5 October 2012
‘Be the Change Volunteers’ - Kolkata 2012
On Monday August 6th 2012, seventeen volunteers from all over Ireland, including four Mercy Sisters – Anna Mai Middleton, Evelyn Horan, Gabriel Sweeney and Patricia O’ Donovan, met at Dublin Airport to start our journey to Kolkata with The Hope Foundation.
Srs. Anna Mai Middleton, Evelyn Horan, Gabriel Sweeney and Patricia O'Donovan
Hope Foundation is an Irish non - governmental organisation which works in Kolkata where millions live in abject poverty on the streets and in some of the biggest slumps in the world. It was set up by Maureen Forrest in 1999, with the primary objective of helping underprivileged children gain access to protection, education, healthcare and nutrition. Maureen’s sister, Jenny Browne, who is a Sister of Mercy in the Southern Province, is the Overseas Director and a permanent Irish presence in Kolkata.
As you can see and hear from the following clip, we were all quite excited as we set off. We varied in age from 19 to 69, but that did not matter as we immediately bonded and got to know each other. HOPE Programmes Manager in Ireland, JP O’ Sullivan, helped to put us all at ease as he accompanied us on our journey to Kolkata.
Having arrived on Tuesday August 7th, we were immediately struck by the poverty, the humidity, the noise and the over – crowding on the streets. Kolkata is not much bigger than Dublin, but it has a registered population of 14.1 million, and it is believed that another seven million people are not registered.
During the following days we were introduced to life in Kolkata and to the various projects of the HOPE Foundation in the city. We visited crèches, residential homes, coaching centres, HOPE Hospital and the city dump where HOPE has an education centre. We spent some time in the slums where HOPE also does great work with the children, giving them access to healthy food and to education. Children at the boys’ and girls’ residential homes have lived unsupported and at risk of abuse on the streets of Kolkata as a result of being orphaned or abandoned. Supporting these children in their schooling is the most effective way of breaking the cycle of poverty and ensuring the progressive development of future generations.
We visited the skills training centre, where we saw former street children and sex workers learning to design and sew clothes and use computer, camera and video equipment. We ate lunch at the HOPE restaurant, where our delicious and inexpensive meal was prepared and served by HOPE sponsored girls
Despite the poverty and the devastating daily reality, the children are lively, smiling and full of fun. They respond to love and appreciate whatever they receive. We never heard a grumble about food or clothing. They love to sing and to dance. During our visit we saw many beautiful and graceful displays of their culture and their native dance.
For us, the four Mercy Sisters who travelled in the group, it was a great experience to share living with the younger Irish volunteers. They were full of enthusiasm and goodwill and we certainly enjoyed their company for the month.
Some of the group had already been to Kolkata during Transition Year in secondary school. This visit in August however was more challenging. This time they (as well as ourselves) had to use public transport to get to our projects. This was some experience – the ‘over over’ crowding on the bus and metro – in order to survive, one would need to be quite agile and sturdy on the feet!!!
The HOPE Foundation, with the support of WeightWatchers Ireland, opened the HOPE Hospital in 2008. The hospital provides medical treatment and health services to the most underprivileged children and adults. It is a fully equipped four floor building with modern facilities, including 36 in - patient beds. Three nights each week, the HOPE ambulance traverses the city, bringing help to those who live on the street, in the slums and in the railway station. If they find abandoned children, they take care of them. Sleeping rough on the railway station, we found crowds of people aged from five months to 85 plus years. This night run in the ambulance was quite a harrowing experience.
All in all our experience in Kolkata was challenging, enriching and life changing. We appreciate having had the opportunity to go there and spend a month with those wonderful children.
Srs. Patricia O'Donovan and Sinead Browne. Sr. Sinead works full time in Kolkata with the Hope Foundation.
We thank everybody who worked, donated and helped us in any way with our funding. We assure you that your money is being wisely used and much appreciated by the people of Kolkata.
Text: Gabriel Sweeney rsm and Patricia O'Donovan rsm
Video Recording: Evelyn Horan rsm