Thursday, December 20, 2012

Saturday 15 December – Sunday 16 December

A really cool tree outside of the Good Shepherd Convent.
After leaving the Good Shepherd Convent I was back in the loving care of Sr. Deepa and the Holy Cross Sisters. I felt like I was going ‘home’ and instead of going in the front door we entered through the back. I thought I would be able to carry my own bags and clean my own dishes after meals at this point (especially since doing it all week) but I was wrong. Srs. Sheeba, Jyothi and Igna came with us from the Partners Meeting and along with Srs. Rufin, Cristy and Jeeva (who was visiting from Maski) they all doted on me as if I had just arrived. These Sisters have devoted themselves to serving the Lord and to serving others and it comes so naturally to them. I finally gave up and just allowed them to ‘mother’ me.

Srs. Jeeva, Deepa, Rufin and Cristy.
On Friday afternoon, after a week of early mornings, late nights and FULL days I crashed! I napped, had supper and went to bed before 9. I should also mention that all morning I had been telling people I was flying home that evening... I totally thought it was the 15th, but it was really only the 14th. I definitely confused some people back home and when I realized the difference was really thrown off!

Me in a bangle shop! SO many!
I’m so glad I had one more day in India as I was finally able to spend some time in Bangalore City. Srs. Deepa and Sheeba took me shopping. Sr. Sheeba is such a lovely person – I’m so happy I had an extra day to spend with her. She is the Site Director of our Assam Site in north-eastern India. The Site focuses on helping differentaly-abled people with rehab and integration into society. I had some money that I needed to spend (can’t use rupees in Canada...) and we shopped for hours, visiting street vendors and stalls! I bought another chudidar (I bought one in Kottayam and 2 were made for me in Pilarthara) and another saree. Sarees are so beautiful and very cheap. For about $4 you can buy enough material for the saree and blouse that is worn under it. I really had to use restraint! After shopping for clothes we headed to a supermarket and I stocked up on some spices. I admit I’ll be taking a break from Indian food, but soon enough I’ll want a reminder of the amazing meals I’ve had here!

A street view of Bangalore.
In the evening, after I got myself all packed and ready to go, I went to a Christmas concert with Srs. Cristy and Sheeba. It really helped to get me in the Christmas spirit. It’s been hard to remember how close it is to the holidays. The temperature has been a lovely 20+ degrees and there is no snow... I’ll be in for a shock when I get off the plane in Halifax! It was also Sr. Sheeba's birthday so we shared a yummy pineapple cake!

Leaving for the airport was bittersweet. It’s really sad to leave this wonderful country and its beautiful people but knowing that I will soon be home is really exciting! The trip home is so far uneventful (I’m currently on the flight from Frankfurt to Toronto) and the layover in Frankfurt was looooong! I must admit that boarding for the Air Canada flight was slightly frustrating. In the last three weeks I don’t think I heard a single person complain. Certainly I heard lots of desperate stories, but the desperation was not there, only honesty and gratefulness. Hearing complaints of what I call ‘first world problems’ was irritating – ‘It’s SO stuffy in this airport – they should have some fans or air conditioning;” “Can I change my seat? I don’t want to sit in a middle seat;” “There is no room for MY bags in MY compartment;” “I don’t like olives and I just ate chicken – why can’t there be more than one non-vegetarian option.” I think it’s going to take some time to readjust to my privileged lifestyle, though I hope that I never completely do. Certainly I’ve had ‘life changing’ experiences before, where I felt as though things would never go back to the way they were, and they always eventually do; if not to the way they were before, to a new kind of normal - equilibrium is always restored. I truly hope that re-reading this blog will help to keep me centered, grateful for what I do have and proud of my accomplishments, no matter how big or small. Thank you for taking the time to follow my adventure. I hope it’s been as much fun reading as it has been writing. I may come back to it from time to time and when I do, I’ll let you know. Until my next “Amazing Adventure,” I wish you an abundance of blessings and the wisdom to recognize them.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sunday 9 December – Friday 14 December

After the Sisters at Holy Cross Convent made me look beautiful in the saree I got as a gift from the HMC sub-site, Srs. Deepa, Jyothi and Igna (from Chalice’s Madurai Site) and I headed over to the Good Shepherd Convent for the Regional Partners’ Meeting. It is in a different part of Bangalore – busier than Cooke Town where the Holy Cross Convent is. I was blown away by how peaceful it is inside the Convent walls. Later in the week I commented that I wish I could bottle the feeling and take it home with me. Sr. Regina (the Site Director) and Lavitha (her right hand woman) were there to greet us and it was amazing to finally meet them in person. Ambrose was quite shocked to see me in my saree. And I also finally met Ananth Kaliyaperumal and Uma Ganesh, who work in the Chalice India Liaison Office. It was like meeting old friends!

