We made it!

We made it!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Final Words of Thanks

Today is our final day in India. Bec and Indy are packing their bags, Maggie and Gus are running around with their cousins. We have taken our breakfast and planning for a quiet day and readying ourselves for the long trip home. The girls are heading out to get their henna done on their hands and feet as a memory they can take back with them. Nanna is getting her last fix of Gus before we part ways in Melbourne.

As we are about to leave we all take a minute to think about all of the people who have contributed to our walk and been here every step of the way. We would like to make a special thankyou to Di and Rachel and all of the team at ChildFund Australia who have been there with us every step of the way over the past 16 months, you guys are amazing. To Dola, Naomi, Antony, Prem, Abdul, Esther and all of the team at ChildFund India, Kyria Pushpa, Grama Vikas and KKSS who have all gone way out of their way to provide a very special experience for all of us. This trip wouldn't have been anywhere near as special without you all. We will never forget all of the support you have provided to us.

To all of the people who have donated their hard earned funds, a very big and special thankyou. In many ways we have benefited from your generosity as we have been able to deliver the items your donations have provided. So many people have been incredibly generous and we are so appreciative of every dollar that has been donated. To all of the people who have posted words of encouragement via facebook, our blog and via email these have been so important, particularly on the long and lonely days when we felt a million miles away from home. These words of encouragement were so important to providing us with energy and motivation. To all of my clients who have been so understanding about my time away and provided me with the space and the time to go on this journey, thankyou and I look forward to reconnecting with each of you shortly. To our Auntie Jane and Uncle Dick who experienced their first Christmas without us all together thankyou. You have done so much work behind the scenes, donated so much of your time and dollars and have made a major contribution to the success of our walk.

Finally to our walk team. Firstly to Nicola and Eibhlin who were just so amazing. The way you came over to India with such an incredible attitude and provided us with so much positive energy and practical support. you guys were really missed after you left and we think of you often on this trip. To kate and the kids you have done an incredible job on your first trip to India and we hope you take with you an unforgettable life experience. With limited time and funs we are so appreciative that you made this trip a priority for your family and it wouldn't have been the same without you. Picking you guys up from the airport still remains as one of the most special times on our trip. To Nanna and Poppa you have been there every step of the way and both in your own way provided a crucial level of support to the team. We have seen a new side of you even after all of our time spent together and I think you even surprised yourself with your efforts particularly leading up to the walk. Again we hope the experience is one you will never forget. To Bec, you are an amazing woman and I don't know how you manage to do it but with each new challenge you find a new depth to your strength and resilience. To watch how you managed me and the kids over the past many months preparing for and ultimately doing this trip you are an amazing woman and I don't know how you do it. We are so lucky to have you and promise not to take you for granted. To Indy, Maggie and Gus, you are our best friends and we feel so grateful that you are prepared to join with us on these adventures. Every day you make a massive contribution to our collective experience and in your own way each of you demonstrate just how beautiful, resilient and strong you are. I couldn't be prouder of you all.

The final word is for the children of India. You are the reason we are here and you have provided us with a life experience that is both unforgettable and incredibly special. You welcomed us into your villages, homes and lives with such a spirit of generosity and humility. We feel so privileged to have had this wonderful opportunity to spend time with each of you and want to thank you all for providing us with the opportunity to make a small contribution to supporting you to experience a childhood that is safe, healthy and full of learning and possibilities.

We are the Coast to Coast team and we have just walked coast to coast across India.

This is Nick Petrucco signing out.

This is India… and I love her too (Bec's Poem from her India Experience)

A soft jingle of bells sounds from the bullocks
Wooden carts piled high with their harvest
A musical language of horns,
Between autos, motorbikes, cycles and cars,
Colourful hand painted trucks,
Adorned with fresh garlands of flowers
Traffic weaves around sacred cows, goats and dogs
Down dirty, dusty roads
Where road markings are more of a suggestion than an absolute

Shoeless children walking to school
Radiant faces, beaming smiles
Proudly wearing neat uniforms in blue and white
Girls with silver anklets tingling,
Their long black plaits looped with ribbons and flowers
A rainbow of soft cotton and silk saris,
Weave in and out of traffic,
So stark in contrast to their surroundings.

Tiny thatched stalls line busy roads,
Long pours of steaming, sweet, milky coffee
Served by an Indian barista who wears a checked lunghi
Women with bundles of thin sticks,
Perform their morning ritual, as if a meditation,
Sweeping entrances to small, colourful homes,
The faint smell of woodsmoke and sandalwood
The mystique of a distant “call to prayer”
Intersperses the sound of Indian music and ceaseless traffic

People everywhere going about their daily tasks,
In a simple, unhurried and accepting manner,
Remind me of the gift of living and being in the present.
Friendly waves and greetings,
Abundant invitations for refreshments and the
Sharing of a simple meal, or what little they have
An eagerness to care for you that is humbling

This is my India,
A land of contrast and colour,
A country of incredible hospitality
Our home away from home

The Big Question: Is It Safe?

So the date is late November. It is a matter of weeks before we leave for India and we are attending the book launch of our good friend Deb Kandelaars who has written a very powerful book called ‘Memoirs of a Suburban Girl’ (we encourage you all to read this important book). We are at the after launch party at Deb’s house, a first for Bec and I. Here we enjoy meeting some old friends from our old home town of Middleton. We are talking about our trip and as usual you can see the initial reaction of ‘wow that sounds amazing’ then the second reaction of ‘are you guys crazy?’ After some discussion about the trip my friend, a father of two kids who lives a pretty settled and safe life down on the Fleurieu Peninsula turns to me and asks “Is it safe?” I rabble along with a half answer for some time and then end up saying “I don’t really know, is anything really safe?” I then went and stewed on this question for the next few weeks and honestly every day we have been away.

