Monday, March 8, 2010

Landing in India

The India Experience (continued)

Writing this blog while we are away is an interesting personal experience. For someone like me who feels things at such a deep and intense level yet shares little and finds it difficult to communicate what I feel to those around me, it is like opening your every thought and reflection to others. My reaction to all of this is that it is as confronting as it is empowering. Whilst this blog is intended to be primarily a journal of our activities for our friends and family it is also an opportunity for me to open up a little and share my reflections as we go. I would expect and appreciate if this aspect gets a little too much for people that you will respectfully skip through those sections as required and focus on the things you like to read about. I hope however it also helps you to fill in a few of those gaps you may have about me, or us, and why I, or we, do the things that we do.

Before I start the day's blog I think it important that I start off with where I finished off last blog. I was retelling the story of being stuck in a carpark struggling to find the motivation to head back to work. I retold how I made three phone calls that would forever change my life, I called my life mentor Di, my uni professor Frank, and my wife and best friend Bec and as a result of these phone calls I was heading to India to co-facilitate a social work conference, visit an orphanage and try to find that thing that was missing from my life. A matter of weeks later I was on a plane flying to India, wondering what the heck I was doing, literally crying to myself on the plane and really very frightened about what fate was dealing up to me. If you believe in fate my life was about to receive a gift that would set in place a new direction and a new spirit that I had thought I had lost forever.(I have included for those of you who are interested the story of the Agape Grace Children's Home at the end of this blog). My second trip to India in July 2005 was an incredible opportunity to create some time and space for finding my sense of spirit. It included some wonderful time with Frank, a beautifully inspiring man who together we facilitated a social work conference in rural southern India for a large group of social work academics. We stayed in Chennai initially at the Dayal de lodge at $5US per night which was refreshing to strip back to the basics and create time and space for just me and my thoughts.

We travelled to the KV Kupham block outside of Vellore about 3.5 hours inland from Chennai. We arrived at RUHSA (remember this is where I went as a student) a couple of days before the conference. A few quick questions of our colleagues indicated that we had no enrolments, no facilities prepared and potentially no conference. Usually this would result in a minor heart attack and a desperate attempt to take control and make things happen but remember this is India. Frank and I headed off for coffee and a long walk into the local villages to visit old friends and see what would happen. Sure enough 2 days later we had the venue prepared, large canvass signs with the name of the conference, printed pads and pens with the same and a room full of participants ready for the conference from all of the major universities, only in India! For the most part we had a very successful conference right up until the time when Frank and I were asked to talk about our experience as professor and student at RUHSA. As Frank was introducing the program and giving an overview I felt this well of emotion come over me, quite unexpected and unmanageable. As Frank introduced me I had this awful feeling that all presenters are fearful of that I didn't think I could do it. I stood up and started talking when I had what my family now know as 'a little moment' and looked at Frank for help, nothing he could do and somehow found a way to calm myself and complete my talk. It was such a cleansing moment, all that fear, all that difficulty, all that helplessness associated with my placement all came out, and so did I. The best part of all was that after my very rocky initial student placement there had been another 70 students who had attended RUHSA for their placements (and that was up to 2005). After an amazingly powerful personal experience at the conference Frank and I then headed to the orphanage to meet a group of kids who would take my emerging spirit and give it a real sense of purpose.

