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…..

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Doved4u
    Nov 29, 2010 @ 11:05:05

    How can someone donate money and/or materials to Shishur Sevay?


  2. joycegodwingrubbs2
    Oct 15, 2015 @ 17:58:09

    Reblogged this on Joycegodwingrubbs2's Blog and commented:
    Over my many adult years being involved in non-profits across the world, I have to say that Shirsha Sevay sets the standard in challenges (disabled children) and the standard in “normalcy of home life.” Dr. Michelle Harrison lives the philosophy of creating a home and providing for the children as though they are hers. This guest reblog is to show you a bit of what I am speaking of. It doesn’t tough on the wheelchairs, therapies, trips, clothing and various other ways the children are blessed. Enjoy.


  3. joycegodwingrubbs2
    Oct 15, 2015 @ 17:59:17

    I reblogged this on my WordPress and also Tweeted it although it does not seem to have registered.


  4. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Oct 15, 2015 @ 20:04:14

    Joyce, I love that your always “get it.” Just this weekend I was teased about how well I feed the kids, teased by someone who was carrying his MacAir. Honestly, our food is simple, but healthy. It’s somehow the idea! Why does anyone care? I’m disturbing the natural order here. And I’m happy about it. thanks for your support.


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November 2010
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