Mine and Uma's group,
After getting settled into my room – complete with a sitting room (quickly converted into an office / meeting area), double bed, dressing room and a full bathroom with a huge tub and a hot shower - I did some unpacking! Just knowing I would be in the same place for more than 2 nights was very nice. I spent the first evening getting settled and started to meet some of our other Site Directors. There were some familiar names and faces (from pictures only) and many new ones. The food was great all week (as it has been the whole time) and we had some special treats like biryani, ice cream and samosas! As I may have already mentioned, Indians take their tea breaks very seriously! Each morning and afternoon we had a half hour break with snacks and tea. As hard as we tried to corral everyone back in 15 mins, it was a lost cause! Despite this, the breaks were a great opportunity to get to know people and digest some of what we learned in the previous session.

The Good Shepherd Sisters - Ambrose and Ananth's group.
Our meetings began the next morning after everyone arrived. Sr. Deepa would join us the following day, as after dropping me off she went back to Holy Cross to help with Sr. Amabel’s funeral arrangements. Our partner from Bangladesh had some issues with visas and could not make it. And one Site Administrator couldn’t come due to a friend’s marriage. Otherwise every Site that we work with in India was represented. Altogether we were a group of nearly 40 (20 of whom were Good Shepherd Sisters – the directors of the Bangalore Site’s sub-units).

After introducing the agenda and some house rules we got right into the Annual Financial Planning Training. Ambrose and Ananth took the Good Shepherd Sisters in one group and Uma and I handled the rest. Our group was a mixture of different accounting practices – centralized, decentralized and Direct Family Funding. During the first 2 days we spent going through the forms together. Our purpose was twofold – to get the Site Directors (accountants and field workers) comfortable with the forms and to find errors for correction. These forms are very complex so as to make them as user friendly as possible.
And we had all levels of Excel users so it was a long (but very productive) 2 days. Uma and I had a great time working together and developed a great rapport with the members of our group. By the end of the second day it was almost like we had been working together for years! It was a really wonderful opportunity to participate in this training. I learned a great deal during the process.

One of our fun energizers!
On the third day I gave a presentation on Sponsorship Administration and it was really fun! I talked about sponsorship from a sponsor’s perspective and the perspective of a Sponsor Representative. Some of the highlights were being able to share the love that sponsors have for the children they sponsor and the discussion we had about phrases that mean different things to Indians and Canadians (i.e. inmates, ‘passed out’ and boys receiving dresses...)! Knowing there would be many Site-specific questions I encouraged the Site Directors to come meet with me in the evenings and during lunch breaks – many of them took me up on the offer and it was a great opportunity to get to know people on a more personal level. My “office” was rarely empty! If Uma and I weren’t working on compiling our report from the training, one Site Director or another was visiting.

Group work on Ethics.
That afternoon we held an Ethics workshop where we challenged the Site Directors to come up with Codes of Conduct at the Managerial and Staff levels that reflected Chalice’s five values of Faith, Compassion, Respect, Integrity and Commitment. The results were impressive and we established a Working Group that will take the group documents and develop a Regional document. The Site Directors will also be going back to their communities and doing this at the grassroots level to include beneficiaries and other stakeholders who were not present at the Partners’ Meeting. It was a very powerful experience and hearing the Site Director’s discuss Values and Ethics in the following days was so affirming.

Pius Mathew speaking about DFF at the Visa Site.
We also spent some time introducing Direct Family Funding to the Sites and had some of our partners who have adopted this model of sponsorship give some testimonies of how it is working in their Sites. Not to get into the many details, Direct Family Funding is a move away from Benefits Distribution. Some of our Sites will always work best with the more traditional model of benefits distribution (i.e. orphanages and schools) but many of our partners will be transitioning to a hybrid model in the coming years. Direct Family Funding is basically what it sounds like – the sponsorship funds are deposited directly to a family’s bank account. Through small community groups and with some basic financial training, the parents of the sponsored children are accountable to each other to use the funds in the way that’s best for their family. With the Sites we’ve already transitioned to this model with it is working very well and been a positive experience. Chalice is always looking for ways to move away from dependency and towards empowerment – this is just one of them.