The truth of the matter is there is that little voice in your head that says play it safe, don’t take any risks, stay in your comfort zone. My voice really didn’t need any encouragement as there had been several times in recent months where I have turned to Bec and said let’s not do this thing. Ofcourse Bec just says “don’t be stupid, we are doing it”. I guess it is like anything in life there are risks. You can’t really live your life avoiding risks you can only choose how to manage them. As we planned for this trip we asked ourselves not just what is the risk of doing this but what is the risk of not doing this? What is the risk of allowing our kids to grow up without the broader perspective of what life is like in other countries and cultures and importantly what is life like for deprived, vulnerable and excluded kids. What is the risk of not showing our kids that they can set and achieve big hairy audacious goals and then achieve them?

I will never forget our new friend Paul Hameister, the 68th Australian to summit Mt Everest. He tells of his passage up the mountain and a particular section called the Death Zone. He recalled as he made it through this section that this wasn’t his death zone, his actual death zone was sitting at home on the couch watching television. I can relate to this and know that it would be very easy for us as a family to get stuck in the busyness of life and live life in our safe little box worrying about mortgages and schedules and work and school etc etc etc.

Over the past 16 months our family has lived with an absolute sense of purpose. Together we have made the decision to go on this adventure, planned our trip, we have given talks at local community groups and schools, we have conducted fund raising events, we have learned about the needs of vulnerable children, we have prepared for our trip and all of this before we took a step. We have then travelled to India, walked together nearly 600km, spent every day together for 6 weeks, we have turned off our phones and emails and most importantly we have met thousands of incredible Indian kids and families that have provided us with so much inspiration. Our kids have made so many new friends, provided important items to improve the health, safety and education of kids and families. They have spent time with people at ChildFund India learning about child sponsorship, community development and child development. They have befriended wonderful people like Antony who have dedicated their life to children. They have a wealth of new experiences that they carry with them through their life. They have a breadth of perspective and experience that they now bring back with them to Australia. And perhaps most importantly they know they can dream big, even dream something that they cannot see or understand and then know they can set about and achieve their dreams. I wonder what it must feel like at 9 and 13 to be able to say I have walked across India, I certainly couldn’t say that when I was that age.

Travelling as a family meant managing risks. It meant partnering with a wonderful organisation like ChildFund who provided us with an enormous amount of support. It meant securing the services of a car and driver for the entire trip to enable the kids to everyday make a choice about walking or not. It meant securing accommodation in advance and not moving on a daily basis to enable the kids sufficient rest time between stops. It meant blocking out rest days within the trip to ensure the kids had time to recover and manage their conditioning. It meant making decisions on a couple of occasions not to walk but to drive as the roads were not safe to walk. It meant mixing up the accommodation so the kids got to experience $20 per night very basic accommodation through to a couple of nice hotels so the kids could play in the pool and recharge. These were the various ways we chose to manage the risks and do the trip in a way that we considered safe for our family and most importantly for our kids.

So again I ask what is the risk? And what is the risk of not doing this?

Having completed our walk safely and with good health I am so happy for our family but also for others who I know have been watching and starting to think about what they can do with their families. Life is there to be lived. Bec and I strongly believe in providing our kids with unforgettable life experiences and spending important time with them while they are young.

There are risks in doing and there are risks in not doing. Our regrets in life are rarely based on what we have done but more in what we have chosen not to do. So what choice do you have to make? We are starting planning our next adventure as a family and can’t wait to see what we can achieve with our next journey.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day 38 – Final Leg to Marina Beach Chennai – We Made It!

Today I wake up excited about our final day. After 16 months of planning and 38 days on the road we are scheduled today to make our final walk leg from Ambattur to Chennai. We have planned a route that will have us end our walk at the Gandhi statue on Chennai’s Marina beach, what a fitting end to this incredible adventure. The walk team today consists of Popsy, Kate, Ally, Max, Indy, Maggie and myself. Bec will join us on the walk route and mum will join in and finish with us closer to the finish line. As we do our final pack up of the walk Gus seeing me getting dressed for walking grabs me and says “Are you walking today dad, I want to walk today dad, I am part of the team”. I am not sure where that came from but he is definitely a big part of our team. The 17km route today would unfortunately be a little long for the little man but he can join in later this morning. I am not sure what is going through Little Manny’s head at the moment but he has in recent days started to talk to me about when we go home “I don’t want you to go back to work daddy”. So at 3 he is already understanding the difference between me on leave and me at work. I guess yet another gentle reminder about the incredible value of this time together.

Last night there was a massive downpour so whilst the sky is bright and shining, the Chennai roads are full of puddles and mud. We make our way in the car to Ambattur and after a short drive we arrive by the side of the road ready to start our walk. The temperature today is planned to be in the low 30’s and at 9am it is already in the high 20’s. We start our walk today along the highway and stop for a quick roadside coffee, 21 rupees for 3 cups, so basically 14 cents a cup for beautiful milky coffee. Not quite sure how I will go back to drinking often bad coffee at $4 a cup after enjoying the value and taste of roadside Indian coffee.

We make good time down the highway this morning until we get to a major flyover that looks a bit like the junction between the Monash Freeway after the tunnel with major roads going everywhere and the only road going the way we want to isn’t safe to walk on. We decide to go under the main highway which unfortunately means crossing the other main roads to get there. Here we go kids, hold hands, close your eyes and follow uncle Nicko! Fortunately we all make it in one piece and make our way through to the other and rejoin the highway on the other side of the flyover. Today our walk route is more interesting than usual but also has many more turns along the route, which with no map should make life interesting. The highway takes us into urban Chennai and whilst the walking is hard going at least it is far more interesting. After about 75 minutes we arrive at our first turn off the main road and so far so good. I give Bec a call to check where she is and it turns out she is not far away. I have written down our route for Bec and she thinks she can find us. We take a couple more turns on our walk and all of a sudden I find myself on a road that is not on my map and not only does this mean we have lost our way it also means that where Bec is trying to meet us we are no longer heading that way. The kids sit down by the side of the road with a packet of chips and I backtrack our steps talking to Bec on the phone trying to rendezvous. After a few frustrating minutes trying to talk Bec in, without a map mind you, I see the big bus and we are together again.

