Why SHOULD Orphans be Poor?

"Well, none of our donors are going to pay this much to feed orphans! They won't pay for orphans to eat what a wealthy child would eat!" 

Sitting and talking with us was a man connected with several funding groups, in India and abroad.  I was not surprised by his words.  I have heard this many times in various forms.  The message always seems to be the same, 'It's ok to "uplift," but not TOO far."  This man understood that I did not agree with him, but I didn't get to give my reasons, as the discussion moved on, or rather he moved the discussion.

To date we have been fortunate to cover most of our expenses without donor restriction or influence.  This may always be the case, but the issue of what and how we spend must be explained.    When we apply for grants, we submit our general overall budget, as well as what we are requesting.  The donor usually considers the latter in the context of the former.

I faced the problem initially with staff, who believed that Indian children would become sick if they ate what I was trying to give them.  At some point I reminded them I was a doctor, AND that I had raised an Indian child, and that I had friends who had raised Indian children.  I told them that the reason they all wished their children could go to the US is to they could eat this food.  What are we talking about? 

Milk — usually three glasses a day, or equivalent  –  usually one serving is home-made yogurt.

Vegetables — two cups per day

Protein — two servings a day, maybe egg for breakfast and fish at lunch.  The fish we buy is a solid fish something like flounder, called Catla, and another called Ruee.

Fruit — one to two fruits a day.  Fruit is very expensive.  The children with disabilities get 6 oz day of fresh squeezed orange juice.  They also get about half a banana with mid-morning snack.  The big girls usually get a banana, and then some other fruit depending on what is in season.  At lunch and dinner they love to eat small green lemons, which look like limes, but are called lemon here.  They love green chilli peppers.  These are all healthy.  The girls care less about sweets, chocolates… preferring fruits. 

Rice and dal are staples here.  We have rice at lunch, and then chapatis (flat bread) at night, with dal and other foods.  Our weekly schedule is for fish three times a week, chicken once a week; curried egg twice a week (at lunch), and nutrela (a soy product no one likes except me) for one lunch a week.  It's the "MOTHER" think, "You will eat this because it is good for you!"  At least I only do that once a week. 

Breakfasts are varied, but eggs are given about 3 days a week.  The girls love their own version of French Toast.  It's bread soaked in eggs and milk.  Once on the pan being fried in mustard oil, onions and hot chilli peppers are added.  That's not how it was when I introduced them to French Toast three years ago, but now they cook it themselves so they adapt it to their tastes.

Raisins and nuts?  Yes, sometimes I get them for the kids.  I get peanut butter also sometimes but it is hard to find.  I'm told we can make it easily.

The fish man comes three mornings a week; the fruit man comes daily.  Sometimes the coconut man comes Sunday mornings and we get 12 coconuts for the juice and the soft fruit we scoop out. 

Oh, I just remembered — the girls get cucumber, tomato, onion, and sometimes carrot at lunch also… just a small salad.

Could we do on less?  Of course we could, myself included.  But we dont have the financial necessity to do with less.  From the first day the girls came, the government people told me not to let them get used to shampoo.  Of course they are used to these things.  What will happen if they grow up and can't afford these things?  They will cope, just as lots of Americans are learning to live on less.

The children with disabilities came extrememly undernourished.  Ganga and Bornali, each at about 4 years of age, weighed 8kg and 10kg respectively.  Yes, when a school principal came to visit three years ago she reported to others that I was feeding the children too much.  I was scolded, and told, "Indian children don't eat that much."  You see, I know it's not about the money but the emotional reality of these children getting "more than others."  It strikes a bad cord for some, like I am doing something terrible to the children.  I do understand I am upsetting the natural order of how people would choose to care for orphans.  I keep wondering, "Why do they care so much?"  I don't ask anyone else to pay for the food.

But, the shampoo is another important issue — cleanliness.  Shishur Sevay is VERY clean in comparison to other institutions.  I live here with the children. It's our home.  I want it clean.  I don't want to live in dirt and I don't want to raise my children in dirt.  But keeping a place clean costs money, especially here where anything left uncovered will have a film of dust within 12 hours.  It is a constant battle.  But cleaning costs money.