Ananth surrounded by the GSS.
To wrap up the week we had another day of Financial Training and a session on Results Based Management Indicators (again by yours truly – though not near as fun and exciting as the Sponsorship Presentation!). The closing prayer of the week was truly a moving experience. Everyone was invited to share a verse from the Bible that gave them comfort and encouragement. After Fr. Sampson’s mass that morning it really touched me and affirmed how important this Meeting was for our partners. The spirituality, faith and trust that I felt is beyond words. Working for an organization where this part of me is nourished and challenged goes far beyond any pay cheque ever could.

Ambrose addressing the group.
Overall the experience of this week has been amazing; certainly in a different way than the previous week but valuable and memorable all the same. I’ll try to describe some of our partners, and at very least list them all. The Good Shepherd Sisters administrate the Bangalore Site. The name of the Site can be very misleading – the central office is in Bangalore but the sub-units (18 of them) are found in 6 states. They each have a different focus. The Sisters are all so amazing. I still don’t know all of their names but I think I had the opportunity to speak with each one individually over the course of the week. In north-east India we have 2 Sites – Assam and Imphal. Assam’s Site Director is Sr. Sheeba – a Holy Cross Sister. I talk more about her in the next post. Imphal’s Site Director is Fr. Dominic. He works with the Diocesan Social Service Society. The Site is working in 6 tribal villages in the foothills of Manipur. We had the opportunity to speak about some of the obstacles they face there. There are many tensions at play in this area – a strong military presence, physical separation from the Indian sub-continent, refugees from neighbouring Burma, conversion to Christianity, a transition from subsistence farming to more modern techniques, the introduction of money and western things, and the list goes on. Lily, the Site Administrator was unable to come as she was attending a wedding. I had really been looking forward to meeting her as this was a Site that started when I was a Sponsor Rep and I got to know her well through email. Fr. Dominic is an amazing person – so friendly and sincere. I am so happy to have met him. Going down the eastern coast we come to our Orissa Site. The head office is located in the city of Berhampur but there are sub-sites in West Bangal and Manipur as well as Orissa. Sr. Veronica and the Site accountant Prasanth were in attendance. Sr. is a sweet woman. She was a little bit scared of Excel but was ever eager to contribute to group discussion. Prasanth called me Sister all week... I gave up correcting him! He was very quick to pick up the Financial training and was really helpful in testing different things. Next is the Berhampur Site, directed by Fr. Paul. Fr. Suresh, a sub-site Director, also attended. I gave Fr. Paul a hard time during the training and he took it all in stride! He was very willing to test different things and took great care in filling everything out in its entirety (as opposed to copy and pasting like most others did to save time). Fr. Suresh was quiet but very sweet. Pius Mathew and Mr. Magesh (the Site accountant) came from the Visakhapatnam Site. Pius gave a presentation on DFF at his Site and Magesh was constantly snapping photos. This Site works in the slums of Visakhapatnam City. Pius’ brother, Binoy Mathew and Mr. Naga Babu (accountant) represented Coastal Site. Binoy greeted me every day and during the RBM session I picked on him as an example. The Coastal Site is also located in Visakhapatnam City and recently transitioned to DFF. From the Tamil Nadu Sponsor Site we had Fr. Sampson (a newer Site Director) and Kirthaka, the accountant. Fr. Sampson is a really kind person. I enjoyed getting to know him during the training. Kirthaka is a sweet woman. She and her husband have been trying to have a baby for several years with no luck. I told her I’d pray that they be blessed with a baby soon. The Tamil Site is also a new DFF Site. It is located in the state of Tamil and each of the six sub-sites is a different diocesan vicariate. Sr. Metty came from the newest Indian Site – Nellore. There are 2 sub-sites. One of them is working with children infected or affected by HIV. When Sr. Metty came to meet with me one evening she told me about the difficult work they do. Recently a single mother of 3 boys passed away from AIDS. The day that she passed she phoned Sr. Metty and made her promise that she would look after her sons. The boys are now staying in the hostel. She teared up when she told me, and of course I did too! Srs. Jyothi and Igna came from Madurai Site. This Site is in the state of Madurai. They are both Holy Cross Sisters and I got a chance to spend some extra time with them after the meetings at the Convent. Sr. Jyothi is small in stature but makes up for it in spirit! Sr. Igna does so much at the Site but when you ask her to speak she totally clams up! She is very quiet and spent the week taking everything in. From our smallest Site Janodayam Ms. Vinola and Mrs. Jeyajekshmi (field workers) attended. Vinola was always smiling and gave an exceptional presentation during the Ethics session. It was a joy to get to know her. And of course there was Sr. Deepa the Kerala Site Director and my personal guide during the first 10 days. If you want any more information about the partners with whom Chalice works in India, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me! (
The whole group! It took several tries to get everyone in but we succeeded!

