On my third day living in the orphanage, one of the teenage girls in my cottage took me by the hand and we began the walk to her school bus stop. We had done this before, laughing, joking and talking, gesturing when one didn’t understand the other, walking along the busy road. Motorcycles, cars, auto-rickshaws, and even the odd pickup truck with a cow in the back, zipped past us on our quarter-mile walk.
But this morning, without letting go of my hand, this teenage girl looked me in the eyes and said, “Sistah, I love you.” Something like this, all at once small and huge, happened daily around here. A moment with a child, or one of the house mothers or priests that raise these beautiful orphans, or one of the residents in the nearby village—just a moment that would cut through every barrier and touch me to my deepest core.
Funny to think I am here because of my job. I am a designer and I work at Whole Foods Market as an Art Director. In 2005, Whole Foods Market started the Whole Planet Foundation to provide grants to fund microcredit lending programs in poor communities. In the community where I am living, the loans are often used to purchase weaving looms or goats, generating income for poor families and communities. The microcredit lending projects are focused on communities where Whole Foods Market sources product. Here in Southern India, it’s cashews.
But still, how did a grocery store employee end up in rural India? More than 150 Team Members just like me have volunteered in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Kenya, Peru and this inaugural trip to India through our Team Member Volunteer Program. In India the Whole Planet Foundation partnered with the Miracle Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that builds, funds and equips orphanages with programs that offer children a better level of care. I am here with eight other Team Members, working at the orphanage to build a playground for the children. Some strange part of my heart has always wanted to be in India, so when the new volunteer location was announced, I knew I had to go. I can’t think of a better way to connect to my food than to understand the land and the people who produce it.
It took us eight grueling days to build the playground with the generous help of local villagers. It is an awesome assortment of swings, a slide, teeter totter, a bright wall mural and badminton court that was born from hard work; dirt and buckets of sweat from myself and my teammates, to whom I have grown very close. Each morning we rise when it’s coolest, eat an amazing meal together (coconut curry, idili, mangoes, custard apples and the best bananas I’ve ever had), and talk about the day. Then we repeat the same routine in the evening, sinking into an exhausted sleep; proud of the day’s accomplishments.
Each morning as the children headed off to school, they would anxiously survey our progress from the edge of the playground, (mostly) resisting the temptation and obeying the Fathers to stay off the equipment until it was complete. When they were finally allowed to play, they giggled with joy, running with arms outstretched and giant smiles. The queue for the slide was always at least fifteen kids. Even a few of the house mothers took a turn, breaking their more stoic demeanor to squeal as they twisted towards the ground. Orphans or no, these are some of the happiest kids I’ve ever met.
I didn’t know what to expect from my month in India, so I brought all the energy and love I had; and a duffel bag full of toys. What I didn’t realize was what these beautiful kids wanted most from me was to just be. Just be there to walk them to the bus, play games, watch them color, kick a soccer ball; to gather them up in my arms and hug them as hard as I could when they came home from school every day.
When it came time to say goodbye the children kept telling us, “No crying, no crying!” while tears poured down their cheeks and they blotted ours with the corners of their scarves. One of the teenage girls from my house put her hand over my heart and said, “You will always be felt here, you are like a sister to all of us.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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