One of a Hundred Stories

Dr. Harrison in 2006

Dr. Harrison in 2006

I have a hundred stories for a hundred lives lived just within this lifetime.  In this story I am the Founder of Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, a model of inclusive non-institutional care for orphan girls previously housed in a government institution, having already been rejected for adoption.  Some have severe disabilities.  All carried wounds, some visible, some buried deep within their memories.

This story began when I was 17 years old. I’d written an essay for school about “The Meaning of Life” in which I saw myself acquiring the education and skills to one day care for orphans in need.  I had just seen some pictures of Korean orphans when a friend returned from the war.  Something clicked; something that has lasted a lifetime.

I adopted my Indian daughter from Kolkata in 1984 and raised her in the US. That is my connection to Kolkata, a very personal one.  Kolkata is family. I also have an older daughter to whom I gave birth.  I raised both them as a single parent.  All my stories have twists and turns to them, all 100 of them.

In 2000 I decided we should visit Kolkata.  I had just been through breast cancer and didn’t know how long I would live.  I had also wondered what happens to the children not adopted.  I knew India needed to provide for its orphan children and not just ship them abroad.  When we visited, and in subsequent visits I made, it was clear that mostly these children languished.  I also realized that there was little hope or expectation that anything really could be done for them.  The phrase I kept hearing was, ‘Nothing Can Be Done.”

I sold my house in 2006.  My younger daughter graduated from Barnard College and the older one from New York Law School and I left for India to start Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay.  The Society received its registration in June 2006.  We received our License in January 2007 and 12 girls were sent to us by Order of the WB Child Welfare Committee for care rehabilitation, four of them with profound disabilities.  I realized quickly that what the children needed most was a “mother” at home checking their homework at night.  I also learned how much they needed each other.  Bonds of genuine love grew between the abled and the children with severe disabilities.  I am mother to them but their strength and security is also in their connections to each other.

Shishur Sevay is not well-known.  I used to refer to us as a stealth orphanage.  Some of that was because I couldn’t stretch myself or our resources any farther, and also because it was hard for me to keep hearing people say it couldn’t be done.  In my relationship with the government I was simply a nice lady from America who liked children.  I shed the titles, roles, privileges of my earlier life.  I also endured death threats and all the other obstacles to creating something good in the face of a culture of mistrust and cynicism.  I needed time to learn about these children.  I understand why people felt nothing could be done, because some of these children are the first to tell you not to bother, that nothing can be done for them. I needed time, time to think, to learn, to try approaches that worked or sometimes didn’t work.  The children needed time, a lot of time, a lot of safety and protection, and a lot of support as they began to risk “trying.”

Ten years later Shishur Sevay is a shining example of what CAN be done.  The girls are thriving.  Two are studying for Class X Boards.  Shishur Sevay is a leader in inclusive living and inclusive education.  We have caught the attention of researchers at Vanderbilt University and have been studied as a unique case of inclusion of abled and differently abled.  We created our own school Ichche Dana Inclusive School, as after six years we gave up on outside schooling for our children.

We are leaders in advanced communication technology.  We were among the first in India to use the Tobii Eye Tracker for our girls with severe cerebral palsy.  They are able now to communicate with us using their eyes to control the computer.   For them and for us this is a profound life changing experience. Our girls are showing what can be done.  We are doing it IN India so that the girls have opportunity without the loss of their homeland, language, culture, heritage and religion.  In the first week I showed them the map of India and began to teach them that they are Indian, that this is their country, and that they belong.  Although I am American and a catalyst, we are strong because of our Indian staff of teachers, caretakers, accountants, administrators, and Board.  Each year we have passed our inspections and the government has thanked us for our efforts.  India gave me the gift of my daughter, who lives happily in the US.  But I am like so many fortunate Indians who want to give back for the gift I have received.

Our infrastructure is strong.  We have received the GuideStar Gold Seal 2017 for transparency of our records, a goal from the beginning.  Our records and processes are open.  We want people to understand what we do and how we do it.

What must be the next part of this story?