The week ended far too quickly and before I knew it I was caught up in a whirlwind of goodbyes, invitations to visit and hugs. If you know how emotional I am, you’d be very surprised to know I totally held it together! I never once felt that this was the first and last time I’d be meeting these people and I know that this experience has only deepened the working relationship we have with each other. I left the Good Shepherd Convent with a deep sense of peace and accomplishment.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Friday 7 December – Sunday 9 December

Lal, Christeena’s father, drove us to the train station this morning after breakfast. The train ride was not the most pleasant 8 hours of my life but we survived. We had a sitting reservation in an air-conditioned coach. The AC was broke and it was HOT! But the time we arrived at Pilarthara I was not feeling very well. We had a warm welcome from Sr. Tessy and the other Sisters. Sr. Tessy is the sub-site director (HCR) and just amazing; so much energy and life! She felt really bad that I wasn’t feeling well. She dragged my bed directly under the fan and ordered me to rest and drink water until dinner. She also brought me fresh papaya – the first I’d had. Dinner for me was plain rice and plantains. I went directly to bed and slept straight through until the next morning.

I felt like myself again after a good night’s rest. It’s a good thing because we had a full day ahead of us! Before breakfast I ventured outside and came across a group of girls who are studying to enter the Convent. They were all smiles as I took photos of them filling buckets with water. They had a lot of fun asking me questions in English and they called me their “White Sister”. After breakfast Sr. Deepa, Sr. Tessy and I headed out for some family visits. Our driver today was Godwin. His auto-rickshaw was the nicest I’ve seen. I could tell he was a man who was very proud of what he had in life.

Our first stop was to the home of a sponsored child – Stephan. Compared to the homes we visited in Mannackanad, Stephan’s house was very nice. His father is a carpenter and his skill level was evident in the home he (gradually) built for his family. Stephan’s brother Richard is differently-abled. I wasn’t quite sure what happened but I gathered that he was born healthy and started getting sick when he was 2 or 3. He is about 12 now and totally dependent on people for everything. In addition to his mental challenges he also has serious internal injuries that prevent him from being left alone for even a minute. He can’t attend school and there are no rehab or special facilities close enough for him to attend. The bond that the brothers share was instantly obvious. Stephan takes care of Richard and helps his parents a lot. 
He is presently in the 10th standard and his dream has always been to become a priest. Stephan’s sponsorship allows him to attend an English Medium School and get a far better education than his parents could ever have given him on their own. Stephan’s mother cannot work due to Richard’s condition. Sr. Tessy wanted her to join the Skills@Chalice tailoring centre so she could develop skills to be able to work from home but the attendance is incredibly strict and the programme very demanding. Stephen’s sponsor sends an extra $20 per month to help with Richard’s medical expenses. This help is beyond description for this family. Stephan’s parents were so grateful to me for the help they receive from Chalice. Their joy was written all over their faces and I got hugs from everyone to take home to Canada. I can’t wait to call the sponsors of the children I visited! It’s such a blessing to be able to pass along the words of gratitude first hand.

