More Children, Why Now?

Yesterday we brought home another little girl.  Sanjana is from Aunty’s, is 6+years old, weighs  10 kg,  has limited use of her legs, and wants to be held all the time.  December 24 we brought home K.  This morning she pointed at Sanjana, and said, “She is getting love.”  I’m not sure she was entirely happy about that, nor was Ganga, who was beside me instead of in my arms.  So I explained to Ganga that this is life, and that even Victoria, my granddaughter, will one day have to share her mother.

But why now?  First of course is that these children are/were not getting care.  I just can’t walk away.  There are also changes here that make it possible for me to say yes.  I am not so alone.  Dr. Purba Rudra has joined us as our Educational Director.  I’ve known her for years as she was getting her Ph.D. at Rutgers University and was part of Asha for Education in the US, as I was.    She has come back to Kolkata.  She is teaching full time to the girls on our academic track, so  I don’t worry about them all day.  The other addition is Maggie Redden as Communications Director.  She is originally from India, adopted to the US as a two year old, and now back for a year to help and be part of our household.  Their presence and support make it possible to do so much more, particularly outreach.  I think we are a good team.

Some of these orphans are “business orphans.”  They were taken in by adoption homes, and then no one would take them, they were essentially discarded.  So they were given up first by their families, then by the Agency, and then by the government, which does not provide for their care.  There is no place for them to go.  I’ve tried.

The other change is a fundamental one, namely deciding that some of the girls will not go on in school, but will take care of the little ones and develop skills in assisting the special educators.  For each of them, for different reasons, learning was difficult, and being in a school setting was also difficult.  Especially for kids with their backgrounds, being home is all they want.  I figure they spent enough years fighting the big outside world.  So when Aunty told me once again about Sanjana crying in the night to be held, I thought, “I have lots of girls to hold her.”

I studied at Yad Vashem some years ago.  I wanted to know more about the Holocaust, as I was writing and teaching in medical ethics, a subject  that invariably includes the history of medical experimentation, the value of human lives, and which lives have value.  What is a life worth living. The beginnings of the Holocaust involved the extermination of the “feeble minded” and the “handicapped” who were said to have lives not worth living.  Families sent their children to places they thought would give care, and months later would receive notices of death.  So I thought about these children, really at the end of the line, in a situation where even in a hospital they would continue to starve, where the government authority charged with their protection was saying it was helpless to do anything.  And then it was just a matter of saying that these children deserve to live as much as any of us does.  At stake was protection of the most vulnerable rather than slow death by neglect of the most vulnerable, and I decided I couldn’t let that happen.  I’m a mother; I’m a doctor; I’m in a position to do something.

I have done very little fund raising since starting Shishur Sevay.  Most of this has been done on my savings, and the sale of whatever I owned in the US.  And it seemed very strange to ask for money to raise children for whom I chose to be responsible.  That was fine as long as we stayed within the small number of children.  And it was fine because much of this was an experiment in how to run such a home, how to raise these children.  I preferred to experiment with my own money, not with someone else’s.  But we are no longer an experiment.  I feel incredibly successful in creating this home where the children really are family to each other, and where the values they express reflect our hopes and dreams for them.

Today I asked one of the girls to write about what she wanted to be doing in five years, how she wanted her life to be.  I asked because she is troubled and sometimes is also TROUBLE!  She wrote that she wanted to be studying and she wanted to find her sister to take care of her and her other sisters (at Shishur Sevay) and if her sister was married and had a child she wanted to be sure that her sister’s child studied.   These are their values and we cannot claim credit for their values but we can take credit for not killing those desires, for providing role models of caring and commitment.  Not one of the girls has ever talked of wanting “things” when they grow up.

To go the next step in our development, to take more children, to do more outreach will require greater effort at fund raising.  It’s beyond my often knee-jerk reaction of  “I can do it myself.”   With or without funds, our children will not starve because we won’t let them.  But we will need to move.  My daughter Heather and her husband Andrei have started a Friends of Shishur Sevay in the US and soon we expect to be able to collect funds that are tax deductible.  The pieces are coming together.  We are positioned to grow.