We drive back to meet the team and Bec is joining with us on the walk now. We are by now about 8km from our finishing line and with some updated directions from Raju we are back heading in the right direction. Gus decides he is ready to be on the team too so 8km out from our destination I have little man on my shoulders and hope my back can hold up for the duration of the walk. Raju drives up ahead with mum and we continue on our walk towards Marina Beach. We see a sign which says we are within 3.5km of our destination so mum jumps out of the van and the full team is together for the dash to the line. Gus is enjoying a packet of chips and a mango juice up on my shoulders and we walk on. We have to cross a few major roads but by now we are reading the Indian traffic well and manage to cross all roads unscathed. Poppa nearly gets himself arrested taking some video on a section of road where it was prohibited. The look on the police officers face was very serious and Popsy put the camera away pretty quickly.

We are now walking down the final stretch. Indy is being particularly beautiful saying thankyou for providing such a wonderful life experience, I ofcourse know that she has been such a critical part of our team and made this an incredibly special time for me particularly. Indy sees the top of the statue as we walk down the main road to the marina. The kids are all excited, they have been fantastic today. I think knowing this was the last walk of the trip meant that they could just relax into the walk and get the job done, which they did. By now my shoulders and back are aching and I have a very sweaty t-shirt on my back but it means a lot to have our little man with us, we were all there leaving Colicut at the start and we are all there heading into the finish line. As we walk toward the Gandhi statue we see our friend Sonu Kumar, our very friendly film crew manager who has made a special personal trip to come and meet us at the beach. This wasn’t in his brief but I think by now he feels such a part of the team that he just wanted to be there at the finish and we are all very excited to see him too. One more main road to cross and we have made it, finishing the walk at the Gandhi statue makes it an especially emotional finish to our walk. He is such an amazing individual and a major inspiration for our walk so to finish in his shadow is very meaningful for us.

We all gather around the statue which is built on a bricked area between the main road and a service road and then there is the beach. Whilst we are taking a moment by the statue the kids take off towards the beach. The sand is at least 750 metres to the water so there is still a long way to go. All you can see is our 4 beautiful kids running together towards the water. Gus decides this is a great idea so he and I take off after the kids. We walk past all of the stalls on the beach and see the kids standing at the edge of the water, a little brown in colour and small waves crashing into the shore. They desperately wanted to touch the water to commemorate the end of their walk but I think they still recall Antony’s advice that the water is not clean enough to swim in and this means a lot coming from the man who once said to Poppa a bit of bacteria is good for you, so when he suggests swimming is not a good idea the kids listen, well the kids listen, not me. Gus and I take off our shoes and I am filled with the need to hit the water so at full pace I run past the kids and leap into the waves fully dressed to celebrate the end of our massive adventure. Trying my best not to swallow I just enjoy the moment of hitting that warm Chennai water and glide under the water for some time taking in the moment of the finish of our walk. I wish that feeling under the water, diving under the waves could have lasted for an hour, all of the effort that has gone into the past 16 months has been channelled into this one dive, it was an amazing feeling, clothes and all!

As you can imagine this is too much for the kids who all need no further encouragement to head into the water. They are all told to keep their heads above water, not like their father / uncle! We all link arms and jump up and down celebrating our achievement together. What an amazing feeling it is to be in the water in Chennai some 800+km from the West coast of India where our walk began. Gus comes in for a walk in the water with me and big mama is encouraged to come in. I wonder if Mum is ready to just dive in but she thinks better of it. I wonder if my ‘Jim Courier’ moment will come back to haunt me in later days. Jim Courier after winning the Australian Tennis Open jumped into the Yarra river only to get quite sick afterwards I think.

After a while in the water we all come up on the sand and Kate wants to take a shot of all of our feet in a circle around the coast to coast logo on the sand. We all huddle up and Bec takes the shot. As she does a poor young girl from the local beachside slum comes up and grabs me by the arm begging for some money. It is a sign that whilst this adventure has been incredible and is nearing an end there is far more work to be done.

We make the long walk back up the beach and back to the Gandhi statue for a few special photos and some well earned moments of reflection. Sonu comes up and thanks us for what we have done for his country, to which we thank him for what his country has done for us. Indy, Bec and I share a few special words before we have a family hug with Maggie, Gus, Indy, Bec and I. We think back to 18 months ago when this crazy idea first came up and now we are here having successfully finished our walk. There are hugs all around between all of the team members and I grab Maxy, my 10 year old nephew and remind him of what he has just done and let him know that if at 10 he can walk across India that he can do anything in his life. Something I have talked about a lot with our kids. Don’t forget this moment!

So as I reflect on the past 16 months I give particular thought to the goals we set for ourselves as a family. We set about to raise funds for kids, to raise awareness of the needs of vulnerable children, to set ourselves an enormous challenge, to experience the wonder of giving, and to travel together as a family. So we have made it. Sixteen months in the planning, 38 days of walking, over $55,000AUD raised for ChildFund India, over 60 articles in Indian papers and online raising awareness to the needs of vulnerable children, having traversed over 1000km from Cochin to Colicut to Mysore, to Bangalore to Chennai, having walked nearly 600kms as a family with 5 kids aged 13 and under, what an incredible team effort. We have done it!

Day 37 – Community Visit with KKSS

We awake today and read the front page of the paper which states that 42% of Indian children are malnourished. The story is based on a study commissioned by the prime minister and includes a study incorporating special focus areas such as Orissa and Rajasthan. The story highlights that some progress has been made in recent years but calls for much more work to be done, we ofcourse agree.