The next home we visited was... Godwin’s home! His wife Joyci graduated from the first Skills@Chalice class here. Their son Jibin is sponsored and they spoke of him with such pride. His dream is to join the army. They told me that he has a passion for music and loves to sing and play the guitar. It was in moments like these that basic human alikeness was so apparent to me. Jibin could be any 17 year old boy I know. And his parents’ pride in him was not unlike that of my parents’ in me and my sister. Godwin’s mother Sumitra stays with them. She is in a lot of physical pain and it was a struggle for her to stand and walk. I gave her my chair and once she was settled she began to cry as she told me of her difficulties. She was such a sweet lady and thanked me for coming to visit them. Godwin and Joyci had disappeared into the kitchen and returned with tender coconut for us, right out of the coconut! Once I drained mine they broke it open so I could eat the yummy flesh. It was the best one I had yet! Joyci told me of her experience with the Skills@Chalice. Before taking the training she wasn’t working at all. She had no confidence in her ability to learn something and began the course with very low expectations. Now she is sewing night gowns and selling them in the community. The Skills@Chalice course taught her how to sew and most importantly proved to her that she can learn new things and contribute to her family’s economic well-being. I commented to Sr. Tessy on how nice their home was when we left and she told me that Godwin is a very hardworking man and always put his family first. After seeing so much evidence of the contrary when we did our last home visits, this was such a refreshing thing to see.

The last house we visited was almost a mansion compared to the tents and ramshackle homes we saw earlier this week. It was the home of another Skills@Chalice graduate. Her husband is a retired police officer and they have two grown sons. While their economic condition was nowhere near as pathetic as the other families we visited, the wife’s inability to contribute to the family before taking the training was the same. It was really nice to see that Skills@Chalice is reaching out to as many people as possible in this small community – if a woman could benefit from the training she is accepted, despite the level of her economic situation. As I would witness later, one of the biggest gifts of this programme is that it has brought women together in solidarity and given them a support circle that they were lacking before. This woman was so proud to show me some of her projects. Before taking the Skills@Chalice training she knew absolutely nothing about sewing. She is now making clothes for some of the children in the community and gaining so much self-confidence.  She smiled the whole time we were there and was so grateful that we took the time to stop and visit her.

Back at the convent we had lunch and I was shown the Skills@Chalice centre and the grounds of the convent. This place is truly a piece of heaven. The tranquility made me never want to leave! I hope to come back someday and spend some time nurturing my soul. My only regret is that we were to spend less than 24 hours here before having to make the journey back to Bangalore. The Skills@Chalice training is taking place in the old convent. After building the present building they turned the old (very tiny) one into a computer room for the children and are now adding an addition on to give more space for the tailoring class. I was also shown the Chalice-funded well. We had a staff meeting and discussed some of the obstacles the sub-site here faces as well as the success of the Skills@Chalice initiative.

The afternoon consisted of meeting the two Skills@Chalice batches and a meeting with sponsored children and their parents, complete with a cultural programme. Meeting the women who have graduated from or are presently in the tailoring class was a joy! I took the time to look at every single exercise book that they brought to show me. They were all very similar but the pride I saw on these women’s faces when I opened their book made each one unique and personal. Many of them stood and spoke of how much of a blessing this opportunity was for them.
They spoke of things like self-confidence, new friends, support and independence – the actual skills they learned seemed almost secondary to the experience in itself. Some of the women had been working demanding jobs which had taken a toll on them. These new skills have given them the option to work from home and continue to contribute to their family. Others had never worked and have gained independence and self-confidence. Many had never gone for higher education. This course showed them they are never too old to learn something new, despite their convictions that the book had been ‘put back on the shelf’ for good. The dedication of these women was so evident. They are committed to each other and to making their lives more meaningful.

So far every Skills@Chalice initiative I visited was completely different. It is wonderful that we can be flexible and meet the needs of the communities in which we work as opposed to having a ‘cookie cutter’ model that the communities have to take or leave. In my opinion this is one of Chalice’s biggest strengths and the sponsorship programme is the same in this respect. Before a Skills@Chalice course is ever started the Site does a market scan to see what services are most needed and would be the best skills training to offer. In this way they are making the community aware of the training and hopefully securing job opportunities for the graduates. This is the part of the process I would like to learn more about as it is a crucial step. From what I’ve gathered the outcomes of Skills@Chalice initiative will be much greater than imagined. I’ve already seen evidence of this in the passionate responses I’ve gotten from the participants I met. This is about much more than skills training...