The Story of Agape Grace Children's Home……

In 2005 whilst on a journey to find myself I found 50 Indian Children in desperate need of help. Quite by chance I was asked by a family friend if I could visit a children's home in India and see what if anything I could do to help. It so happened that in a country the size of India the children's home was very nearby to my travels and so I stopped in for a visit that would change my life forever. In the outer suburbs of Ambattur, (Ambattur is a major municipality in Thiruvallur district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. It is an industrial area north-west of Chennai), I walked into a half finished building with over 50 of the most beautiful children sitting cross legged on the floor awaiting my arrival. As anyone who has visited an orphanage like this before would know it is an absolute mix of raw and powerful emotions as you are hit on the one hand by the living conditions of the children and on the other by their absolute beauty, courage and resilience. As part of my welcome to the home I was the recipient of many traditional songs and dances, it was quite a production! The most impactful part of my visit though was to sit and listen to the children as they told their stories and shared with me how fortunate they felt to be cared for at the home. To sit there and listen as child after child stood up smiles brimming from ear to ear share their gratitude and thanks for all that they had been given. As a father of two at that stage and knowing all the love, support, possessions and comfort my children enjoyed back in Australia this was a moment that would forever change the way I viewed life and put very strongly into perspective what life was all about. After meeting with the children I was given the privilege of reading the childrens' stories. Shortly after arriving at the home all of the children are invited to share their story and this is recorded as a matter of record. Page after page revealed horrifying stories of experiences that no child should ever have to endure. Children are brought to the home by social workers or police mostly due to parental death, illness or poverty of their parents. Some are brought when parents are imprisoned. One poor child with a pronounced disability was left to die in a rubbish bin before being found and brought to the home. All at once though I could see why they now felt so lucky to have a life of relative comfort, love and care.

The childrens home was started by Premela and Augustine, a loving couple who at the time were working for World Vision. They initially took responsibility for a handful of children and little by little word spread and child after child found their way to their family home. The children were initially housed in the living room until it was impossible to fit them all in. Premela and Augustine share a strong Christian faith and this drove them to not only accept responsibility for the children but to invest their lives and savings into creating the Agape Grace Childrens Home. Soon enough the number s of children swelled and so did the cost and level of support required to feed, house and educate the children. They saved everything they had to buy a small parcel of land and build the Grace Agape Children's home. It was only a matter of time though before they were to outgrow their modest accommodation.

During my visit I was hosted through the partly renovated building which was designed to care for the growing number of children at the home. The renovations were being completed little by little as the family could only afford to do a little work at a time. At the time of my visit work had stalled and funds were not available to complete the building. This meant that all of the children, boys and girls were forced to sleep together in the one room, there was no place for sick children to sleep and no room for the carers. To see the size of the one room that all of the children slept in was almost unbelievable. Within the room each child had a small hole in the wall for their meager possessions which predominantly consisted of a few school materials and an item of clothing. There was only one bathroom and toilet block so once again created many difficulties for the children. (Note toilet block meant cold showers and a few holes in the ground for toilets)

At the time of my initial visit I was able to see the school created by Premela and Augustine on the site to provide the children with an education and positive schooling experience. I was informed that the children had attended local schools however were subjected to ridicule and abuse by the other children. In response Premela created a school, employed teachers and provided the children with their education. All children at the home are immunised, clothed, fed and provided with an opportunity to attend school. The children are not adopted out as Premela and Augustine see it is their responsibility to provide a family environment for the children and a safe home for the children to grow up and leave when it is time for them. When the children arrive at the home they become part of the extended family.

The Grace Agape home was partly funded at the time through a generous benefactor from the US and also relied upon generous locals who provided food, books, clothing and money. Premela worked at the orphanage full time with other family members and a few lowly paid staff members. It was very clear that the home survived week to week. When asked about government funding Premela expressed her concerns about the regulations and expectations that came with any funding and the pressures and bribes that also came with it. Instead Premela was determined to support the orphanage through her own means.

Although not of strong Christian beliefs myself I was compelled to provide whatever support I could and once I made a connection to the children would forever have that connection. I returned to Australia with a goal to raise the $16,000AUD required to complete the building works and provide the space and facilities needed to support the growing orphanage. With the help of family, friends and clients I was fortunate to be able to raise the funds required and pay for the building works to be completed.

In 2008 my family and I returned to the childrens home to see the completed works and were pleased to know that the children now had an extended space to live in with separate rooms for boys and girls, a carers room and a sick room for children. We were able to provide a new toilet and shower block as well. We saw the incredible difference that a relatively small amount of money could do for these children. During this visit we were given the news that Bonnie the US benfactor had passed away and that funds were quickly drying up. Premela and her family had to move out of their family home to rent a smaller home to enable them to secure funds to provide to the home. We were also informed that the school had closed due to changing government regulations that meant the school roofing was no longer adequate and the school was forced to close. We were presented with two dilemmas. The need for approximately $20,000AUD to rebuild the school roof and the requirement to find a way to create a sustainable income stream for the children's home to prevent it from having to live week to week as it now does.