Today we head out with one of ChildFund India’s partners Kalaiselvi Karunalaya Social Welfare Society (KKSS). This is an organisation that has worked particularly closely with communities living in the Chennai slums. Many here are from the nomadic Gypsy tribes and have travelled down from Northern India to settle in the city. These people have lived from day to day with no housing and little understanding regarding hygiene, nutrition or education for their children. The organisation has helped them to unite together as a community, ensure the kids start going to school, and help to create a new life for these families. The Gypsy tribes have come from a life living as scavengers, nomadically surviving off small animals and birds, and working in very poor paying jobs such as rag picking. Often these communities have very little knowledge regarding health, nutrition or hygiene and are some of the poorest people in India. The children unfortunately fall into the category of the most vulnerable, excluded and deprived children in the world. ChildFund and KKSS have helped to build new skills in these communities such as bead making and other vocational skills to build income and enable the children to stop working and start learning. They have also helped these families to create basic housing and focus on building more sustainable income options.

Rajini from the team at KKSS is taking us on a visit to one of the local Gypsy communities in Pallavaram. The drive takes us about 60-90 minutes through the busy Chennai traffic. We end up in a semi rural, semi urban area and drive down a small dirt lane. Up ahead we pull right off the road and into a muddy short road into the community. We jump out of the van and there are again many beautiful children waiting for us with hand made welcome signs and smiles beaming from their faces. As we have come to see on our visits the kids seem to have on their best clothes, their henna on their hands and many have their hair done with beautiful flowers and some in traditional sarees ready to dance. We walk through the mud and rubbish to where the kids were waiting. The first thing that hits you is the housing is incredibly basic, thatched roof huts surrounded us in a kind of awkward U shape and there were people everywhere. Some 50 families live in this very small area some one room houses catering for over 8 people. After some very enthusiastic hellos we all disperse into the crowd for further greetings. I take a moment to have a quick look around and just can’t believe the squalor and the living conditions these kids grow up in. In all my travels through Cambodia, East Timor, Thailand and India from some reason I find these living conditions the most confronting. The houses (more specific to call them rooms) that people live in are so basic, just one room, no bedding, limited cooking facilities (hole in the ground with a couple of bricks), no personal possessions, limited clothing, very few play items observable. For a moment I find the whole scene somewhat overwhelming until Gus pulls me back to focus and we work our way back to the kids. For these kids these living conditions would represent a significant step up from the conditions they would have otherwise been living in. For me though this is still far from the environment kids should have the opportunity to grow in. The kids ofcourse are all extremely happy and joyful and demonstrate an incredible resilience and love for life regardless of the conditions they grow up in.

We head into a small kindergarten room where there are more kids waiting to greet us. We sit and listen to some information about the community and then are provided with traditional dancing and singing. We even share a quick rendition of Old Macdonalds farm, thanks to Kate’s quick thinking. In the meantime I turn around and notice Maggie holding a little baby boy. She looks very at ease with the little one in her arms and he looks up at her with his trusting big brown eyes. Maggie is so natural with children. We have found on this and previous journeys that she just has a special gift with children. Anytime we are out with children you just see Maggie walk up and hold hands and go for walks. Today she spent just about the whole day holding hands with one of the local girls.

Rajini explains that the kids will gladly sing and dance all day if they have the chance so after some time we thank everyone for their wonderful performances and head outside for some more informal interactions and to observe the homes and living conditions of the kids. Once again the reality of life for these kids hits home as we are invited in to several houses and have the opportunity to meet many families. We are introduced to several children many of whom are awaiting sponsorship, this means they are enrolled but not yet linked to a sponsor. The second family we meet is a family with 6 children one of whom was a beautiful little girl called Mary, she was born in 2006 and was 5 years of age. Her home was a single room, under a thatched roof, with little of the usual items observable in a house. There was certainly no fresh food or fruit, no play items and everything was just so filthy. Whilst there I noticed a very young baby and was given the privilege of holding the baby for a short time. I ofcourse immediately put the baby into the jockey position, legs towards me, holding the babies head in my hands and gently rocking, a sure fire guarantee to soothe any baby. I have used this with all of our three kids and it never fails. The baby would only have been a matter of weeks old and only had on a jumper. The jumper was absolutely filthy and smelt very dirty. She was a beautiful girl and I felt very privileged to have a small hold of her.

At first meeting I didn’t notice anything special about Mary other than she was another beautiful child. As she walked away from us I noticed her limp and on closer inspection noticed some very nasty injuries on both legs. One had deep scaring and the other only had two toes on her foot. Rajini shares with us that Mary was involved in some sort of road accident and had an operation on both her legs. I am not sure how successful the operation was as her legs were clearly still affected and one leg had her walking on her toes as it was shorter than the other. I hate to think of the pain that Mary would have experienced as she went through this ordeal.

We spend the next hour or so moving from house to house meeting families and children and seeing first hand the living conditions of these kids. It is hard to describe what is different about this area to the many others we have visited over the years. The place was much dirtier, the kids were not as clean as we have come to see and even the way the kids played together was much more primitive. There was observable and constant physical play between the kids with hitting commonplace, again quite confronting and something we are not used to seeing so much anymore although I have come to see this in previous visits to India. There was a monkey tied up near to where we were walking, not quite sure for what purpose. Several of the young kids were without clothing and several of the older ones were quite dirty and clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed for some time. You also notice a difference in the way the kids played with each other and also how they interacted with us. At some stages it was very intense with crowds of kids very actively trying to shake hands and interact with us and each other.