The programme with the sponsored children and their parents was excellent. Some people shared their story – a sponsored girl spoke of how much her life has changed for the positive and broke into tears when she told everyone that helping others is now her top priority in life; the older brother of a sponsored boy spoke (in English) on behalf of his parents and thanked Chalice for giving his brother an opportunity to excel by attending a good school; the father of two sponsored boys (it was the sponsor’s request to sponsor the brother – usually we sponsor one child per family unless the family is really large) came forward and told everyone how sponsorship was a blessing to his whole family as he suffers from a serious skin disease that prevents him from working. A boy who is very talented in public speaking recited a speech about faith. It was really moving and though I didn’t understand what he said, his passion touched the hearts of everyone in the room. After he spoke I addressed the whole group and told them that we are all required to live out our faith through action. In order for good things to happen in our life we must work hard to achieve them, while keeping faith they will happen in their own time and way. Praying for something isn’t enough. I used the example of myself, of how I always wanted to visit other countries and though I had faith it would happen I worked very hard to get here – I didn’t just wake up in India! I also spoke of the importance of using the talents we are given. It may take time to discover them (like the women in the Skills@Chalice course) but once we do, it is our responsibility to use them to their fullest.

Finally it was time to sit back, relax and watch the programme! The Skills@Chalice women performed two beautiful dances and one sang a traditional Christmas song. Sr. Tessy told me that many of these women were incredibly shy and withdrawn a few months ago. You would never have guessed it by the way they performed! I was also told they had been practicing for weeks to get it just right. A few children danced and sang and a cute little boy of 4 or 5 recited a poem (he was newly sponsored). When it was over each parent wanted to greet me personally. I was asked to sign autographs again and took many photos! It was really hard to leave the crowd but we had to get to the train station for the overnight journey to Bangalore. As I was making my way back to the convent a boy of about 16 ran after me and asked me to take a photo with him. He asked me if I knew his sponsor and showed me her name on his Chalice badge. I assured him that I would call her when I got back to Canada and send her a copy of the photo we took. He was so pleased.

On the train Sr. Deepa and I met a couple from Bangalore who had spent 10 years in Zambia and came back to India to settle in retirement. They were on their way to a family reunion in New Zealand. The man was an accountant and the woman was a biology teacher in an international high school. We had some really great discussions. Again I was on the top bunk and slept a lot better than my first night on the train. We arrived in Bangalore at 7 am to some very sad news. Sr. Amabel, one of the Sisters at Sr. Deepa’s Convent in Bangalore passed away at 5:30 that morning. When we arrived at the Convent we paid our respects and I went to my room to allow Sr. Deepa time to help with the preparations for her funeral. I spent the day resting and getting ready to go to the Good Shepherd Convent where the next part of my amazing adventure would commence and prove to be exciting and incredibly valuable to me and everyone attending – the Chalice India Partners’ Meeting.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thursday 6 December

This morning I woke up excited for the day ahead. It is a much needed break from the constant work and travel that I’ve experienced. Doing international work takes a certain kind of person. Not that I don’t work hard when I’m at home, but I’ve been on constant duty! I was lucky not to have experienced jet lag on the way here and easily fell into a routine waking at 5 when the Sisters get up for devotion and mass and working until breakfast. Each evening I tell myself I will go to bed early but at 10 or 11 I’m still typing away or sorting through photos or making notes about my day. I still have to prepare my presentations for the Partners’ Meeting next week... I’ll do that ‘tomorrow’! I surely have a new appreciation for people who work on the road.

After breakfast Sr. and I took a taxi to Kumarakom. This area is referred to as “God’s Own Country”. Quite the marketing strategy! The Backwaters of Kerala are very famous in India. As soon as I tell people I am going boating they know exactly where and tell me I’ll enjoy myself. Check out the Wikipedia article to get an overview and see some photos. The taxi ride was really nice. A man named Lahl (his baptismal name is Jose) and it turns out he is the father of Christeena (from my last post). I was able to speak with him about his family and learned his wife is called Sunita and he has 2 children. The language barrier made it difficult but I could tell he is very proud of his family and especially of Christeena. She has severe mental and physical health issues and is totally dependent on others for everything. Ever since I met Christeena I couldn’t stop thinking of her. The staff at the Holy Cross School are so fond of her and she brings smiles to so many people. After making sure she was still available to sponsor I informed Sr. Rani that Julie and I would be her sponsors. I know we’ll make a huge impact on her life and the lives of her father, mother and brother. I can’t wait to get my sponsorship package in the mail! To sponsor a child like Christeena go to the Chalice website, where we have a selection of children who are waiting for sponsors from all over the world (Chalice works in 15 countries). For a child from one of the Kerala sub-sites (or if one on the website doesn't catch your eye) you can email me ( and I will get you in touch the Sponsor Representative for that Site.

