanted to shake our hands and ask us what our names were. One of the first girls to greet me had her black hair in a low bun and wore light purple that looked beautiful next to her warm complexion.

"Hello, my name is Jutie. What is your name?"


"No, Jutie. What is your name."

"My name is Kayla. It's nice to meet you." Jutie smiled at me, and I smiled back.

"How old are you?" She gave a quizzical look. Jutie didn't understand. "What is your age?"

"No more English." She didn't know much English, but it didn't matter. Jutie took my hand and led me around the hostel. She showed me the girls' dormitory, the boys' dormitory, the school room, the kitchen, the little kids' dormitory, and the playground. When we got to the playground she led me to the swing, still holding my hand.

"Sit. Ma'am sit." She gestured to the empty red swing. I sat and she pushed me in the swing. After a moment, I asked if she wanted me to push her in the swing. I stood up and motioned to the swing. Jutie sat and let me push her in the swing for just a moment. Then she took me back into the little kids' dormitory. There another girl took my empty hand. Jutie told me to go with her. This little girl had short black hair and wore a brightly colored outfit of green and pink. Her pants were too long and she would stop every so many steps to pull her pants up where they slid under her feet in her blue flip flops. She took me upstairs in the dormitory. While we were walking up the stairs I asked her what her name was.
"Likshma. What is your name?"
"My name is Kayla. It's nice to meet you, Likshma."
Just like Jutie, Likshma led me around holding my hand. When we got upstairs she showed me her cubbie space. She pulled up a chair so she could reach it and pulled out a small bag with "MiMi" on it. For a second, I thought it was candy. It wasn't candy, but a snack of dried, ready to eat noodles. Likshma opened the bag, took some pieces out and ate them. Then she held the bag open for me to have some. I took some and ate them with a smile. Likshma then took a little packet out, climbed down from the chair, moved the chair to its original position and took me downstairs again. Jutie was waiting where we parted. Likshma offered some of what was in her packet to Jutie, but she told her no. Likshma then grabbed my left hand and put powder in it - it was yellow and I could smell the spice. She then poured some into her own hand and poured it in her mouth, demonstrating how I should eat it. That was a lot harder to eat and maintain a smile, but not impossible as I couldn't help but smile while in the company of these children. Likshma was a dare devil - she would jump multiple steps and climb over hand rails - the adrenaline rush fueling her airy laugh.

We again went to the playground and I started taking pictures. Jutie loves taking pictures. I let her take some with my phone. She also took a picture of me and Likshma on the swing. After a few minutes Jutie discovered that the phone has a camera on both sides and decided she needed to take a selfie with me! Likshma kept wanting to hold my water bottle. After the selfie with Jutie, Likshma had run off. Minutes later she returned with a juice bottle filled with water - she wanted a water bottle so she could be like me with my water bottle!

While on the playground, kids kept calling out to get their picture taken.

"Ma'am, just one picture?!" After I would take one, they would repeat their little line and change poses. Then they all wanted to see. Their desire for attention shining out like a beacon in the middle of night, signaling us to them to create a sense of home with additional love where their parents are not present. Jutie pulled back when a crowd gathered - I don't think she likes too many people in one space. During the little stretch of wondeful chaos with the commotion of the children, Likshma decided to braid my hair. She gave up before she was done, so another girl, Shoba, took her place. Shoba wore green and gold. Her black hair was in a low ponytail and her dark eyes popped as they were lined with thin black make-up. While taking pictures of the kids and letting Likshma/Shoba braid my hair, I made another friend - Sangita. I didn't learn her story on how she was before or how she came to Tong-Len until much later. The kids had scratches and cuts and some even had infected piercings, but there is medical care at the hostel. There is food at the hostel. There is safety at the hostel. There is education at the hostel. There is hope at the hostel. These kids come from poverty most people in developing countries can't even fathom; the hostel is giving them the chance to break this vicious cycle of generational poverty. By educating children across the world, we can give them hope.

