I was lucky enough to be born 53years ago to a family that was able to clothe, feed and provide me with shelter. Later came the education, opportunity to travel, freedom to think and speak and act independently. But, for now, I want to focus on how lucky I was to have the basics of life. Was it down to good fortune or just pure chance?
(Image: Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River)
I had the opportunity to visit Kolkata, the city of Joy between 31st January and 9th February with a view to visiting the three girls Simon and I sponsor through The Hope Foundation and some of the projects (crisis centre, girls’ & boys’ homes, hospital,4 crèches etc.) run by the team. Jhulan Ghose, who handles the volunteers was my first point of contact out here. Any volunteer really needs at least 6 weeks so this week for me was a taster session. Jhulan is a passionate Kolkatan lady; bright articulate and full of so much knowledge about the city and its history. She also only drinks Darjeeling tea and can be found with a supply of tea bags on trips abroad.
The HOPE Foundation, now 20 years old continues to help the street children of Kolkata and often their families too – no child should have to suffer or lose their childhood. The foundation has garnered the support of many especially the Irish community back home. Plaques all over the city illustrate the generosity of various individuals, families and organisations.
Over 5 days I visited several projects, most of which are described briefly below. All the children enjoyed having their photos taken as you can see. Please note that I cannot give location names for security/child protection reasons.
The hundreds and thousands that are born here on the streets of Kolkata (and some who come from farther afield) did not choose this life. But do you know what, they handle it will dignity and grace. They see it as their lot. The children have their eyes wide open and smiles that warm your heart. They are cheeky and friendly with their new aunty! Like children everywhere.
This is serving a slum community. We’re dropped off on a road and Jhulan darts into a narrow alley and weaves through to a doorway from where you can hear chatter. We walk in, shoes off and there is huge excitement from the little ones. We sit and watch, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you are at any normal creche; posters on the wall and the teaching methods. Jhulan tells me that training is provided regularly, and experience is shared by teachers from Ireland every year. The children are so well behaved and keen to show off their talents. My favourite was “heads, shoulders, knees & toes”.
The security is visible across the two homes I visited. In a city where children are seen as a commodity for traffickers this is critical. The homes look after different ages; younger ones and then the 13-18years olds. Their days are filled with school and extra-curricular activities. Fresh food is cooked on site for these growing girls. They are proud of their home.
(Images:Girls from one of the homes playing after school)
Boys crisis unit/home
Most of the boys at the crisis centre were rescued from the railway. When we visited they were keen to show us their dance, artwork and just play games. The boys were wonderfully open and happy.
Mother & Child Unit
No phones and photos allowed in this unit as this is a rescue centre. Some of the children are here with their mothers, but not all. It was a much quieter unit than the others. The mothers were all out for a routine X-ray that the foundation had organised. It was a calm place and I was taken by a teenage girl with autism who was here. She is an orphan and unfortunately her adoption fell through. With the support of the team she can now participate in more activities.
Out of town creche/classes
About 1 ½ hours outside of the centre we see the below hill. But it is not a natural hill, it is a rubbish pile around which a community has developed over several years. It is a source of income for the people. HOPE has both a creche and classes for the local children here. As you can see they are not shy! I can also verify that they all have strong lungs.
Samiran Malik has been here from 2008 when the hospital began helping the poor of Kolkata.
It’s inception and existence has been possible through many generous donors. They have an operating theatre, ICU and a specialist eye unit. There are 40 beds and it caters for children and adults. Volunteers often come and sit with patients. Samiran’s passion for the place was evident. He insisted on having the above photo as he keeps a record of every visitor.
Soma is the administrator and is the cowboy who walks into the slums and within a year of doing this job has built a relationship and earns the trust of the various sites they visit. There are 18 field visits during the week on a rotation. Soma rounds up and encourages anyone who may need medical support to simply come and talk to the doctors that are in the bigger ambulance. She seems to know everyone and their situation; I am in awe of her calmness and her ability to cajole people into taking the help they need. The homes are made from what we would consider waste and rubbish – cardboard, tarpaulin, carrier bags, old rags, sticks. I meet a mother and father who are so determined for their daughter to be educated – she is a sponsored child. I feel relaxed and confident beside Soma and am overwhelmed by the acceptance these people have of their situation. No moans or complaints. The kids have become overly excited and decide to race; mostly barefoot and along the main road beside their homes.
Run by the wonderful Renu Singh. She makes it look so easy. The cafe is a haven for HOPE volunteers but also a place for great eats for the local office workers. Tasty food at incredible prices. And cakes are yummy too! And whilst there I had the privilege of meeting Jenny Forrest. Part of the original team and Maureen Forrest’s sister.
To survive you need to earn money. To earn you need a skill. And here the young adults are taught in areas of food &catering; beauty; tailoring and computer skills. The HOPE team then helps them either to secure paid employment or set up by themselves.
Hope Kolkata Office
This is where we had the opportunity to meet our sponsored children. Seema was cheeky and had some spark to her personality. She stays in a protection unit. The two sisters Jyoti and Bhoomi were beautiful and shy and were accompanied by their father. They had lost their mother in January. They liked their gifts of a top each and some stationery. It’s a strange overwhelming situation but I for one was happy and somewhat quiet for me.
The people I met
– Jonny the driver — always smiling. You knew you were nearly at your destination because his seat belt would come off just around the corner.
– Gora – head of logistics. What Gora doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing.
– Geeta – The Director. She is part of the original set up team and works tirelessly to get more funds.
– Anne Marie who has now working with HOPE for 14 years. Calm and elegant. With the uniform of a white salwar and bright kurtis. She walks amongst the locals at ease. Softly spoken but strong.
In a city where 5star hotels and branded malls sit comfortably less than a few minutes away from abject poverty. By this I mean no electricity, no running water and where there is no imaginable future. The only escape is through education and in a country where this is a priority for all it means it is a million gazillion times harder for any child from the street. And this is where HOPE comes in. Not only is the mantra that no child should be hurt. They work with various NGOs and the police and other groups to arrive at the best outcome for every child. The teachers and staff at the various projects are dedicated and nurturing.
There are so many memorable moments from my trip; the above are just some of the highlights. Please visit the HOPE website and donate whatever you can. If you have the ability to sponsor a child please do let the team know. It costs just £20/month.
Thanks for reading.
(NB: I will be doing ‘The 10 Peak Challenge’ in the Lake District on June 8th and will be raising money for The Hope Foundation. I will be setting up a JustGiving page shortly.)