On the upside this community is one of the luckier ones with the past many years resulting in less kids working, more going to school, including the pre-school that was built in the community. The community have united around some more profitable income generation activities and their skills in bead making were clearly evident and displayed to us. Kate was exploring what opportunities there might be to support the community by retailing their items through her shop in Adelaide. We were able to observe many of the new income generating activities that the men and women were partaking in as we walked around. The families were very industrious and we could see first hand these new skills being put into practice. The teacher at the kindergarten was a wonderfully warm and energetic teacher and many of the parents we saw were very interested and involved.

At one point I noticed one little boy crying. On closer inspection I noticed a nasty open and infected wound on his wrist, nothing unusual for young boys. I put the call out to Bec aka Nurse Ratchet who immediately creates a makeshift triage unit surrounded by a large group of interested onlookers. Ofcourse once you treat one then many more come. Bec does her best to provide some preliminary first aid but you could see how much more could be done with more time and more resources.

So what is happening in this community? ChildFund in partnership with KKSS have in recent years worked with 15 such communities around Chennai. In the community we visited today they have established a pre-school for 25 children. In each of these communities children are given regular supplementary food and there have been Montessori materials distributed to the centres. They have formed a mothers club and they are motivated to monitor their children in care which helps them to learn more about children’s care. Mothers are involved in an awareness program on immunization and children are immunised for polio and registration of birth and death information amongst other important information. The awareness program also includes information on child rearing, personal hygiene and nutrition. As the children grow into the 6-14 years the project creates a friendly and welcoming school environment encouraging the children to raise their own voices and educate children on their rights. They also work to identify any children who are learning slowly or dropping out of school and have provided additional training to teachers. They have also appointed additional teachers to schools to assist with children who are slow to learn and focus on building the self confidence of all of these kids. For the youth aged between 15-24 years youth groups are strengthened and young people are motivated to take part in community activities and playing a leadership role within their communities. Young people are supported to make their own choices about their careers and their studies. In some cases vocational training opportunities are provided both for girls and boys under various trades. Counselling support is also provided to young people in need. Support groups for women have been created and in these groups savings habits have been developed. These groups also grow to be able to generate an internal lending capability which improves income generating opportunities for members. Some of the groups organised include youth groups, adolescent groups, Children’s club, Children’s parliament, Wellbeing committee and parent teachers association amongst others. So just imagine for a moment what the lives of these kids would be like if not for ChildFund and KKSS. ChildFund commits to these communities for the long term, it is not a fly in, spend money fly out program. It is building capability and community strength from the grass roots over generations. Our previous visits to communities in Mysore and in Bethamanagala showed us the difference ChildFund makes when working in these communities over the longer term and we want to support ChildFund with this community now.

So what can we all do? Our family have committed to sponsor Mary and her family and we will be making contact with our friends at ChildFund Australia to start this when we return. I am not sure exactly how many people are reading this blog but for those who are if you are looking for something special to do in 2012 could I ask that you please consider sponsoring a child with ChildFund Australia (or your own country if you are not in Australia). Call them now on 1800 023 600 or go online at www.childfund.org.au http://www.childfund.org.au and explore your opportunity to sponsor a child. Please share with them this story and that you would like to sponsor a child in India (or anywhere else in the world that is important to you) and start a relationship that will not only help to change a child’s life but also your own. Please let me know if you do as I would love to hear about your sponsorship experience.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Day 36 – Community Walk and Symbolic ChildFund Finish

The day starts as usual. Indy is up and getting herself ready, Gus is on his scooter with just a nappy on looking for trouble and Maggie is groaning from her bed about whether she actually has to get up yet. Bec is upright but still showing the effects of her cold. She is determined though to make today and wouldn’t even think of staying home to rest. After breakfast we see the friendly and smiling faces of our friends Naomi, Sachal, Dola and ofcourse Antony. The team are here to walk with us the final 3kms of our walk to the KKSS office of ChildFund here in Chennai in Ambattur. We drive a short distance from the hotel and see outside the windows a crowd of about 30 people holding green signs and immediately know this is our team. There is a crowd of about 10 police officers on scene also to act as our escorts through the busy Indian streets.

We waste no time in getting into formation and ready to begin our final steps with ChildFund. Gus is a nanna and poppas boy today and decides he wants to walk with Nanna today. Mum with her bad knee can’t resist any opportunity to be Gus’s first choice and carries him along for as long as she can. The kids are in full voice being whipped up by Antony as he starts the chant “ChildFund India” “We are For Children” and off we go. We walk for the three kilometres and the meaning of the steps are not lost on the team despite the hot conditions. We all know that 35 days ago our journey started just like this, walking with ChildFund people out of Colicut to begin our adventure of a lifetime and here we are walking to the symbolic finish line with Dola, his team and many other wonderful ChildFund people. I turn around to see Poppa giving mum a rest and taking Gus on his shoulders, I take a turn with the camera to catch some rare footage of Popsy on Popsy’s camera.

The walk is a short one, just 3kms today and before we know it we are turning into the KKSS ChildFund office and once again see a sea of smiling faces on the children who are waiting our arrival, perhaps the best finish to a walk that anyone could ever imagine. We have some tea and biscuits and a filo pastry that is very nice and then Antony and the staff introduce us to the ChildFund child sponsorship process.

ChildFund identify the most deprived, vulnerable and excluded children and enrol them, one child per family (although the benefit of child sponsorship is ofcourse to the entire family and in many cases the broader community in which the child lives). Preference is given to girls, children from single parents, orphaned children and children suffering health issues (such as HIV infected or affected children). In some cases girl children are left at the hospital by their mothers as they are seen to be too much of a burden for families, difficult to believe but unfortunately true. ChildFund take a photo of the child, and start a case history in completing a ‘Child Information Form’ which includes child and family details, Family income and importantly the needs of the child and family. A copy of this information is then sent to the National Office and through to the sponsoring country (eg to ChildFund Australia). A link is then made to a sponsor in this case in Australia. A welcome letter is sent from the child to the sponsor introducing themselves. The sponsor can write to the child at anytime and the letter is sent to the child with a copy kept in the child’s file. The sponsor will receive a further letter detailing the needs of the child and the benefits of sponsorship to the child. A sponsor can provide a special gift at any time also (such as a $15 donation) and identify a specific purpose for that gift (eg school books, pens etc) or the ChildFund staff can identify what the child’s specific needs are at the time and use the funds for this. Then the sponsor will receive a letter of thanks from the child including how the funds were spent and what the child did with their special gift. Remember that a special donation of even $15 can mean a lot to a child.

