All of the girls who live at The Refuge orphanage in Kolkata, India (photo taken early 2019).
When Dr. Joya Chatterjee and I visited Kolkata in February 2019, we had the opportunity to meet with all of the girls who live at The Refuge, the orphanage that we are currently partnering with in India. Started in 1901, "The Refuge" was founded to provide shelter to those who are homeless, irrespective of age, caste, religion or community, and today it cares for about 325 children and 30 elderly.
In 2018, with the support of Love Forward, all nine girls who graduated from high school and aged-out of The Refuge began attending local universities, pursuing degrees as diverse as engineering, accountancy, and criminal law. This was the first year that the girls leaving The Refuge had the opportunity to pursue a higher education. During our visit, we shared our vision with the full assembly of about 150 girls living at The Refuge: that if they work hard, every one of them can have the same opportunity to attend local universities, through the support of Love Forward.
We are excited to share that our program has already increased the motivation and vision of upcoming classes of students, who now have future opportunities that they didn't have previously. In the fall of 2019, two of the five students who graduated from The Refuge earlier in the year - Jayashree and Madhumita - successfully tested into the most competitive nursing program in Kolkata, at the Calcutta Medical College. This prestigious medical school was established in 1835 by Lord William Bentinck and became the first institute to teach modern medicine in all of Asia.
Equally encouraging is to hear how our students are growing in confidence and self-advocacy. One of our current students, who is studying engineering, recently received a failing grade from her professor. Unfortunately, students from prominent families often receive higher grades, simply because the professors know that their grades will receive greater scrutiny, while students from lower castes or families sometimes receive less equitable treatment. Our scholar appealed her grade to the department and won her appeal, proving the original grade had been given in error.
The opportunity to pursue a higher education, after leaving an orphanage like The Refuge, opens up new doors of opportunity and can radically change the trajectory of these young women's lives. It provides a hope for a future that was previously beyond reach, or perhaps never even considered. Returning to a subsistence living and extreme poverty is no longer an inescapable fate. No longer captive to her past family or circumstances, each of our students can chart her own path, take control of her own destiny, and create a new future not only for herself, but for future generations.
For the students we sponsor, such a future would not be possible without us as their allies. Our students are encouraged to pursue any career, consistent with their personal interests and abilities, whether in education, social work, nursing, accounting, or any other field. Previously, in India, the only option for many of the girls leaving The Refuge was an arranged marriage. But today, even the youngest girls at The Refuge can hope for something different and know that their hard work in school can lead to a brighter future.
Of course, a higher education is not the only component to changing our student's lives. Education helps break the cycle of poverty economically but not internally. A college degree is not a substitute for a family, and it cannot heal wounds from the past.
Recognizing this, Love Forward takes a holistic view toward supporting its students. We partner with local organizations, mentors, and counselors to provide emotional, psychological, and spiritual support for the students, as appropriate, so they can continue to grow personally and heal from past abandonment or abuse. And as a board, we also connect personally with the students to provide encouragement and support from every level of our organization.