Community Service

While travel has innumberable benefits, one of the greatest is perspective.  When you see how others live and the challenges they face, you can better understand your place in the world.  Although I’ve visited many places, I’ve never found a better place to learn perspective than in India.  I’ve always said that I wish all Americans could spend just a few hours in India so they could realize how blessed most Americans are.

Shanna’s father is involved with an organization called CRY, a non-profit whose primary goal is to provide education to children in India who would otherwise go without.  CRY has projects throughout India, including several in Delhi.  Using his contacts, Shanna’s father organized a trip to one such project for me, Shanna and her parents.
Quickly after turning off a main road outside Delhi, we came upon a slum area like nothing I’ve ever seen.  The ground was a dry, dusty dirt that looked as if it hadn’t seen water in years, and the “homes” were makeshift tents that had been built with scraps found in the garbage dump located a few hundred yards away.  As we walked through the village, we were swarmed by children and intrigued adults whose clothes were mostly ripped and filthy dirty.  Many of the children were without clothes at all, and shoes were a luxury in which few had the means to indulge.  Our hearts sank.

The representatives of CRY, including one of the teachers from the village, led us around this village and two others within walking distance.  The villages are mostly made up of nomadic people who have left their prior homes and made their way to Delhi in search of a better life.  If this way of life is any improvement to their prior one, I can’t even begin to picture what that one must have been like.  The villagers spend their days attempting to make money any way they can, including “ragpicking,” where they sift through the garbage left at the dump next to the village in hopes of finding anything of value. In a perverse manner of environmental service, much of their success in ragpicking includes finding and selling recyclable goods (such as plastic water bottles).  The remainder of their time is consumed with basic survival, including the daily carrying of water jug by jug from a nearby water source with – to say the least – questionable sanitation levels.
In these villages, where basic needs are barely met, education of children is an afterthought.  Many of the children start trying to earn money for their families – including by way of begging – soon after they’re able to walk.  In some cases, parents have to be convinced that education is a valuable use of their child’s time.  After all, every hour in school is another hour where money is not made (and food purchased with that money is not put on the table).

With its funds, CRY has set up schools in each of the three villages we visited.  In one case, the school met under a tent; in the other two, children learned in a windowless stone hut.  Noticeably absent were any of the items you see in most classrooms in America: no computers (you need electricity for that…), no chairs and no desks. Some of the children simply had a small chalkboard and a piece of chalk – we were told that this was preferred to pencils and paper because a constant supply of paper would be cost-prohibitive.

Even with these seemingly insurmountable hurdles, the smiles on the children’s faces were impossibly big.  They took turns singing us songs they had learned in school, most of which were laden with inspirational lyrics.  Shanna’s mom, a pre-school teacher in Michigan, taught a few songs to the children.  They were quick learners and seemed starved for interaction.  As we made our way out of the village, we passed by one of the classrooms where the children were sitting outside in a circle (on the dirt, of course) and playing a modifed version of duck, duck, goose – a playful escape from their dim reality.

We all came away from the experience with deep appreciation for the life we have at home, sadness for the inhabitants of these villages, disbelief that this can exist just a few miles from the opulence that exists in parts of Delhi, guilt for the excesses of our lives and resolve to support organizations like CRY.

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Many of you already know about our October visit to the orphanage in Yangxi, China.   We fell in love with the girls during our time with them, and we really struggled with the fact that they slept (and, really, lived) in metal cribs with rough, wooden bottoms.  Overwhelmed by their many trying circumstances, we left determined to remedy at least one of them by purchasing mattresses for their cribs.  Such a task surely would have been impossible without the aid of our friends and family, who donated an incredibly generous amount of money to help with the task, and Wensi, an amazingly kind employee of the orphanage’s umbrella agency, who coordinated a Chinese factory’s production of the mattresses. 
We’re so excited to report that 120 thick, washable mattresses have just been delivered to the orphanage and placed in the cribs.  As evidenced by the pictures, the before/after contrast is profound.  We really feel like Christmas has come early this year, as much for us as for the orphanage’s children.  Thank you, thank you to all who helped with our efforts!

If Derek and I weren’t going to be on the road for the next eleven months, I’d say there’s a fair chance that, sometime during the last four days, we would have adopted a Chinese daughter.  We’ve just returned to Guangzhou from the Social Welfare Institute of Yangxi, an orphanage in the southeastern part of China.  I’m not sure that we’ve digested everything that happened during our time there, but perhaps we never will.

