Thursday, March 18, 2010

Leaving India and Leaving our Legacy

Meeting with Premela; The girls are coming home….

We awoke on our final day in India with a very special email from Denny and Mick. They have been following our journey closely, regularly providing some guiding words of wisdom along the way as we have faced the many challenges on our trip. The email literally blew Bec and I away. Den and Mick had offered to make a sizeable and significant donation to our project. I am not sure if they understand what their donation has meant to us and more importantly to the kids but it has opened up options that we never thought possible. Their generous gift enabled us to approach our planning from a whole new perspective. So on our final afternoon in Chennai we had the opportunity to meet again with Premela. I think we all knew that the conversations we had a few days earlier were unfinished but we also all knew the previous visit was not the time or the place. Bec and I approached this discussion cautiously wanting to provide support without directing. In our previous visit I was able to see how reactive Premela was forced to become and there was a definite disconnect with a clear vision and clearly no real plan other than ensure survival and the safety of the children. Bec and I wanted to explore with Premela how she really felt about the girls leaving and if it were possible would she want them to return. Bec and I knew how we felt about this but wanted to make sure we were clear on Premela's position before moving too far down this path. So we gently started exploring the option of what it would take for the girls to return. The plan Premela had in her head was that we needed to build and seriously extend the school right up to year 12 to enable the girls to attend school on site, this is in our sights but is a definite long term goal with the project likely to cost in the order of $60-$70k. Clearly this was not going to be the catalyst for the girls returning. There must be another way. I asked Premela about what it would take in terms of security and transport. As it turns out there was an option to buy a van, increase security and secure the services of a driver and it was an affordable short term option. Due to the generosity of Denny and Mick this now became a realistic option and we were sensing hope. Both Bec and I could see how we could make this a reality and we both felt an overwhelming sense of purpose about this happening. We slowly moved from acceptance of the girls leaving to questioning did this have to happen, to finally a different future outcome. What it would take, a new van for about $8000, a driver ($75 per month) and new security ($125 per month) and the girls come home. Premela's beautiful girls can return home and this can all happen in the next couple of months. It would predominantly be the younger girls as many of the senior girls have moved into new opportunities for training and work and it would not make sense at this time for them to return. With all of this 25 girls can come home and soon. Both Bec and I are amazed at Premela's strength, courage and determination. What she does for the children and the community belies belief that one woman can do so much. She is also such a proud woman and would not want to cry in front of us but her quiet tears of joy were evident as the reality of our discussions slowly became clear, the girls, Premela's daughters were coming home. Bec was so present and so in the moment with Premela. I understand now what this means to Bec and just how devastating the news was that the girls had been moved. I reacted at the time by withdrawing and reflecting, Bec from the first moment was very clear and driven and only had one question; how do we get them back? As I sat back and watched Bec and Premela agree how we would make this happen I looked over at my other two beautiful girls. Maggie was deep in concentration looking at the notes Premela had bought which included photos and details of all of the children. Indy was there for every conversation, deeply listening and concentrating to ensure she not only heard everything but also understood what it meant. So we agreed, we would find the resources required and the girls would be back home in time for the new school year commencing in June. Jen and Nick had bought a range of cricket bats, games and building blocks for Premela to take home to the boys, I could just imagine the look on their faces. Words cannot describe how we felt as we walked Premela to her car. We felt like we were floating we were so happy.

The school is opening…..

When we arrived in India we had no idea what the next 10 days had in store for us. We still thought we needed $20k to reopen the school and that this would be a long term project. The roof restoration project has now been confirmed with Premela and the school will open in June, enrolments have already started to come in. There is a buzz developing in the community and the school which was the catalyst for so many community connections and opportunities is once again going to be alive with possibilities. We are looking to name the school and would like to do so in honour of our Grandparents Ken and Ruby Tonkin, Joan and Eric Penny who have created the means and the drive for this to occur and to acknowledge the donations from all those who have supported us to make this happen. We are currently thinking about the name being something like School of Hope or Opportunity but would welcome suggestions. We are planning to have Lani Bird as the school logo, this is the logo Kate and Bec designed as the face of our charitable efforts through Kate's shop Little Bird. We are already considering opportunities to partner with Indy's school and see what extra support we can generate to ensure this school is not only open but thriving. We have already met with India's school principal at Toorak college and she was very interested. I have also considered and started to explore already the opportunity for a student placement for either a teacher or a community development student. I have a meeting with my old friend Frank next week to see what we could arrange. The most important thing though is that the school will open in June and enrolments will continue to grow over the next 12 months to full capacity.