When we arrived in Kumarakom we were taken to an amazing houseboat that was waiting for us in a canal. While we waited for the crew to get ready Sr. Deepa and I relaxed in the comfy chairs and couch that was at the front of the boat. It is called a houseboat because it has all of the amenities that a house would have – chairs, couch, dining table, television, bedroom, bathroom, etc. We had this boat all to ourselves! As we waited to get going we listen to the sounds of worship from a nearby Hindu temple. So relaxing!

The boat ride lasted 4 hours. On one side of the canal was a bird sanctuary so I saw many beautiful, colourful birds. When we left the canal we were in a large body of water. There were flowers all over the surface of the water and many birds fishing. The scenery was beautiful and there were palm trees lining the water. We passed a small island that Sr. Deepa told me used to have about 10 families who lived on it but the government deemed it unsafe and took it over. There were many men out fishing and I was able to get some great photos of them. Some didn’t have anyone in them and one of the boat crew told me that they were fishing for shell fish.

The water was only about 15-20 feet deep. A few large bodies of water like the one we were in are all connected by canal systems and flow into the Arabian Sea. It is freshwater and there is a particular type of fish that is typical of this area. I was told it was on the menu for lunch.

At one point we docked on the side of a canal and we got out of the boat to get a treat of toddy and shellfish (the kind the men were fishing). A man went up the tree and returned with a bucket of liquid. Toddy is basically coconut wine. It ferments naturally and has quite a kick to it! We got back in the boat and it was time for lunch. And did we feast! I can’t name the food we ate but I can tell you it was very tasty! With a couple glasses of toddy and coffee and cookies for dessert, we ate like queens!

On the way back to where we started we stayed close to the shore, which was lined with resorts. There were a few domestic houses and I saw people doing all sorts of daily things – washing dishes (right in the water), bathing and filling water jugs. It was very interesting! We also saw a few fishing boats that had makeshift sails made from plastic sheets pieced together (much like the construction of Peter and Mary house from yesterday morning).

After the boat ride Sr. Deepa and I went shopping! I found a nice chudidar for myself and a few gifts. We also went to a supermarket to buy some cardamom (my favourite!) and poppadoms!!! The poppadoms we had on the boat were the best ones I ever had. They are like a huge chip that is fried in oil and puffs up into bubbles. I hope the ones I bought are even half as good as the ones I ate. On our way back to Mannackanad we visited Sr. Deepa’s sister and her family. They had (yet another) feast prepared for ‘tea’. I have never eaten as much as I have in India. Indians are faithful to their morning and afternoon tea breaks and there is always a variety of snacks. I tried tapioca and oxen. I loved the oxen but not the tapioca so much. It’s a root vegetable and used in much the same way as potatoes. We also had more shellfish and there were no less than 6 different sweet treats to try.

At the end of our outing I was feeling great! A day off was just what I needed to regroup and process everything I’ve experienced so far. I was exhausted in a different way and went straight to bed. The next day we were to travel by train (7 hours) up to Pilarthara where we have another sub-site and another Skills@Chalice initiative.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wednesday 5 December - afternoon

When we returned to the Convent the parents of the HMM sponsored children were gathered. They had been waiting quite a while as we were visiting homes much longer than planned. Several of them spoke about what sponsorship has meant for their family. They spoke of how they never thought their differently-abled child would be able to learn and develop but since coming to the Holy Cross School they have seen great development and positive changes in their behaviour. They spoke of the pride they have in their children and how the views of society are slowly changing to accept their children. One mother said that it took some time and a lot of searching but her child’s talents are shining and he is doing very well. A father who is a retired police officer came to this village and did not expect to stay long. Now that his child is in school and developing many skills he says he won’t leave. The last mother said that her special child is a special gift from God. What more could I say after that? I told the parents that we all have difficulties. Their children’s may be more visible than others, but we all struggle. By loving their children they are showing others that every child is a gift from God regardless of how their difficulties are displayed. Sr. Rani asked if I could explain why some children are sponsored very quickly and others take a very long time. I explained the best I could how we find the sponsors and why sponsors may choose to sponsor a certain child. They also asked how we can help them more – sponsorship does help but their problems are so great. Sr. Rani explained that this is a common question they are asked and a problem they face.
Though they recognize how much sponsorship makes a difference and are grateful the parents always ask for more. I guess I can understand where they are coming from. Who wouldn’t want as much for their child as possible? Chalice has appeared as a source of assistance and they naturally want to get as much benefit as possible. After we were finished talking some of the children performed a dance for us. They were dressed in shiny costumes and were obviously having a wonderful time showing off their talents! I had a chance to mingle with the parents and some of the children at the end of the meeting. They all wanted a chance to say thank you and speak to me in what little English they knew. I held some of the smaller children and gave lots of kisses.