ChildFund like to create long term relationships between sponsors and their children to support children through three key stages of life and with a particular focus at each stage. For the 0-5 years the focus is on health and nutrition with the goal being to create secure and healthy infants. Once children reach the 6-14 year age group the focus moves to education and ensuring the child attends school and remains in school (or skills training) to create educated and confident young people. ChildFund (and the sponsors) continue to support the young person through ages 15-24 to build skills and ensure the young person is involved in their community caring for themselves, their family and their community. The outcome being self reliant and contributing citizens within their community. Antony Kokoth from ChildFund India says the sponsor is an important person in the life of a child. They are often with the child for many years and play a vital role in travelling with the child through the journey of life. Sponsors are able to visit their child if they have the opportunity to come to India. Antony says there are regular communications between the child and the sponsor and the sponsor receives information on the progress of the child and their family and their ongoing needs. Whilst I have been introduced to the ChildFund sponsorship program before this time it has a special meaning and it is wonderful for all of our children to hear how it all works and just how important the link is between sponsors and vulnerable children. This talk is also preparing us for a visit to a local community tomorrow where we intend to start sponsoring a child.

We now head to a short presentation to mark the end of our walk and importantly to provide further items to children and families. Gus by this time has found a very small playground in the grounds of the office with two swings (one partially broken) and a slide. Trying to encourage Gus from the playground is a big ask and in the end I just have to pick him up and carry him up the stairs to the presentation. Gus very unhappy and making sure I know it. As we walk into another large room filled with friendly faces Gus is taking his frustration out on me. As I sit there trying to take in the moment and say hi to some of the kids Gus is unloading a barrage of free hits on any part of my face or body he can land a blow. Not a great way to start our presentation but the show must go on. Again we are asked to complete a candle lighting ceremony and light the 5 wicks on the commemorative candle which at last catches the attention of Gus and he starts to calm down. Each of the kids take in turns lighting one of the wicks and we all try to stop Gus from blowing them out.

There are a couple of short speeches introducing our team and what we have been doing in India. We hear some lovely words from Dola which are very generous and extremely heartfelt. I am asked to say a few words and as is usually the case Gus who has been sitting there asking when was it his turn, goes first. We head up to the podium which Gus wants to stand behind but unfortunately if he does he is too short to see over the top. We try him standing on the podium but that didn’t work. Then he is handed a roaming microphone and he stands next to the podium and he is away. He is once again in fine voice and introduces everyone in the team including noting that his Poppa is a ‘swing maniac’. He talks about money for goats, our driver Raju, his home in Mt Martha. He ofcourse had everyone in the room hanging off his every word and he is quite the entertainer. I am sure there were groans of disappointment when I had to intervene and suggest it was my turn.

I talked a little about our journey and the wonderfully warm and friendly hospitality we have encountered every step along the way. I talked about why we are doing the walk and what we hope to achieve and then I decided on the spot to do something impromptu, which is never usually a good idea. I asked for 5 kids from the audience to come up and stand with our 5 kids. I then talked about the fact that we believe that every child is special and no matter where they are from they all deserve to be safe, healthy and going to school. I am not sure if the point was made well or not but it is at the heart of our drive to support kids all around the world. I have always thought that every day when approximately 24,000 children under the age of 5 die what must this be like for those families. I think about how much we love Gus and how he is such an important part of our family and how everyone loves and cares for him and what impact it would have on our family if we were to lose Gus. This must be the same for other families. Mothers who have carried their babies for 9 months, to then struggle to nourish and care for their developing child only to have them die from something like diarrhoea or a chest infection. I don’t think that just because these families are in India or Africa that this should carry any less meaning or importance than any other child anywhere else in the world. Yet this is happening every day and it is happening on our watch, during our time on this planet, something we want to put right.

After a short round of speeches it is the time we have been looking forward to, the gift giving. As we are upstairs the girls are each presented with a key to their bikes and our kids line up to distribute the keys to each of the girls as they are called up. In total we distribute 20 new bikes, 10 water filters, 80 mosquito nets and 100 school kits (school bags and equipment for children). At the presentation only a few of the school kits were distributed as each of the rest of the kids received a token and would receive their kits at the end of the presentation, so I ask if it would be okay for our kids to distribute the rest of the school kits. Indy, Ally, Maggie and Max are lost in the crowd and kids line up to receive their packs. While this is happening I take the special opportunity to catch up with a few of the kids and soon a large crowd gathers around for hand shaking and sharing of names. Some of the parents and teachers come up to share their gratitude with me and ofcourse I don’t know how to let them know how appreciative we are to have the opportunity to be able to help out.

I grab Indy and we go downstairs where all of the girls by now have their bikes and are lined up like they are about to start a race. We take some time to say hello to each and every one of the girls and hear about their ages and school standards and also some information about just how far they currently have to walk to school, several of the girls walk up to 5 to 6 kms to get to school and the same back at the end of the day. Maxy joined in and then Kate and Ally are also spending time with each of the girls. They all look so proud of their new bikes. After the customary photos it is time for Indy to stand in front of the girls and she is asked to flag them off with a wave of the ChildFund flag. One by one the girls jump on their bikes and ride off across the courtyard and out through the gates on to the road. We weren’t quite sure what the exact plan was but the symbolism of the girls riding off was a nice plan. Plans don’t always work exactly as you think and it was apparent that some of the young girls hadn’t learnt to ride a bike yet and one I had to push along and hold up the bike to help her get to the gate. Another didn’t know how to stop and rode off onto the road. Fortunately there was a lot of people around to stop the traffic and make sure all of the girls got away safely. There may need to be a few riding lessons for some of the girls before they are ready to ride.