  1. Establish lifetime care, inclusive and inter-generational for those who cannot live independently
  2. Establish Shishur Sevay as a model of inclusive care in the spectrum of alternatives to institutionalisation
  3. Conduct training in inclusive living and education in the community and within the professional community
  4. Assist in the creation of other homes based on the model of Shishur Sevay but adapted to the character and needs of the community
  5. Inspire hope and dreams by evoking positive inclusive experiences with the differently abled
  6. Contribute to the building of an Inclusive India

For this, we are no longer stealth, and I am no longer quiet. I am here to tell you what I have learned in raising these abandoned and rejected children.  I will share what they have taught me, what I have learned.  And I will share my adventure of constant growth and emergence.  I’m back.

We are here. We are building an inclusive India

2017: We Are Here. We Are Building An Inclusive India

 

 

 

A Tsunami of Loss

“You are so lucky!!!!”

A Tsunami of Loss
A Tsunami of Loss

It’s a refrain heard almost universally by children who have been adopted, and also by my orphan children here at Shishur Sevay.  “You are so lucky.  You have such a good life!”  In truth the girls would easily give it all up to have their families back.

At some point in the lives of each of these children, every person they knew, every thing they knew, and every place they knew were all gone.  Strangers replaced relatives; institutions replaced homes or tents in the fields, or a corner of the rail station where they had lived.  I’ve watched them grieve. I’ve watched them not wanting to eat because they didn’t know if their siblings were hungry. Sometimes they were more like mothers who had lost their children than children who had lost their mothers.

At Shishur Sevay they soothe each other and thus also themselves.  The bonding and love between them is powerful. I’d had a dream one night during the time we were waiting for our license.

I was sitting near a pond.  It was a quiet place and I was feeling at peace.  Then the words came to me, “It’s a place where a girl can bring her little sister too.”  

One of the girls desperately missed her little sister and brother.  I promised her that if we ever found them, they could join us.  We can’t take boys, by law, but I said we would find a place for him right nearby and he would come and spend his days with us.  When we eventually found her family, we learned that the little boy had disappeared 2 years before.  Her sister was not there either, though the relatives tried to convince her that another child was her sister.   They kept plying her with answers to questions and our girl kept insisting this was not her sister.  These are not lucky children.

Yes, I understand what some people mean that they were lucky to find me, as I was lucky to find them, but it has an entirely different meaning to the orphan child, to the adoptee.  It is not a lucky thing to be born with this destiny ahead of you.  It’s not something we would wish on any of our children.  It’s a loss that they carry forever,  a hole in their pasts filled with questions that cannot be answered and longing that cannot be fulfilled.

It was and is a tsunami of loss.

Seven Years Together at Shishur Sevay

A few nights ago I dreamed I was trying to put our records together and that required that I establish records on the moon first, which I did, and then replicated here at Shishur Sevay. I kept asking, “How can I explain to people that I had to get this done on the moon first?” I’m working on a blog post about the past seven years here. Maybe that’s the answer as to why the dream.  I’m feeling a lot of pressure, trying to write about what it’s been like, and probably holding back a lot on what it’s really been like. I’ve been to the moon and back…. that’s what was required.  It was cold and lonely and void of vegetation.

Shishur Sevay today is thriving.  It’s glowing.  It’s what I’d dreamed it would be. So here is the blog I was working on before I went to sleep, before I understood I’d been to the moon and back.  The process of building Shishur Sevay has been brutal, but the product is beautiful.

Seven Years Together

A picture of all the girls of Shishur Sevay and Dr. Harrison on her birthday

My Girls of Shishur Sevay and Me

The first twelve girls came to Shishur Sevay in February 2007, so for me this time of year is always one of reflection.  They came with an array of abilities, disabilities, and medical conditions.  All came with scars, emotional and physical.   They all were socially and educationally deprived, and had led lives filled with violence and deprivation.  Then at some point, each had lost everyone and everything: parents, siblings, extended family, and community, and eventually were placed in a government institution.  These are the children I’d sought, the ones considered not adoptable in India or abroad. They had been rejected by adoption representatives before they were sent to me for “rehabilitation” by Order of the Child Welfare Committee.   With adolescence, three of the girls became too unmanageable, with behaviors that put us all at risk. My decision to return them to government care was very difficult, and taken after many attempts over the years at various treatments and therapies, but necessary if Shishur Sevay was to be the safe place it is.  I had not expected ever to have to do that.

