A month with the children of Andimadam is a month in paradise.
By Koen Van Rompay
Davis Enterprise, Sunday March 7, 2010, page C5)
“Yes, I made it!” flashes through my mind as I step into the Chennai airport in India. It has taken more than 30 hours after having left Davis to arrive here and as I carefully uncramp my legs from too many hours in the narrow airplane seat, I do a mental victory dance.
After passing the customs and luggage area, I push my heavy luggage cart to the exit and am glad to see in the distance my friend Mr. Selvam, a social worker, who has been patiently waiting to take me to the hotel. Once we get there, I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep immediately.
The next day, Dec. 18, 2009, my heart started pumping faster when -- after driving for five hours -- we finally approach the READ guest house in the remote rural village of Andimadam, in southern India. This is the headquarters of the grassroots organization READ that was started by Mr. Selvam.
For the 11th year in a row, I’m spending my holidays here. Numerous Davis residents, including many I-House members, have supported READ’s programs through Sahaya International (www.sahaya.org), the non-profit organization that I was inspired to start with my friends a decade ago, after I first met Mr. Selvam. We met at an AIDS conference in Chennai.
Each year I witness poverty and hardship in Andimadam. Most people live in small huts with very few belongings and few people have proper nutrition. Many huts are poorly constructed of clay walls and thatched-leaf roofs, which sometimes collapse when soaked by the monsoon rains. Diseases that can be prevented or treated rather easily are prevalent and claim many lives prematurely. Most people, not having a bathroom or toilet, have to wash themselves in dirty lakes. The shores are used for open defecation. Many children have lost their parents due to diseases such as HIV. And many kids and youth have dropped out of school.
It is easy to get discouraged in the face of poverty and injustice, and use that as an excuse for inaction. However, for some reason I reacted a little differently. As soon as I saw that a real difference could be made with relatively little money, I took advantage of this unique opportunity to make a difference. I feel blessed being a link between people in California and the people in Andimadam. I feel that over the course of the past decade as I have helped link people who want to help with people who need help, I’ve discovered what life is all about. I know that one person, two people and three people can make a big difference in the lives of others. I feel very alive and hopeful here.
As soon as I arrived at the guest house, I was greeted by the two cooks and Maxie, the mongrel dog that was rescued as a puppy by Elisabeth Sherwin, I-House executive director, during her visit in January 2006. Maxie is looking well-fed – unusual for an Indian street dog – so I know the cooks have been taking good care of her.
After quickly dropping my luggage in my room, I climbed the stairs to the roof of the guest house, and looked over to the neighboring Jawahar Matriculation School building. Thanks to our fundraising efforts, construction on the new school was completed a few months earlier. Seeing the new building and hearing the hidden children’s voices chanting their lessons gave me a wonderful feeling.
Things got even better when, a short while later, the school servant struck a hammer onto a metal bar signaling the end of the school day and immediately more than 120 shouting and smiling kids in school uniforms carrying cute backpacks, ran out of the classrooms to jump into the school bus, or climb on the back of their parent’s bicycles, or start walking home, happy that the weekend had started. As soon as they see me, they start smiling and waving.
Later that evening, some of the other youths, including some of my foster-kids who consider me their father and were eagerly awaiting my arrival date, got out of school. They started coming to the guest house one by one, and many hugs and high-fives were exchanged. I noticed that several of the boys, who I had considered children, had suddenly grown over the past year. They are turning into young adults. As their knowledge of English improves each year, we manage to communicate the main things that have been happening in our lives. These foster-kids are among the 180 needy children who either through sponsor-parents or through the proceeds of our annual Hope Walks fundraiser in Davis are now able to have enough a childhood with enough food to eat and clothes to wear. They are going to school and are becoming adults.
When I am there, I learn not to take anything for granted. I try to live in the present and appreciate the joy in simple things that we tend to take for granted. On many days, I wake up to the sound of drums that indicate somebody in the village has died. At the same time, I hear the sound of abundant birds singing and hear the farm animals that roam around the guest house neighborhood.
Many evenings, we use the playground to play soccer with the local youth, who are happy to have access to a real soccer ball. Every few days, we take some of the kids to town for an ice cream -- this is a rare treat. The smiles on their faces as they discover a new flavor allows me to re-experience the innocence of childhood.
While my month in India was filled with memorable moments, some of the most touching ones I remember are: meeting several HIV-infected children who would otherwise be very ill or even dead had we not provided access to medical care and food. One of them is a 12-year-old girl, Santhiya, whom I’ve known for about five years. She wrote me such a touching letter last year (see www.sahaya.org/kids-stories.html) that this time, I decided to visit her and her family at home. As we both laughed and had tears of joy, she told me that she hoped to become a medical doctor. I am confident that she will pay it forward – that she will treasure the life re-given to her by her sponsors in Davis, and that she will help many more children.
A few days later, we take more than 120 orphans on a bus trip to the beach. This is the first trip to the ocean for many of them. As we leave the bus and walk toward the ocean, Santhiya grabs my hand tightly, and with confidence looks me straight in the eyes as if I am the father she never had. While we jump in the waves of the Bay of Bengal, I know this young lady has a big future ahead of her, and feel blessed our life journeys have crossed.
That same evening, when we all travel back to our village, I’m sitting on the backseat of the bus, surrounded on both sides by orphans who tell me how happy they are. When I see they’re getting sleepy from all the fun they had, I open my arms. As I sit there like a mother bird with her wings outspread, I know I will always remember this precious moment.