Aside from continuing to provide our own funds to Grace Agape we have presented the roof project to Rotary and have some potential opportunity for sourcing funds there. I have also been working closely with my family, particularly my sister Kate Harry to create an ongoing income stream for the children. Kate has created a thriving business called Little Bird, with her first shop being in Port Elliot, South Australia. Together with my wife Bec, Kate has created the concept of Lani Bird, a venture designed to generate support from within her clients and suppliers who share her vision for making this world a better place for others.

If you are reading this then I hope you have an interest in lending us your support to create opportunities for a wonderfully resilient group of children who are desperately in need of help. I know from direct experience just how much need there is in this world. The millions or orphans who require our help. Whilst I wish I could help them all I know this is impossible and rather than get caught up in the size of the need we have decided to focus on just what we can do. I don't know why the Agape Grace home found me and my family but it did and our lives are now entwined with their lives. To look into the eyes of these kids is an experience that will change your life forever, I don't know why you have come into contact with us but perhaps fortunate for us you have. I cannot provide you any guarantees other than any money or support we are provided will 100% go to supporting the children in India. Every dollar we have currently raised has been personally delivered to Premela and I have been able to see the good that it has already done. Yet the challenges of providing shelter, food and education for over 50 children is a daily one and we are determined to create a way of generating funds that will provide some sense of security and hope for the children of Grace Agape. We are once again returning to India in March 2010 and hope to be able to further our efforts of support. If you require any further information please do not hesitate to contact me directly and any support you can provide we will be very grateful for.


Landing in India

As I write this blog we are sitting by the side of the pool in Chennai. Indi is sitting next to me playing her DS, Maggie is inside watching a movie and the little master is having a well earned nap. Poppa is out looking for a post office, and just generally trying to keep himself busy and Mum is resting and Bec is stretched out on the lie low getting a few minutes before cyclone Gus awakes. It feels great to be back in India and great to be here at the Connemara. This hotel has a special feeling for Bec and I as this is the hotel where Bec's very special 'Old Pop' came during the war for some r'n'r. As I sit here and think about the Connemara I recall the scenes out of the movie titanic when they start with the wreck under the ocean and then transition into the scenes of the boat when it was brand new and in its prime. There is a very grand staircase in the main lobby which you can just imagine a young Ken dressed in his splendid uniform walking in to the lobby with his mates coming for a quiet (or not so quiet drink). There is a very large and wondrous lobby and the building is just such a beautiful old hotel with so much character and so many memories. If only the walls could talk? What would they say about the days that a few young aussie men stopped by for a visit. You can almost feel Ken's presence here with us, maybe that is just in our heads but there is something comforting to us knowing he was here, and this place was remembered as a very happy place for Ken that he enjoyed as much as we are enjoying it now. In the hallways they have some old photos of the hotel displayed and it gives you an idea of what the hotel was like in the early years. There is even a photo of the queen driving past the hotel. There is something very special about this hotel. It is where I came 5 years ago, had a quiet Ice tea in memory of Ken and missed home and my family very much. It is the hotel we first brought the kids to and they had their first nights in India here. It is a place now that the kids feel very comfortable in a country that has so much that can make you feel uncomfortable and that makes me very happy. In some odd way it feels like coming home, or at least to one of our homes. Quick update, Mags and Indy back in the pool, nanna up for a swim, Gus still snoozing, Bec comatosed on the lie low.

At last I am on a break. There is something very challenging about travelling and working and bringing your family with you as well. The work is also not a 9-5 proposition and long days followed by often long nights with the kids creates a very challenging environment to stay fresh and energised. I am pleased to say that I made it through, the work with ChildFund went very well and we are now having an opportunity to enjoy one of our favourite parts of the world, other than Australia ofcourse. Yesterday we had a day in Bangkok, via the skytrain (very cool) we went to the Siam Paragon shopping plaza and I took the kids with Popsy to the Aquarium and Jen and Bec had a facial followed by a little retail therapy. At the aquarium we went behind the scenes to see how things are managed, saw a shark nursing pool for injured sharks (they still looked big) and went in a glass bottom boat above the shark pool and saw some amazing fish, sharks and stingrays. The girls and Gus with their life jackets on made quite a sight and all the while Gussy calling out bad dudes and he stretched to see through the glass bottom some sizeable sharks and rays. We also went and sat in a small spa size tub and had our feet cleaned by thousands of tiny guppy sized fish which was a little freaky and good that Bec wasn't there, I don't think Big Mama would have enjoyed that one. We saw some amazing penguins and got to see a 4D movie which was pretty cool and Gus sat there through the whole movie with his glasses on. After the aquarium it was off to MBK for a little shopping and the kids had a great time. By the time we got back to the hotel it was time to pack and head off to the airport.

