February 5, 2007
A home for India's street children
Elizabeth sholtys is an emory college senior and founder of the ashraya institute for children
Emory's first endowed scholarship dedicated to providing service-learning abroad is the Stefanie Canright Scholarship, in honor of Stefanie Canright, an Emory graduate who died in 2004 and who had a deep love of travel and commitment to community engagement. The first recipient of the scholarship is Elizabeth Sholtys, a senior in Emory College. Sholtys used the scholarship, and other grants from Emory College and the Center for International Programs Abroad, to open and expand the Ashraya Initiative for Children, an orphanage for street children in Pune, India last year.
My 16-year-old sister loves to tell people that I am a mother of nine. "She's only 22 and she has nine kids ... the oldest one is 14!" she'll say, gleefully waiting for the inevitable incredulity to creep across their faces as they do the math. Yet it is true -- I, and a group of five other college students, have assumed legal guardianship of nine former street children in Pune, India.
It all began rather unexpectedly. While attending high school in Pune and working at various large, depressing institutions for street children and orphans, I imagined an alternative, more family-like approach to caring for these marginalized children. But I had also bought into the mainstream notions of an established order of life events, one that definitely did not include founding a nongovernmental organization or assuming guardianship of children while still in college.
As a freshman at Emory in 2004, however, it occurred to me while reading an uninspiring article on welfare reform that there was technically no reason that I couldn't start a home for street kids in India. The more I mulled it over, the more concrete it became in my mind. I was fortunate to know a group of fellow college students from around the world who were sufficiently unconventionally minded to embrace this pie-in-the-sky proposal, and soon, what had been a fleeting idea evolved into steadfast determination: we would open this home. The organization that we founded in April 2004, the Ashraya Initiative for Children, was the embodiment of this vision.
When I returned to India in the summer of 2004 with a SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory) grant for the purpose of conducting ethnographic research and photography among street children living in the railway stations of Mumbai, the goals of our emergent organization took on a whole new dimension of ethical imperative.
It was during the thousand-plus hours I spent in the railway stations that summer that I watched 5-year-olds inhale through chemical-soaked rags to get high, 7- and 8-year-olds bartering for "brown sugar" (heroin), preadolescent girls approaching foreign men to sell their services, children of all ages beaten with thick wooden sticks or hauled off to the children's prison by the police, children with festering wounds, fractured bones and missing limbs, and the lifeless bodies of several kids I had grown to know being dragged across the floor of the station by an arm or a leg, to be discarded by station officials after they had died of drug overdoses.
There were many upbeat elements of my experiences with the station kids as well, but every song, game, cheerful conversation, silly photo shoot and inside joke that I shared with those children resonated with the bleak reality of their situations and reaffirmed my unwavering commitment to opening our home.
I returned to India again in January 2005, this time with a grant from the Institute for Comparative and International Studies to work on opening the home. Our much-anticipated opening six months later marked the culmination of a great deal of planning, collaboration, working through pressure and red tape, dialogue, revision, stressed-out e-mail tag, and, when you get right down to it, physical labor (who would have thought that building shelving units and cleaning pigeon nests out of lofts could have been so taxing?).
Since our first three children joined the home that June, our family has expanded to include nine children and two local women who work as live-in caretakers. We were also able to start our first community outreach program -- educational support for 10 street girls -- this summer with the assistance of the Stefanie Canright scholarship.
I now spend part of my year working at the orphanage in Pune. Throughout everything, our work has been motivated by an unshakable idealism that refused to capitulate to the criticisms of jaded nay-sayers who insisted our ideas weren't practical or even possible; we were "just college students," after all.
Ultimately it was a gamble, I'll concede that, but one that has since been backed by relevant on-the-ground research, constant re-assessment, concrete action, responsible collaboration, and an immense commitment to the cause, to the organization, and to the children on the parts of everyone involved.
Our children are now happy, healthy, well-adjusted and thriving. They have gained admission to excellent schools, receive at least two hours of daily tutoring, and participate in a diverse range of extracurricular activities designed expressly for them by a steady flow of international and local volunteers.
Our household is trilingual (English, Marathi, Hindi), close-knit, and endlessly welcoming. The children are beginning to develop their individual identities and have dreams for the future. Regardless of their specific interests and aspirations, however, all understand that once they are independent adults, it will be their turn to carry on the torch in whatever way they are able.
It seems that it is often all too easy to look around at what we have and where we've landed in life with a sense of normalcy, and to take for granted what we see around us. No matter how much effort or time or emotional energy we invest, I don't think that I, or any of the other individuals working on this project from around the world, could ever feel like we have truly earned what has transpired since our first days as an organization.
We may be "just college students," but we successfully run a non-profit organization with branches at campuses around the world and care for nine amazing children, with plenty more on the way!
This article originally appeared in Winter 2006 International Emory.