After lunch I went into the classrooms and met some of the differently-abled children who attend the Special School. The first room was smaller children who were playing with some toy animals. They were all very interested in my camera and didn’t so much want to have their photo taken as touch it.
This room is also where the physiotherapist works with the children who have physical difficulties. I met a special young woman named Christeena. She has cerebral palsy and mental delays; she cannot sit alone, stand or talk. Her legs do not bend and she is completely dependent on others for almost everything. One of the things she can do very well is smile! I sat with her for awhile and we had a nice time together. Christeena has been waiting for a sponsor for two years. To sponsor a child like Christeena go to the Chalice website, where we have a selection of children who are waiting for sponsors from all over the world (Chalice works in 15 countries). For a child from one of the Kerala sub-sites (or if one on the website doesn't catch your eye) you can email me ( and I will get you in touch the Sponsor Representative for that Site.

The next class was for children who were a bit older and had higher mental capacities. One young man was very shy and would not even look at me! The others had no problem showing me their workbooks and telling me what they are learning. One boy was very proud of his counting ability and made it all the way up to 100! 
The last class I visited was for young men and women. I met Abi who has cerebral palsy and struggles to control his movement. He took great pride in writing his name for me, both in the local language and in English! The Srs. brought out some small cupcakes for me to give to the students as a treat. That made me very popular!

Sr. Mary (lt) and Sr. Rani (rt) in front of Convent
After visiting the school I met with the sub-site staff. There are two sub-sites here: HMM (special children and elderly) and HMC. Sr. Rani is the HMM sub-site director and she also runs the Special School. There is also an accountant, fieldworker and 3 Skills@Chalice staff (all part-time). The HMC sub-site director is Sr. Mary. They have 2 other full-time staff – a fieldworker and accountant. We spoke about some of the obstacles they face. Sr. Rani said that one of the major ones is when the fieldworkers go to visit the homes. Often no one is there and this means going back two or three times just to get an answer to a simple question. As I discovered this morning it isn’t easy getting to some of the homes. The children come from nearby villages – the farthest ones are about 20 kms away. But this is not 20 Canadian kms... it can take an hour to travel that distance here. It’s expensive and frustrating to make a home visit to find no one is there. This is the reason it can take so long to get answers to questions that sponsors have. As I saw this morning alcoholism and abuse are very big issues here among the men. The Srs. have done some addiction awareness work and they have sent some of the men to get professional help for their addictions. But often they will turn back to drinking. All of the responsibility then falls on the mother to earn enough to support the whole family without her husband getting his hands on the money. Very often the men who drink abuse their wives and children. This adds a huge stress on everyone and the children’s ability to do well in school is severely affected.

On a very positive note, Sr. Rani’s office has a showcase of many medals and trophies. Some of the students are very good athletes. This year Libin (his photo is above – his mom spoke during the meeting with the parents) brought home a medal for swimming. Last year two sponsored students won bronze in volleyball. There is also a photo in the display case of the children who participated in the Special Olympics from Mannackanad meeting India’s president at the time.

After a short rest I met with the parents and children of the HMC sub-site. Again, some of the parents spoke about how sponsorship has made a difference in their lives. A couple children also spoke, including Abin, whose house I visited first this morning. His mom is Chandramony. My message for this group was for the children to study hard and do well in life – this is the way they can repay their sponsor. To the parents I told them they must teach their children how to love by loving each other always. One of the sponsored girls performed two dances for us. She is incredibly talented and her goal in life is to study dance at a local college and teach. At the end I had a chance to meet each parent who attended (it was mostly mothers who came, but there were 3 fathers – I made sure to especially thank them).

Finally this exhausting day is over! I took a much needed shower and had a small supper. I think I will sleep very well tonight. Tomorrow Sr. Deepa has a fun day planned for us. We will go boating in the Backwaters of Kerala and then shopping in Kottayam!