Starting with the children — keeping them clean.  This takes soap, toothpaste, shampoo, scrubbers, nail brushes, towels, and more towels.  Keeping their clothing requires laundry soap.  The girls wash their uniforms nightly, but it takes soap.  Keeping socks and blouses white takes a lot of work.  Most of the girls now have long hair.  This is unusual in institutions, mostly because of lice.  The cheapest thing is to just shave heads.  Then the girls LOOK like institutional kids.  In order to combat lice, we treat everyone, myself included once a week, usually Saturday night.  Then Sunday morning we change all linens.  With shaved heads we would need one bottle of medicine.  Now we use four bottles each week.


This picture was taken as we were waiting for them to take an admissions exam.  They walked into that school looking like children who were cared for, children who had aunties and a mother who cared for them.  It all costs money.  These girls showed the courage to walk into that school, older than the others.  Would it serve them to "look" like orphans?  Why?  Just because a family falls apart, falls victim to violence, dumps their kids or loses their kids…. why should this child be further deprived?  I totally understand why others won't support them to look like any other child, but they also pass judgement on our high level of care of the girls.

The clean house — this takes labor and supplies.  Either I clean (which I've been known to do in anger sometimes when it's not getting done) or I hire people.  Either we wash walls and floors with just water, spending labor moving the dirt from place to place, or we add soap and disinfectant to kill germs as much as we can.  We spend A LOT of money on soap and cleaning supplies!  Illness among our children is rare.  Diarrhea, so common here in Kolkata, is also rare among our children.  One girl went three years without a fever; we probably average one sick child every two months or so.  We provide uniforms to the staff and launder them daily.  This simply cannot be done within the usual assumed costs of running a home.  This is part of what I have learned… real costs and their relation to what level of care and sanitation we maintain. These are often considered "hidden costs" but they should not be hidden because they are essential for health, and for pride about one's self, and one's home, or one's workplace.  

We are fortunate that we have been able to provide this level of health, sanitation, and nutrition.  We will continue to do so.  But as we increasingly look to outside funds for long term sustainability, these expenditures will come under close scrutiny, and judgement.  This blog post is really my thinking out loud about these issues as we will have to defend our costs to potential donors.  I really welcome your comments and feedback. 

In afterthought:

 1 Jan_3234CrW

Well, then of course there ARE the birthday cakes… Twelve in a year.

And MY birthday…. which I celebrate with Rani as we know her real birthday and it is only five days from mine.


But the cake comes from my kids in the US, every birthday.

Let us eat cake…..

“Madam! The Girls are Nervous! You must meet with them in the next few days!!!”

The teacher was responding to my question as to whether she had marked and scored the practice examinations she had just given to the girls.  No she had not.  She had marked mistakes but had not scored the papers.  Why?  Because the girls are nervous.  She said I must meet with them because they are nervous. 

So, I summoned the girls.  I called out, "Boro Bacchas (Big girls), meeting, meeting…"  They came quickly and stood around nervously.  Some sat on the floor.  I said, "Auntie says you are nervous.  Is that true?"  They looked at me nervously and nodded.  "Well," I added, "This is normal!!!!!  Of course you are nervous.  Everyone taking exams is nervous.  Every girl taking an admission test is nervous.  I can't tell you not to be nervous.  It doesn't work.  But, I can tell you that nothing bad will happen if you don't do well."

We have talked and talked, and will continue to talk about their fears.  I told them I am so proud that they are even able to sit for these exams.  I reminded them of how far they had come, what they couldn't do when they arrived.  They liked that.  I told them they had courage to go on even being so much older and bigger than others in their classes.  And I reiterated that we would make the decision together, considering what each girl wanted… At present though there seems to be general agreement that they want to go to a school with transport.  They want to ride a bus each day.  I supported this.  I told them how they would meet children in the neighborhood by riding the bus, and then others at the school in their classes.  I pointed out that riding on a bus is a good time to talk to friends, or to sleep.  The sleep part appealed to a couple of them.