Receiving help from others…..

As we have been on this journey the amount of interest and support from our friends and family is as overwhelming as it has been unexpected. We came here to see what it was that we could give and in the process we learnt how to receive, it has been a very humbling and incredibly positive experience. As I sit back and contemplate exactly what has happened in the past few weeks I want to acknowledge how profound it is for people to give without the established direct connection to this cause as real giving. The trust people have shown in us and their generosity of spirit has been quite overwhelming to Bec and I and the kids. How do you ever find the words to express what this means and what this will mean. I only hope there is great joy in the sense of giving and understanding that this has changed the course of life for so many kids. Whilst many children will attend the school approximately 40-50 will attend who would not have otherwise attended school. 40-50 kids will have an opportunity to learn in an English medium school who would otherwise not have attended school. It just blows me away to think about the potential opportunities this creates for these kids. It is a life changing opportunity that otherwise would not have happened.

Taking some responsibility….

One of the things I mentioned in a previous blog was how we were all care and no responsibility and clearly this trip is about us stepping up and sharing some of the responsibility. We asked Premela to confide in us in the future if there were any issues that she and Augustine were facing and to know that they were no longer alone. Our family and our extended family are here for them and here to share in the responsibility for raising these kids. Premela is a very strong woman yet at the same time very unassuming. She rarely asks directly for anything yet expresses such a sense of gratitude for everything she receives. The irony in all of this ofcourse is that she doesn't really understand what she, and these kids have done for our family. This is our True North, our North Star, our reason for being, as a family the most profound thing to date that we have done in our lives and perhaps will ever do. I have to constantly pinch myself at just what we have all been able to achieve and what would have happened if I hadn't returned to India 5 years ago. Our lives were heading in the wrong direction and we had lost our sense of purpose. Premela and the kids were living in an unfinished orphanage that had been that way for several years, their school had been closed down and they had to make the difficult decision to send their girls away. Now we have a profound sense of purpose and a clear direction forward, together we have rebuilt the orphanage, are rebuilding the school and now ensuring the girls will come home. It is difficult to comprehend how this has all happened. With this trip to India, at the start of our sojourn fate has played a role yet again. I didn't know why we were coming back again this time around, we had only been here 18 months ago. It was always going to be difficult with Gus and there were so many reasons not to come. But we did come and we now know why. I am so glad we came and have been able to play a role in changing the course of life and opportunities for so many. Thankyou so much to everyone who has helped us along the way.

Where to from here……

The school will be rebuilt in the next 6-8 weeks and reopen in June. Enrolments have commenced and things are already moving. I need to secure the final remaining funds to provide Premela the opportunity to purchase a van to transport the kids and confirm the new security arrangements for the orphanage. The girls will be coming home in a matter of weeks. We have the ongoing challenge of creating sustainable income streams which the school will provide a number of opportunities for this to occur. The new van will also provide a number of opportunities for income generation when it is not being used to transport kids to and from school. We are also working very hard with our sister Kate who is coming up with some incredible ideas with her very generous suppliers to create a range of products that we can sell with profits going through to the kids. The past few months have been incredible, well beyond anything I could have dreamed and so much is happening and so fast. I plan to return to Australia and with my good friend and Rotarian Phil Marsh run a series of leadership seminars to provide the base capital to fund the development of the remainder of the school. Whilst there is a lot happening there is always more to be done and it is time to get on with the job!

My reflections on our trip…...

Being a father and husband is clearly the most important thing I do. It is the thing I invest more time and effort into than anything in my life and ironically it is the thing I do best and worst in my life. With this in mind it is no surprise that as I sit and reflect on the first leg of our sojourn I think about my family.

