We made it!

We made it!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

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.

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