It becomes obvious you are flying to India when the departure gate is full of Indians, seems obvious doesn't it but it certainly makes an impact. You also get quickly reacclimatised to the Indian way with queuing and flying. As much as I love Indians and most of their culture, the introvert in me still struggles with the pushing and shoving that is Indians lining up in a queue. We were pretty tired flying but Gus was a good boy again and went off to sleep. 3 hours later, a fair bit of back pain and we were landing in Chennai. We were very lucky when an Indian official escorted us to a special immigration line for the disabled and those with infants, front of the queue, big bonus. By this stage Gus is pretty much over it and ready to run, not easy when you are passing through the airport, getting off the plane, going through immigration, collecting bags and finding your driver. It is always a challenge as you leave the airport and are immediately surrounded by a sea of faces. And then there it is, like a mirage in the night sky, the sign with your name on it and you have found your driver. Off we go to the car, bags flying left right and centre, and some tied onto the roof! Kids jumping in, me in the 3rd row with Gus and Indy on my lap (in a single seat mind you), mum, Bec and Mags in the middle and popsy up front. A short drive later and we have arrived at the Grand Taj Connemara Chennai. Extra security means a quick check under the front for a bomb under the car, a quick opening of the boot and off we go. A new airport style x-ray machine for the bags at the front doors indicates a visual impact although not likely to be overly effective if anyone had any real interest to harm those inside.

I woke up early this morning and took Gus for a walk around the nearby streets of the hotel, while the girls took their time waking up. One of the more enjoyable experiences of this trip (as distinct from the last one when Gus was only 4 months old) is watching Gus interact with the children and people of Timor, Bangkok and now India. It is quite beautiful watching Gus in his very naturally warm style saying hello, thankyou (in Thai, or in Tamil), or hi-5's and handshakes for anyone and everyone. What is beautiful is to see that life through the eyes of a 2 year old has no fear, no prejudices, no colour and no judging. Gus interacts openly and honestly with all those around him. Tonight Bec was chatting with an Indian man who has spent some time working in Australia. The man had his young daughter in his arms (she was about Gussies age) and I had Gus in mine. As Bec and he were conversing Gus reached his hand out to the young girl (called Dia) and she in return reached out hers. As the two parents talked they were oblivious to the wondrous meeting that was occurring between the young couple hand in hand they seemed to have a method of communicating involving no words and known only to them. Observing Gus on this trip reminds me of a paragraph from a book I have been reading recently ...."Our tendency (as infants) is to explore, to express our creativity, to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As little children we run around naked without self-consciousness or self judgement. Our attention is in the moment, we are not afraid of the future or ashamed of the past." There is a lot I can learn from the little master Gus!

Tomorrow we are planning to head off to the orphanage and organise a special meal for the children. I emailed Premela (the orphanage director) and asked if there was something special we could do for the children on this visit, and Premela replied with "they like chicken", so chicken it is! We will head out in the afternoon and prepare a special meal for the kids (which ofcourse will be far more special to us). This trip we have a beautiful gift for the kids. Bec's parents Sharyn and Bruce, a couple of our more committed blog followers expressed an interest in finding out more about the kids and the orphanage. Upon hearing more they very kindly and generously committed a sizeable donation for us to provide to the kids. Once again I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit of our family and friends and this very thoughtful and selfless gift will make a huge impact on the life of these kids, thankyou Sharyn and Bruce (aka Grana and Gramps). Well it is time for dinner and I am looking forward to some lovely Indian food tonight!

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