The last part of our visit was spent in the school room. I sat with Sangita to my left holding my hand, and with Shoba and Jutie to my right. Some of the children performed dances for us. They were wonderful! They were having so much fun! Then it was our turn to join in. Sangita and Likshma wanted me to dance with them, so I did. It reminded me of playing "Just Dance" with two of my favorite kids back home. :)

When it was time to leave, I walked over to Jutie to tell her bye.

"You go now?"

"Yes, we're leaving now, but we'll be back."

I was expecting to part ways then, but she gave me a hug and took my hand and led me out of the school room and down to the gate at the entrance. She gave me another hug. Then an older boy was saying all of the names of the visitors - she walked over for him to learn my name too. Jutie walked me all the way to the car. I didn't want to tell her bye, but I get to see her again before we leave McLeod Ganj to return to Delhi. I can't wait to see her again. I can't wait to see Jutie, Likshma, Sangita and all the other kids again! These children have my heart. I fell in love with them with that first visit. I want to stay in touch with these children when I get back home to North Carolina. I want to see them learn and grow and become the amazing adults amazing children can become. I believe in the work of Tong-Len and I believe in these children.

The following day, Monday, we went to a slum in Dharamsala, the slum the children at the Tong-Len Hostel are from. We walked down the rocky path, passing makeshift houses as we went. Tarps, pieces of cloth, even trash was used to create the walls of the homes there. Every step we took our feet crunched on small rocks, broken glass, and small pieces of any and all cans, bottles, shoes, and anything you can think of. Children gathered all around us wanting to shake our hands and tell us hello. Most of the children walk barefoot. Most have clothes, but many only where one item - if they have a shirt, they have no pants. If they have pants, they have no shirt. Those with and without full outfits have tears in their clothes and the stains and wear and tear reveal these are the only clothes they have. The slum does have access to water now, thanks to the efforts of Tong-Len. The children also have access to schooling, again thanks to Tong-Len. We first stopped at the little tin building where the four-years-old and younger children have school. The teacher was making playdough that each table could play with. The teacher explained that there are over 40 children in the slums. Some, very few, but some, of the kids go to government school. When they get out at three they go to the tent schools in the slum. The rest of the children, and the majority, stay at the slum for school. There they are safe. They aren't exposed to the dangers of begging on the streets with their parents. Next we walked to the school tent for the next age group of children. We watched the children work. The children were erasing their work after completing it so the next child could use the workbook. While I stood there in the heat on the rocky, trash-covered ground peering in the school tent I fell in love again. One little boy in plaid was tickled with me smiling and making faces at him. We even played peek-a-boo. His smile was so sweet, and he had a sparkle in his eyes that could light up a night sky. He was happy - untouched by his poverty, his spirit shown bright behind his eyes revealing that his heart was light, open and ready for the world. Almost two hours passed before I even knew it. I could stay with these kids for hours; a part of my heart wants to stay forever. These children need me, but I can't stay here -however, that doesn't mean I have to leave the children. I can be a voice for them and raise awareness for not only Tong-Len and these children but for the importance of education and how we can help children around the world break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Some of the group members were talking and we want to have a school supplies drive for the children of the Tong-Len Hostel and the slum. Until our school supplies drive begins, I urge everyone to learn more about Tong-Len through their website and to strongly consider making a donation. Every penny is one step closer to helping a child stay safe, receive an education, and have a happy future.

This week in McLeod Ganj really has been an experience. Not only do I see how blessed I am and how I should remain thankful for what I have, but I also recognize the need to give back. My time here has lit a desire in my heart to find ways to stay with the children here and also help children back home. I hope that with sharing my experience, you too may feel the desire to give back. In the words of John F. Kennedy "One person can make a difference, and everyone should try."


  1. Thanks for a very impressive and moving blog!

  2. I've missed them. Hope that they are all doing well. ^_^