The girls believe me that I will not force anyone to go anywhere.  They also understand that I want them to go to a school where they will feel good, where they will have fun as well as learn.  And I said that sometimes it's good to go to a school where you can be a little bad once in a while.  I talked about what it would be like for me seeing them off, having them on their own all day, waiting for them to come home. 

It's really OK to be nervous. Sometimes it's totally appropriate.  But in this community such emotion evokes panic among teachers and other adults.  Our girls grew up mostly using avoidance as a response to nervous-making situations.  Here they have had to face so many challenges.  I'd be more worried if they were not nervous.  That would make me very nervous.

There are No Simple Days


Today is Children's Day.  We spent it in the country.  We went to visit a home for children with disabilities started by a friend here.  She has spent her life in the area of social services. The children are sent by the government, and the monthly allowance from the government barely covers the cost of food, much less anything else.  The government depends on these NGOs finding funds, mostly from foreign sources.  My friend must beg. Basically that's the government's solution.  And I have to interject my perspective, namely that India is not a poor country but it is a country of poor people.  In my ten years here the divide has become wider.

The home has just relocated to a new place.  We had been to visit the children in their previous home in the city.  I think of our girls as doing "community service" in spending time with the children there.  I am attached there, even though I promise everyone I won't get involved.  But the woman who started it is older than I am, and asked if I could take care of her children if she died.  What could I say?  So I said yes and now she tells me they are my children also. 

The Shishur Sevay mission is about our children.  My personal mission includes the children I can't take care of.  I want to know about them, what can be done for them, how to bring attention to their lives… We are a model here.  A model must be used, talked about, held up as a way to care for others. 


We made our visit a picnic, brought our own lunch, and then brought misty doy (sweet yogurt) for the children.  We came with all our children and the staff.  One of our childcare workers broke down in tears, cried on my shoulders, when she saw a severely ill hydrocephalic baby.  Some of these children are not expected to live long.  Others look to me like children who would be gladly adopted by those (mostly) foreigners who reach out to adopt children with disabilities.  When adoption was easier, too many healthy children were labelled as having disabilities in order to get them adopted.  I used to read posts from new adoptive mothers in the US, "My son was deaf but when he got here he could hear."  I've heard the same about blindness and even about Downs.  I spoke once with a doctor in India who used to do the clearances and he stopped doing it because it was all so fraudulent.  But still, I wish these children could have a chance.  At the moment this home is a good one.  I don't know what will happen when the government forces them to "fill up."  It's complicated.

Two older girls are working there, both "given" to the home as workers from the same institution where my girls were.  One of my girls knew one of the girls there.  Those girls have not been educated, won't be educated.  Our girls understood the opportunity they have been given.  The message did not go unnoticed.  One of our girls talked with my friend about getting education for those girls.  It was a good discussion and she learned that vocational training will start.  My girls have their missions too.

I didn't know until last evening that we were going there, namely I hadn't decided.  We were supposed to be somewhere else, at a program for Children's Day at a museum.   Yesterday we were at the museum with the school where the girls go.  It was a hard day with an absence of adequate supervision, and just too many things that went wrong, including one child being left behind.  It was a day spent in a situation where I mostly didn't know what was going on because of language.  But I do know chaos.   The trip was supposed to be about education but it became more of a social outing for the adults while the children ran wild in the museum. It's complicated and I'm assuming there will be repercussions due to my disapproval.  It was a clash of cultures.  I understand now what happens when Shishur Sevay goes on trips.  Teachers just don't get involved.  I took it personally but it's the culture. 

Yesterday it was also clear how different my girls are.  They were well behaved throughout.  I was mostly disappointed as I had sponsored this trip so their classmates could see what they had seen.  I once took 150 girls to Fun City, from an orphanage, and they were well behaved.  This was an anomaly, anarchy and mob rule by 6-9 year olds.

I had to re-think today, what we would do.  I just wanted a good day with the kids, without tension, without expectations of anyone else.  This is the last break of any sort before exams.  And, then there is the problem of taking ANY trip to the "countryside."  At some point I expect to say more, but during an outing this summer we inadvertently became hostages to a rioting mob.  We barricaded ourselves in a room in the house we were visiting, while the mob smashed windows.  We were able to reach police by phone, and then the RAF or Rapid Action Force.  We were eventually released, one by one, like you see on TV in hostage situations.  With policemen holding rifles and shields across their chests, we had to wind through a mob of screaming men, calling us the most vulgar names they could think of. The press was there snapping pictures, but it was never reported.  It was complicated.  It is the reality of life here.  Mob rule pervades.  

