We made it!

We made it!

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.

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