My thoughts on my wife Bec; Over the past 5 years I have seen Bec stretch to discover so many new things about herself. I value so much her ability to connect with anyone, she is just such a warm and welcoming person. I am amazed at her absolute strength and courage to do what is right, to take responsibility and to face the most difficult personal challenges I could imagine and she does it with such compassion and care. Bec is my mentor, my teacher, my best friend and my partner for y mentor, teacher, friend and age
nto than anything in my life
rrently thinking about the School of hope or opportunity wlife. She constantly teaches me about tolerance and compassion and kindness. She has personally faced many demons and stared them down. I have watched as Bec has had to dig so deep to find her true self, peeled back so many layers that had grown over so many years and shrouded the person I now know as my wife. In the process she has managed to teach me so much about myself. I love the way she can find positive in anything, the glass isn't half empty or full with Bec it is overflowing. She is our rock, our rudder steering us along the right path, she is our wise guide.

My thoughts on my daughter India; I love to watch India and how she has developed such a personal commitment to being a part of all of that we are doing in India. She has an absolute desire to be there for every discussion and every decision that is made and just wouldn't accept any of this happening without her. I watch as India is wanting to understand, wanting to appreciate why she lives the way she does and why other kids do not. I see her now valuing the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others less fortunate which for an 11 year old is just so amazing. Indy is the one who cautiously steps through experiences, treading for solid ground, but trusting us to take the step when the ground is not solid. I see Indy's courage to stretch beyond what is comfortable and known. When we first came to India I introduced Indy to a man called Vin, he is a beggar who is always sitting just around from our hotel. Vin is physically disabled beyond comprehension and is about a foot tall. I always make a point to take the kids around sit with Vin and shake his hand and have a talk with him. The first time Indy hid behind me and was quite uncertain about Vin in fact she was very scared. This time around Indy was going up and giving Vin a few rupees herself and feeling far more comfortable with a man she would never encounter in Mt Martha! Indy also has a great flair for reflection and writing. If you are ever lucky enough to receive one of Indy's letters you will never forget them, they are as beautiful as they are inspirational. I watch Indy being a great teacher and guide to Maggie and Gus and so many people have commented to us how good Indy is with Gus, his second little mum. She is such a deep thinker, is fiercely independent and loves an argument. She is our little diplomat, she is our commander in chief and she is our legal advocate. She is the spirit for our family, she is our soul.

My thoughts on my daughter Maggie; I really love the fact that
Maggie is
forever looking for the good things and always wanting to be happy. For Maggie life would be perfect if it could in her own words be like a movie where you can fast forward through all the bad bits and rewind and replay all of the good bits. Maggie is the one who has the courage to try new things, she will always dive in first, or perhaps be pushed by her at times nervous big sister. We found a very deep rock pool in skenes creek on the great ocean road. I couldn't help myself but jump in it was so beautiful, but to the kids a little scary. Maggie thought about it for all of 2 minutes before diving in feet first and having a go, that's what I love about Maggie. As she is growing up I see her carving out her own space, her own little niche and moving out from Indy's shadow and charting her own course. She loves her Fashion, her food and having fun. She has a unique and eye catching dress sense to the extent now that people stopped us to ask if they could take Maggie's photo. She is our little chef which is evident not only when she is with mum (our resident chef) but also in the moment at the orphanage where she gravitated to the kitchen to help the ladies prepare dinner for the kids. She is great with other kids and she forms relationships quickly and is very giving. She met a young Cambodian girl when we were in Thailand called Chetra, they became instantly best buddies and she made a real impact on Chetra such that she is still talking about her friend Maggie. I think Maggie has been blessed with Bec's ability to connect with people. Maggie has a tremendous sense of humour and has so many different ways to make us smile and laugh. She is the one who will come up with the one liners that become legendary in our family. She is the one who provides the energy, she sets the fashion and the menu, she is the one who makes us laugh, she is our heart.