We found the Institute through Mindy Sontag, a dear friend in Nashville whose niece Maggie was adopted from there four years ago.  When Mindy learned that we wanted to do some volunteer work during our time in China, she asked if we would be interested in stopping by.  We responded in the affirmative, and she and her family, along with Derek’s parents and the parents of another little girl – Carly – who was adopted from the same place, offered up a very generous amount of money for us to use to purchase whatever the orphanage needed.  (We’ve posted a picture of Maggie and Carly below).
We arrived in Yangxi on Wednesday with pockets full of Chinese yuan.  We literally showed up on the orphanage doorstep and–with much gesturing and thumbing through our very cursory Chinese phrasebook–announced “we’ve come bearing gifts…let’s go shopping.”  And so we piled into a minivan with a bunch of the Institute’s higher-ups.  In a prelude to the incredible hospitality that the staff would show us over the next few days, our first stop was a hotel, where the orphanage director negotiated a rate for us that was 1/5 of the one posted.   Then we were off to the market, where the staff selected a bouncy chair, a blender, 200 baby bottles and some plastic baskets.  Our next stop was an appliance store, where a washing machine and a bottle sterilizer were purchased in rapid measure.  Later, the director placed an order for 90 onesies (for those of you without kids, that’s a kind of baby clothing…), which should arrive next week.  We found ourselves wishing that Mindy and family were there to witness the shopping spree.

Having obtained permission to volunteer  atthe orphanage for a couple of days, we arrived on Thursday morning and spent a couple of hours folding what must have been thousands of cloth diapers.  And then we got to meet the babies.  Here’s the part we haven’t digested yet.
In our estimation, the Institute houses about 60 babies, 58 of whom are girls.  (The remaining two are boys who appeared to be mentally and physically challenged.)  This incredible gender disparity is a product of China’s one-child policy.  Adopted in 1979 with the goal of limiting population growth, this policy restricts all urban Chinese families to one child apiece.  Rural families are allotted two children, and the eight percent of the population who qualify as minorities are exempt from the policy altogether.  Traditional thought values boys over girls, and so families with a limited number of opportunities to try for a boy sometimes abandon newborn girls.  For obvious reasons, I really struggled with this.

Because I’m entirely unfamiliar with orphanages in general and Chinese methods of child-rearing in particular, I’m finding it very difficult to write an objective report of the babies’ living conditions.  It seems that their basic needs are being met.  The appear to be well-fed.  Their diapers and their clothes are changed on a regular basis.  The institute is clean.  I’m not sure how much more one could legitimately expect.
With that said, the babies spent the great bulk of their time in small cribs made of metal bars and rough, wooden planks.  (Yes, they sleep on wood.)  They often have only a towel for a blanket.  We saw a lot of open sores and runny noses.  We saw no mobiles, no stuffed animals, no books.  We saw neither soap nor baby wipes.  My heart ached every time I entered the rooms where the babies lived, and I found myself wanting to hold each one long enough to instill in her the memory of being touched.  It was not easy, and we left with heavy hearts.  We also left on a mission to purchases a mattress for each crib.
Wensi, a kind woman here in Guangzhou who works at this area’s umbrella adoption agency and speaks fluent English (hooray!) gave up her Saturday today to help us with this task.  All day today, our Chinese guardian angel helped us to navigate this city’s busy streets and its many baby supply stores.  She also helped us to understand a lot of what we’d seen at the orphanage.  For instance, she explained that many Chinese babies sleep on wooden boards because their parents believe that it promotes bone growth.  She also assured us that all of the orphanage’s healthy babies eventually get adopted (not so for the not-so-healthy ones; they often remain institutionalized).  Her agency processed 2,200 adoptions last year alone.  Wensi told us that most Chinese people endorse the one-child policy as a way to prevent food shortages and other pitfalls of over-population.  We left her with a better understanding of how the American lens through which we view the world perhaps made a difficult situation appear even more dire than it actually was.  The perspective she offered was invaluable.

We’re meeting Wensi and her daughter in the morning to discuss over a dim sum brunch the mechanics of procuring crib mattresses (not American-style thick, but with a Chinese-acceptable level of padding) from a nearby factory.  We can only hope that, someday, she’ll visit us in the US so that we can try to repay the incredible kindness that she’s shown us.