We share a nice lunch with everyone before heading off in two groups. One group with Bec, mum, Ally, Maggie and Max head back to the hotel for a rest. The other group, Popsy, Kate, Indy, Gus and I head to the Chennai Press Club for our second press conference. As we head to the press conference Gus thinks twice about what he really wants to do and when he spots Raju up ahead in traffic he asks if he can go back with Bec. The driver of our car says it isn’t Raju but Gus knows better and at the next traffic light Poppa leaps out of the car and runs through the traffic to stop Raju and make the successful transfer of Gus to the other vehice. In the meantime we find out that our driver was actually following Raju and was heading in the wrong direction (don’t ask me how, it just happens). We catch up with the correct directions and at last arrive at the Press Club. Poppa, Kate, Indy and I participate in the press conference with Sachal and Dola from ChildFund and once again share our story. It takes a little getting used to the gallery is not particularly responsive and with people coming and going as you talk it is a little distracting. We also didn’t have the little master Gus with us today to hold court so not the usually entertaining show we have put on in the past. After the press conference Indy has a one on one interview quickly with a journalist and Dola and I do a short television interview. In the interview aside from the usual questions I was asked about how I felt coming to India after the abuse of Indian students in Australia and did I feel worried. I answered as best I could that the racism in Australia as in other countries is a small element of our country and you will find this unfortunately in all countries. I made the point that we are here from Australia representing many people who care about vulnerable children in India and I also made the point that India is a country where we have always felt very welcome and very safe. Another one of those questions that I wasn’t quite prepared for but hope that I answered honestly and fairly. Indy having finished her interview also does a short television interview to finish off her day. Kate has competed her first press conference and Both Kate and Popsy were very genuine and heartfelt in their words to the press.

We have a short rest at the hotel before we have our final send off dinner with Dola and his team. I am not quite sure what Dola has planned other than we are heading out to a seafood restaurant a little way out of town. Gus and I jump in the car with Dola, Sachal and Naomi whilst our new adopted family member Antony jumps in the van with the rest of our crew.

Gus who has had an afternoon sleep is looking very dapper in his Indian kulta and his hair slicked back. He holds court in the car sharing questions and comments to all three of our friends with us. Gus lets on that he wants to get a jetski motorbike for his birthday and wants to take his imaginary friends oreo and rainbow lizard on his bike. At one point Gus tries to hit Dola up for some rupees to help him buy his bike. Gus was lovely and engaging. He spots the moon which is still near full and we both recall how at the start of the walk the moon was just a sliver and now we are experiencing a full moon. After a while Gus pipes down and we continue to drive, and drive and drive. In the end it takes us 2.5 hours to get to our place which should have been 1-1.5 hours away. It is now nearing 9pm and all of the kids come out of the vehicle with glazed eyes having fallen asleep along the way. The place though is very special with an outdoor restaurant right on the beach, I mean right on the beach. Gus immediately runs down to the beach and I am excited about having an opportunity to kick off my thongs and walk on the beach down to the crashing waves. Bec joins me. We stand down by the waters edge, Gus looking for crabs that are scuttling along the sand, Bec and I standing under a full moon that is glistening over the waves with a beautiful warm breeze blowing. It was one of those pure and beautiful moments that we have experienced together.

After a while we rejoin the others to share a beautiful meal of calamari, prawns and fish and the kids all had non-alcoholic pina coladas. We share some special thankyous with Dola, Sachal, Naomi and Antony the team who without them we wouldn’t have had anywhere near the wonderful experience we have had in the past 6 weeks. These guys and Prem, Esther and the rest of the team in Bangalore have provided us with so much support, energy and importantly wonderful unforgettable experiences. After dinner we end where we began, all on the beach chasing crabs and sharing in the delightful evening under the full moon. Once again Bec and I take a moment just to stop and take it all in. What an incredible end to our time with ChildFund, thankyou to Dola and your team for everything you have done along the way. The kids manage to get themselves a ride in the golf cart that is in the hotel for guests and get an extra long ride back to the car. Whilst waiting one of the hotel staff come out and give each of the kids a shell necklace, wonderful finish to a lovely evening. Fortunately the drive home is a lot quicker as it is now past midnight and the traffic has dissipated. The kids all fall asleep, I can’t, too much going on in my head. As we drive home the sobering images of kids sleeping by the side of the road under a sheet on the concrete footpaths. There is still much work to be done. We arrive home by about 1am, very late for us after a night to remember was had by all.

Day 35 –Walk to Ambattur

Early start today with the film crew arriving at 7.30am at the hotel. As I awake I check my environment for signs of life and Indy has recovered well after complaining of stomach cramps before bed last night, Bec is unfortunately not so good although she at least had a good night’s sleep. Maggie slept in with her cousins last night so no need to go through the routine with Mags and Gus is ordering up his cup tea so all is fine with the little master. The film crew arrive on the dot of 7.30am very un Indian but a welcome arrival. Nanna and Poppa were first up to be interviewed in the gardens. Gus who is sitting outside on the swing gets his pancakes with maple syrup served up to him in his swing, it seems the best way to get him to sit for long enough to eat something.