My thoughts on my son Gus; From the
moment I
saw our little man it was evident that there was something magical about Gus and I think anyone who meets Gus knows this. I had so much fun already on this trip just watching Gus interact with others, he is such a social fellow and loves everyone. He hands out kisses easily and will be drawn to a crying child a hundred metres away to try to rectify the situation. I have never seen anyone be able to look at Gus and not smile and not connect, he reaches out to anyone and everyone. He provides us with so much enjoyment. He brought Indy and Maggie together, who before his arrival were unfortunately drifting apart, they are now our little twinnies rarely far from each others side. He brought Bec and I to the place we are now and he continues to show us what is possible in life. He brings our family so much joy. Each of us have our own special relationship with our very special little man. Gus has provided the direction for our life, he has pointed us in the right direction, he reminds us when we start to get off course, he is our compass.

My thoughts on me; Normally I wouldn't ever write about me, my preference is to write about others and what I see in them but I need to be able to share some of my reflections so people understand that I am more than the person they see. I remember sharing with mum and Nick on this trip that I am much more interesting on my blog than I am in person! As I reflect on the past 5 years I recognise that I have been so tired for so long. The last 5 years have been a bit of a blur and I feel like I am awakening from a long sleep, a hibernation of sorts. I find conflict extremely difficult to process and it is very anxiety provoking for me and I have struggled to cope with the level of conflict I have endured and experienced. I should note that much of this conflict has resulted from years of trying to avoid conflict and if I had only been better dealing with situations in the moment I am sure things would have been far better. Although as I often say to others what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I think I am definitely a little stronger and wiser for the experience. In recent times I too have had to peel back the layers myself and let the real me come out. I drew a picture of myself once as a man with wings screaming in a glass cubelike cage and nobody could hear me, it was the best way to represent how I have felt at times. Last Christmas my mum gave me a gift that knocked me off my feet. She found a set of goals that I wrote for myself in 1990 and to sit there and read them was like looking into the mirror of my life, like judgement day that I was unprepared for. It gave me such a renewed sense of purpose to revisit these goals I set in 1990 and make them real. Ofcourse they were all about helping people, making a difference and being happy! In recent times I have once again found the courage to follow the path less travelled and this is the version of myself that I most like. I have had to fight the power of contentment and complacency to listen to my heart when it comes calling. I have been pleased to see that I have been able to find the courage to dig very deep and face my own demons, my past, to take responsibility and create an alternate future for myself and my family. I need to focus on doing what I know is right and not worry so much about what I think others expect of me. I think I have found the courage to do the hard yards, not simply find the quick fix and this has helped me to find a way forward even when the present didn't always look so good. Whilst in many ways it is only early days I am already starting to get a sense of my old self, my energy and enthusiasm for living and hopefully a little more confidence in my abilities and potential. On a personal level I have not allowed myself to look to the future, for whatever reason I have felt that treading water has been the only viable option for me up until recently. I have perhaps not trusted that I can lead with my heart but now have regained a sense of confidence in who I am and what my life is all about, to understand what is really important and finally put first things first. As a father and husband my most important and profound responsibility in life, the thing I am most committed to, the thing I do the best and worst in my life. I am a student of fatherhood and in many ways have tried to chart my own course through experience. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it very wrong. I value the opportunity to be 'just a dad' more than anything else in life and know that being a dad has brought me the highest of highs in my life. I know now that it is not about being the best dad and it is actually not about me at all but rather contributing to the happiness and fulfilment of our family as we follow our True North, our North Star. I think to my family I am a catalyst, I provide the vision, and I rattle the cage, I am the….

Well actually you should probably ask my family for they are the best judge of who I am to them and that is what matters most!


Goodbye for now; This represents the end of the first leg of our sojourn, our journey for our soul. So far we have already exceeded our expectations and have been able as a family through our family and friends to leave a legacy beyond our wildest dreams. We have been on planes, trains, taxi's, vans, autos and elephants and our journey is just beginning. In a matter of days we hitch up our cammie and drive off to the East. We are all very excited about the opportunity to explore part of this beautiful country we live in and look forward to keeping you a part of our journey every step of the way. Thankyou for listening, you have provided a sense of purpose to our reflections and supported a discipline for us to do so. Next time we blog we will be on our way, talk with you soon.




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