This year we started an inclusive school, Ichche Dana Learning Center because educating the girls in outside schools “did not work.”  The girls are beginning to put their efforts back into learning.  There were several factors interfering.  One was their early deprivation that left them far behind their classmates, while they were also older than their classmates.   Science is now giving us information on the effects of this early deprivation.

http://ecceportal.in/index.php/news2/136-more-talking-longer-sentences-help-babies-brains

At school the girls were seen as “different” because of their origins, and they felt different. Teachers lowered expectations; some gave them false high grades because they “felt sorry” for them.  Others ignored them, or queried them about their origins and caste. The Indian system of rote memory left them too frightened to learn anything but the paragraphs they had to memorize and give back, an impossible task when you don’t have the foundations of language, any language.   Ideas of self-discipline, hard mental work, and delayed gratification were as foreign to them as I was..  If work was hard it scared them.   They lived in fear.  It was time to bring them back and start anew, which is what we are doing and so far it is working very well.

Girls taking notes at the botanical gardens.

Taking notes at the Botanical Gardens

doing a presentation of trees of botanical gardens

Presentation about the trees of Botanical Gardens

The girls did a presentation of their work to volunteers from Equal Health,a team of Australian educators who were with us  in January.

Ganga Presenting

Ganga Presenting

Ganga and Bornali both presented by use of the iPad and the recorded script.

This is inclusion.  Everyone is able to learn something and to contribute.  Some of the coursework has to separated by level of understanding and skills in reading and comprehension, but the ideas and subjects and methods of presentation can be done by all.  And our children with the most severe disabilities, even if they can’t join in, they still make wonderful and appreciative listeners.  Everyone has a role.

Our eventual plan is for the girls who are able, to enroll in the National Institute of  Open Schooling which will allow them to sit for Class 10 and 12 examinations. We will send to college those who are able.  We will look at job training for others.  Some of our older girls may need to stay with us.  I’ve promised marriage to those who want.  We talk about dowry because it’s integral to the world they live in.

This year though, I find myself thinking a lot about our girls with the most profound disabilities and looking at the therapies and methods that have and have not “worked.”  The children thrive on attention, especially one on one!  If I were in the US, I’d be thinking about finding teenagers to just play with them, floor play, songs, things I’m familiar with.  I haven’t found that here.  My experience (and I add the caveat that I can only speak for my involvement with families since 2000) is that teenagers do not “babysit” or work outside their families.   Play happens sometimes as “therapy” by professional therapists, but that means it’s a very limited and expensive resource. As for cognitive tasks, my little ones would rather be dancing.

She'd Rather be Dancing

She’d Rather be Dancing

One day I will tell the story of what it took to get here, but Shishur Sevay is a wonderful place now and that’s how the journey must be seen.

Today I Bathed in the Ganges

Tuni at Rest.

Tuni at Rest.

Today I bathed in the Ganges.  Tuni Harrison died on the 14th of August 2013.  She had heart surgery the day before, but her heart gave out.  Today, three days after her death, Bijoy and I went to the river, with a Priest, and gave rites to send her on her journey.  We offered clothes, food, milk, flowers, incense, and so many prayers.  And then we immersed ourselves in the river three times, and pushed water out into the river three times, and I cried because I want her journey to be wonderful while I also want her back in my arms.  I accept, but I am bereft.  Even as I send her off to be with the Gods, I also call for her to come back soon.  I’ll be looking for her.  I will always be looking for her.  When she came into my life I felt as if I’d always been looking for her.  When she died I felt that I’d lost someone I’d always known.

Souls sang to my heart,

The winds taking them afar,

My nestlings flourished.

Yes this is true.  My children, my nestlings, flourished.  And when they were grown, I went looking for where the winds had taken the others.  Tuni came home to me, and now she is gone… Like a little God, she came and filled our hearts, and the hearts of so many around the world, and then she left….. with the slightest smile on her sleeping face.

I am raw.  My life is raw.  I am immersed, as if in the Ganges.  Tuni came for a purpose, a light and a gift, but I think we are only at the beginning of her impact in our lives.

In the days ahead I will write and post pictures of the last seven days.  It was just a week ago that I took her for an evaluation and the doctors decided we could not wait for surgery as her blue spells were increasing, and medication was not helping.  Here at Shishur Sevay we arranged for an oxygen concentrator and bought a pulse oxymeter.  It was frightening when she would turn blue, and cry and then go limp…..

Today I bathed in the Ganges.

Coming out from the Ganges

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