After Nanna and Poppa it is Bec’s turn. As Kate and I watch from a distance we notice that Bec has exactly the same hand action as Gus when he gives his speech, not sure though who learnt it from who. Bec was determined to just show up and speak from the heart rather than try and script anything and also to tell the story with high integrity, she does a great job. After Bec it was Indy’s turn and she is such a cool cucumber with her interactions. She is such an incredible role model for other young girls and at only 13 years of age I cannot believe the way she does what she does. It is my turn next and like Bec I want to make sure to convey the essence of what this adventure has been all about. My issue though is that whenever I talk about my family it is always very emotional especially Bec and the kids and today was no different. After me it was Kate’s turn and then Poppa had another go on his own. Meanwhile the day is getting hotter and the hours are flying by and ofcourse the kids by now are ready for lunch. We order up some fries for the kids and it is 11.30am before we finally get on the road.

Today we walk from our finish spot yesterday which was 30km out of Chennai and we plan to walk within 15km of Chennai near to a small urban town called Ambattur. The plan from there is to have a symbolic finish to our walk with ChildFund tomorrow and then come back and finish the walk, about 20km all the way to the Chennai coastline at the Marina Beach on the 12th. Today’s walk team is everybody but Bec, Mum and Gus. We toyed with the idea of Bec and Gus doing a short walk today but the route it along a very busy highway, it is very hot and dusty and could be quite dangerous. The dusty verge is quite narrow in places and with large trucks and buses driving along at great speed it is not a good combination with Gus. So with Bec also not feeling great we decide for Bec and mum to go ahead and secure the accommodation while the rest of us finish the walk. We have set ourselves 3 hours to complete the 15km which should be fine albeit a solid walk with the four kids.

All four of the kids are in the zone today. They take it upon themselves to chat together and have plenty to talk through to pass the time on the walk. The camera crew follow us on our walk again today and the poor guys find it challenge to keep up. They are lovely guys and have shared with us that this is an unusual assignment for them, they usually have some still shots or an interview at a location. They have never had to follow their target over 15 kms before. We stopf for soft drinks and chips to recharge the kids through what is a very hot and very dusty walk. The kids though are doing an awesome job, with no complaining at all today. Our walk today is anything but picturesque. We walk predominantly alongside a dirty dusty highway with buses and trucks whizzing by our ears only a few feet away, horns once again blaring right beside our ears. You either walk on the bitumen verge closer to the highway or on the dirt track near the verge which is heavily undulating and certainly gives your calves a work out. As always there are all manner of sites to see, cows sitting in the middle of the highway, vehicles going the wrong way up main highways, oxen pulling carts, BMW X5 cruises by, you just never know what you are going to see. It is easy after all of this time walking here to be complacent about the wonderous views that surround us so every now and again we just stop and say wow! When we stop walking along the highway we end up walking along a service road next to the highway only two lanes wide with one lane taken up by parked trucks the other covered with shoe deep sand and dirt with large trucks driving up from behind us whirling the dust up into our faces.

At one point the journalist suggest we sing a song to celebrate our arrival into a town called poonammallee. We suggest Advance Australia Fair or Waltzing matilda but the kids aren’t keen. So we end up with an impromptu ‘Give me a P, P Give me an O, O’ I think you get the drift, then we finish with where are we? To which the group repeated in unison ‘I don’t know’. Not bad for something we made up on the spot. Well the song fires up the kids and the next 45 minutes the kids are in full voice doing a complete rendition of all of our family songs. The kids are walking together alongside a dusty highway in India with our four kids singing at the top of their voices, smiles beaming across their faces all four of them in full song, singing songs like “Glenelg spelt backwards is Glenelg” and “Tinatanara Kicks Forward” and Grubby Little Wombat” and “I want to be like Poppa” amongst other family favourites. Kate and I suggest to Poppa that it would be good if he could compose some more culturally appropriate and venue appropriate tunes for the kids on the next trip. Popsy makes up a walking to Chennai song on the spot that the kids sing in full voice. We get through the 3 hours very comfortably in the end and the kids finish going strong. I spot Raju ahead and let the crew know we have made it. Ally finished strongly although when she saw Raju she once again leapt to a sprint for the van almost topping the land speed record for a 12 year old. Absolutely great job by Ally and all the kids today. In the van Ally commented that today was the first day she felt she could keep going today, great job Ally! The best walker award today is definitely shared by all four kids. Very hot and very difficult conditions but not one complaint and a very determined team effort, wonderful effort kids.

We jump into the van after 3 hours of straight walking in the hot Chennai afternoon. We have finally made it from the highway to the city sprawl and despite the crowded conditions are happy to be off that dusty dangerous highway. Sitting in the van we head into the Chennai peak hour and all realise that it would have been quicker to walk than it was in the vehicle. It takes an hour to go the 10km to our hotel which is on the road we were walking down. The hotel is in the heart of Chennai and I get the immediate feeling this is not going to be a good stay. We are back into a normal hotel room with no room for Gus to run or play. Its going to be a long 3 days here! Fortunately we will not be spending a great deal of time here as we have a very busy few days coming up finishing our time with ChildFund and our walk.

As I type up today’s blog Gus is having his third little meltdown of the past 45 minutes as he copes with the walls being a little closer than he is used to. This hotel is not conducive to Gus speeding around on his scooter and there is no play area here. Well wish us luck, we may very well need it. Oh Bec shares with me that Gus and Raju have a new game they play together now, called funny faces. Whenever Gus gets into the van they each pull a new funny face. Gus ofcourse won’t let anyone else but Raju put his seatbelt on. I am not sure how Gus will cope saying goodbye to his new special Indian friend.

The kids have ordered up their dinner, Maggie was excited about the option of a pizza on the menu but it has arrived and looks like an explosion of grilled cheese on a pizza base, also not quite sure how to describe the taste, best to stick to the naan Maggie! Bec and I share a lovely chicken dish and some Aloo Jeera fried potatoes and we head to bed as Bec is still far from 100% and we hope she has a good night’s sleep. We have two double beds here so Gus, Bec and I in one and the girls in the other. Indy is very happy to be off the floor and into a bed at last.