I suppose you could call what happened to me yesterday PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  When the 6-9 year olds went screaming through the museum, out of control, all I could think of is what they will be like one day as rioting adults. Yes, I was reminded of that day. Writing this is therapy.  I have a better understanding of yesterday.

We visited Ramkrishnapur a few weeks ago.  We have all been there many times, as Bubbi used to live there.  The girls were nervous.  We talked about it.  They were fine.  But Ganga was not fine.  She kept trying to move her body in the direction of getting off the bus.  She was tense, went into more spasms than usual.  When we got there she started to cry until we guessed, and asked her if she was afraid.  We asked if she wanted to go home and she gave the biggest yes she can do.  So then I could tell her this was different, that the bad people were not here.  She didn't really relax until the ride home when she fell asleep on my lap.  Today she was fine.  We all talked about how the countryside reminded us of what happened.  In the worst of it I kept asking, "God, do you really think you can get us out of here?"

So today was for healing, for us as a traumatized family, helping others as a way of healing ourselves.  I wrote last about the girl who prayed for God to give her the power to heal her little sisters.  Today another girl said to me, "When I die I hope my eyes can go to that baby who can't see."


I'm holding a wonderful little girl here.  I was trying to see how much she and Ganga would communicate.  Ganga recognizes Cerebral Palsy in others. Ganga was happy to hold her hand, but in this case she preferred to pose for the camera.


As you see, this little girl makes eye contact, or tries to!  She is basically "with it."  I wish she could find a home.  I truly understand the problems with international adoption, but sitting here, holding her on my lap, watching her look at Ganga, I wish she had a family.  So does my friend, who loves her but still wishes for a family.

ORPHANS:  The Lost and Unclaimed Luggage of Humanity




Sometimes I am Humbled by My Girls.

Jumping right into the subject, this afternoon a teacher told me about an interraction she had the day before with one of the girls. "Aunty, every night I pray to God.  I don't want anything for myself.  I just pray that God would give me the power to touch my little sisters and then they could speak.  I pray to God for this every night."

The little sisters she speaks of are our four children with severe disabilities, including their inability to speak.  This is a child who had one of the most brutalized childhoods, who carries huge burdens of anger and need, but whose bottom line is that she wants most is to be able to give her sisters the ability to speak.


I am humbled.  This story came from a meeting I was having with a few of the teachers, and a few of the girls — about pencils, rulers, making correct margins… seemingly irrelevant to that story.  But at one point I said the the girls, "I KNOW where the pencils and rulers go.  They can all be found at Sabitri School!"  My girls are incapable of holding onto something if their friends must do without.  I've known from the beginning why these things disappeared, and that our girls were content to be scolded or even punished for "losing" things.  Today we joked openly about who the first girl was to start giving things away. 

Two days ago the girls were learning maps of India.  Our girls had blank maps from home that they had filled in.  I guess some of them took extra copies, because two girls gave them to friends who didn't have them.  Their friends cannot afford these things, or rather their families can't.  It's been a tension here because to staff and even teachers, the "losses" represent the girls not valuing the pencils, not "appreciating" their "good fortune" and "everything Mummy does for you."  Much as I try to counter these concepts with the teachers, they continue anyway.  The girls do know not to take it seriously.  They know that I do not think of them as lucky.  Sometimes I keep a box of pencils that I'll slip them if they ask. 

So that's how this story came out,  told by a teacher with us in the meeting.  She is a teacher and an "Auntie" and sensitive to what the girls need, and I think also humbled by my girls.  

The giving away is kept as a "secret."  I've thought about that.  But if we really put it out in the open then it would be I who was giving them the pencils to give away, not their giving away the pencils given to them.  And maybe it's a good skill to learn.  It happens spontaneously, from the heart.

November 2010
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