Right now we are 14 children and me living in 1500 sq ft.  The main room where classes go on for the children with disabilities, where office work goes on, where the TV is, where laundry is sorted, is also the room where we all sleep at night, rolling out mats and blankets and pillows.  We eat in shifts because our dining room is too small for all of us.  Our entire plot of land is 2100 sq. ft.  We need room for rehab, for exercise, for office space, for a superintendent to stay eventually.  As I look at the future and who will run this place one day, I’m guessing they will want their own room, bed, cabinets, maybe even their own bathroom.  I’m very happy living this way, but to do the work we want to do, to have the influence we want to have, we must expand.  We also need a safer and better neighborhood.  No one wants to live where the smell of human excrement comes in the dining room window.  I walk the lane coming here and I’m horrified because of the smell and I wonder that visitors really think.  And those of you who have followed our journey know the issues of safety we have faced.

Where are we putting the new children?  That is simple too.  Years ago we got long bolster pillows to put between the kids on the mats for their optional use.  We sleep among pillows and it seems fine.  So, I’m just taking away the pillows and sticking kids there in between the others.  It’s really not quite like that but that is the atmosphere.  How do you say no when there is still space on the floor and food in the pantry, and you are sitting in Kolkata, not an ocean away and all you have to do is to say “Yes.”  So that’s how we are 14, with a few more on the way.  We are blessed.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sue Gambill-Read
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 23:41:53

    I am so happy for the children! Please consider creating sponsorships (monthly support). I would love to sponsor a child, especially if I knew the money would actually GO to that child and her sisters! People like to see individuals benefit from their care and monthly donations rewarded with occasional photos and letters could go a long way.


  2. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 23:48:06

    Hi Sue, I WILL be doing that. I want their lives to be visible, their pasts, their futures. I just need to get to it all…. You will laugh, but a lot of my time is spent checking homework!


  3. Sue Gambill-Read
    Feb 05, 2012 @ 23:56:50

    I know how time consuming homework can be. I am so glad you have great helpers now. OMG just look at Sanjana’s eyes.


  4. arundebnath
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 00:57:48

    Michelle, you know my “feeling” for Shishur Sevay and the girls’ Mother and I’m just happy that you’ve finally decided to set on motion a fund raising campaign for the girls. I can assure you many people world over would, like me, would feel to privileged to be able to ‘adopt’ a girl at SS. Surely, some additional funds from outside your own bank would give a better chance for the girls in their lives.

    May I ask your official permission to publish some of your blog articles on to my website which I have set up with the help of my medical [doctor] friend. Also can I provide a Link of your blog to my friends in the UK and elsewhere. I feel, and this is only my personal feeling, that other people should have the privilege of knowing what the Mother does at the SS in a place like Kolkata and in a country like India!

    Love from Arun on this brilliant-white snow-covered day in London.


  5. Lori
    Feb 06, 2012 @ 02:44:09

    I have been following your story for quite sometime. I am so very happy and proud that u took these children in. We are adopting a child from Orissa with a special need. I love what you are doing. I would love to visit sometime.


    • Dr. Michelle Harrison
      Feb 18, 2012 @ 21:31:14

      Lori, Sorry for delay in approval. I thought I’d done it earlier. I’d love for you to visit any time. Are you in India?


      • Arun Debnath
        Feb 19, 2012 @ 17:39:12

        You’ll love it and believe it when you see the it – the real thing !!
        I was fortunate enough to visit, what I call a temple [being a born Hindu].

        Best wishes.

  6. Holly Stocking
    Feb 08, 2012 @ 02:52:52

    I love the intention behind your work.

    Check out Kickstarter, on the Internet, for some of your fundraising needs.


  7. arundebnath
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 03:18:11

    Sue and Holly, I’ve seen myself what and most importantly the Mother[Michelle arrison] does what she does in a place like Kolkata in a mostly-corrupt country like India [I was brought up in Kolkata] !! She may be a obstinate Mother but she needs as much help as she could get – from people like you and me. Come on Michelle, please let us help you help the girls at SS.


  8. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 21:43:59

    Hi Everyone, I so much appreciate your support. I’d also appreciate your financial support especially as we enter into this outreach. Basically, the easiest way is to send a check to Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, 17/2/7 Sahapur Main Road, Kolkata 700038. House phone: (033)2498-1120. For Indian donations we have 80G tax exemption. For the US, we do not yet have tax exemption status for Friends of Shishur Sevay, which my daughter and son-in-law have created. For UK, we don’t have any tax exemptions for donations.
    Arun, and others, please feel free to use my writing, just ask for attribution. I write to be read. I love getting help. I’m not opposed, just very very busy. There is also a way to get funds transferred directly. I have to check it out at the bank. You can write to me at for info on bank transfer.
    thanks everyone for caring. It’s wonderful to be able to reach out even further.


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February 2012
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