Puja and the five-star approach

This girl is something else!

Puja and me in the streets of CalcuttaI first met Puja years ago in the market place in Calcutta. From the very first time I saw her, I was taken by her bright personality and how very street smart she was.

Behind a five-star hotel on a “footpath”, together with her sister and mother, was home, the place Puja had lived all her life. Where she lived is also where she was educated – on the streets. She never attended a traditional school. Her mother needed her to provide for their little family, there was no time for school.

Her home on that footpath that led to the expensive hotel was something she turned to her advantage. When I first encountered Puja she was 12 years’ old and already speaking five languages – yes five – it might seem like one for each of the stars of that hotel. One day, at a nearby KFC, she gave me a few lessons – in Italian, Spanish and Bengali! She confided that her tutors were “shopping guests” from the hotel towering over her home. A leader at heart, Puja found that speaking to people in their own language has its benefits. She was determined to learn as many languages as possible and to develop her own business. As a result of her finesse the market owners came to respect her and would listen to her suggestions. She partnered with local market-stall holders to generate a commission of sales from the customers she brought to them.

entrepreneur at 12 - Puja in calcuttaPuja and Brenda in the Calcutta marketPuja stole my heart. Her tenacity and smarts really inspired me to think differently about reaching out and helping others like her trying to survive on the streets. How to help so many children who can’t go to school because they have to take care of their families instead? I knew in my heart that there had to be a solution. The answer was not to pluck them all out of their lives but to provide them with the tools and encouragement to help overcome poverty, to improve their situation.

If we plan it right we can be invited to walk alongside those in need, mentor them, supervise them for safety and provide a semblance of education. Helping them to help themselves. I make a point of visiting with Puja every time I am in Calcutta. Every visit is a sweet reunion.

Praying for a change of heart

When I am in Calcutta, I like to visit my dear friend, Ritika, who always welcomes me like a sister. I love to spend time with Ritika because in her home I feel like just one of the family. It’s a comfortable and easy transition into familiarity as we share a cup of tea and talk under the whirring fan.

One day Ritika told me the story of two girls, Jumpa and Piya, sisters aged 19 and 20.

The girls had lost their mother when they were young and their father remarried. They lived with their father, stepmother and a stepbrother in one of the slums of the city. Their new mother had no place in her heart for the sisters, favouring her son instead. Many times she would prepare food for her boy and nothing for the girls. Daily she would deprive them of food, so Jumpa and Piya regularly went to school hungry, had nothing packed for lunch, and came home not knowing if there would be something to eat that evening.

Girls have all kinds of needs, not just those that nourish the body. These girls did not have adequate clothes, there were no blankets for the cold winter nights, never mind a pillow. They suffered verbal and emotional abuse and their daily survival was becoming more and more difficult. They didn’t know where to turn but to each other. Yet they made it to school every day. School was their hope and the sisters were determined to continue their education, somehow.

Jumpa and Piya prayed and prayed that somehow God would provide and take care of their needs. Surely, God would hear their prayers? The church family helped as much as they could, and in Ritika they found a mentor. To God they made a promise that they would pray for their stepmother’s heart to change.

I was so moved by this story that I asked Ritika if I could meet the sisters and before the week was out I had the opportunity. Two such thin and extremely timid girls, they were hardly there. I attempted to communicate in my broken Bengali and was met with shy giggles – what a break through! I promised them that I would find a way to support them until they had completed their education and to provide for their daily living needs. At that moment I’m not sure who was more excited, the girls or me! We celebrated together the start of a new way forward.

Jumpa and Pyia today
Today Jumpa and Piya are in their third year at university. They are eating balanced meals, gaining weight. With their peers they are gaining confidence, laughing… But most of all, they have an outstanding testimony about how their needs were met, how their prayers were answered. A true message of hope!

In all of this the girls are giving back as they can through the church and praying for their stepmother. Last I heard it even seemed that her mother’s heart was changing towards her daughters. For that I say, thank you Lord!

La Chureca

La Chureca was a garbage city, dumped in Nicaragua’s capital of Managua.

A city built of rotting food, burning rubber, chemical waste and debris; inhabited by garbage foragers – many hundreds of them human.

As we drove down a long, gravel road leading into this place that so many call home, the sights and smells that accosted us were unbearable. An already humid air hung with the pollution of pungent, decomposing meat mixed with billowing black smoke from the burning waste. It was tough to breathe without gasping for air.

Trucks bearing Managua’s trash and slaughterhouse remains, filed past us continuously adding to the landfill’s collection, as well as bringing hope and serving up the next meal for los Churequeros.

It wasn’t just the smoke making me tear up. Amid the mountains of discarded plastics and animal remains, the landscape was crawling with adults and children, while scavenger birds swooped down among them and the filth. Discarded lives.

And yet…In the middle of this dump was a school. More than 350 children attended class in the school managed by a devoted family from America, who had the compassion and commitment to help the people of La Chureca.

Our jeep crept along and I was discreetly, but feverishly, taking photos. This particular scene immediately stopped me in my tracks:

La Chureca girl La Chureca girl turns aroundShe hadn’t seen me yet. A girl, perhaps 10 years old, was perched upon a hillside made of garbage. She was looking off into the distance of her back yard. The look was empty, hopeless and so, so sad.

Suddenly she noticed me and got up to leave. I had an urge to follow her and got out of the jeep. The girl walked steadily homeward bound and I went with her. I wanted to know more about her and the unbelievable life she was living.

La Chureca girl's familyLa Chureca girl and siblingsBeyond words: the grim reality of what we don’t see, of living behind those dilapidated walls with so many family members. And yet…the smiles.

Seeing her here, I realized immediately there was hope for this precious, hurting girl, and many more like her.

As my mind went back to the dump school, I understood it took a brave heart to step in and be committed to building relationships to make change. Clearly there was a need for direction, access to education and opportunities, as well as a consistent, positive influence. I believed at that moment that if we have a “can do” attitude, the task would not be overwhelming.

I knew then we would partner and support the school, as well as a daycare centre and feeding programs. Positive mentoring and counselling were going to be key.

Our hearts break, then we have to do something.