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  • Robert Benson

Visiting Kolkata: Creating Futures and Changing Lives

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

Current residents of The Refuge orphanage in Kolkata, who will soon be graduating from high school and are candidates for the Love Forward program in 2019 and 2020.

Our students come from the most challenging backgrounds. They have grown up in orphanages and shelters, often experiencing abandonment and abuse. They have experienced what Mother Teresa once called "the greatest poverty" - the poverty of feeling unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.

We recognize that building a successful future for our students requires more than merely funding their education. We want every student we sponsor to know how deeply they are valued, loved, and cared for. Part of this comes from our local partner organizations and staff, people who have long-term relationships with them. But we can communicate this message as well. Through personal visits and communications, our students know that even on the other side of the world, there are people who care about them, keep in touch with them, know their names, and will even travel thousands of miles to spend time with them. For one reason and one reason only: they are worth it.

In February 2019, Dr. Joya Chatterjee and I spent several days visiting with our current and future students in Kolkata, India. Joya, one of our Love Forward board members, grew up in Kolkata and plays a critical role interfacing with our students there. Our goal is for at least one of our U.S. board members to visit our students in Kolkata once every year, so we can talk with each current and prospective student about they are progressing, their evolving vision for the future, and how we can be a better support for each of them on their journey.

During this visit, we met with each of the students in four classes of girls who are currently enrolled or will soon be going to college – the class of girls that left the Refuge and started college in 2018, the class that will be leaving the Refuge and starting college this summer, and the classes that will be graduating and going to college in 2020 and 2021. All total, there are about 20 young women and girls in these four classes that we anticipate sponsoring, so they can pursue a higher education when they age-out of the orphanage.

Joya and I, together with Sangeeta (a local volunteer who has been helping us interface with our students) were intentional about meeting with each class of girls as a group, and then meeting with each of the students individually. We used the time to get to know them, discuss their aspirations, and provide them the opportunity to ask questions of us. We also took advantage of this opportunity to encourage the students and express our commitment to each of them individually, while also underscoring the importance of each of them working hard in school and doing their part to create a future for themselves.

In addition to one-on-one meetings with each of our Love Forward students, we also spent time visiting with the staff of the orphanage and the other girls who live there. On the second day of our visit, The Refuge held an assembly with all of the girls who currently live at the orphanage, about 150 in total. Different groups girls shared songs and performed traditional folk dances, while others presented us with handmade crafts from recycled material. Joya and I were pulled out to join in one of the dances, and thankfully, no one videotaped my first attempt at an Indian folk dance.

Our in-person visits with our students provide unique opportunities to develop insights into their lives. On this particular visit, we learned that one of our students was facing some unique challenges, because some of her relatives were opposed to her pursuing a college education and were making her home situation exceptionally difficult. In view of this, we took steps to ensure that she moved to a healthier environment, and began considering how we could improve the living environment for future classes of students. Starting with this year's class, for example, the students will continue to live at The Refuge - in an area separate from the younger residents of the orphanage - so they have a more supportive and reliable living situation while attending classes at local universities.

During our visit, Joya collected each of our student's emails and WhatsApp contact information. Joya maintains regular contact with the girls, not only providing personal encouragement but also practical advice on everything from their books to classes (such as MOOC free online classes). Through various means, including apps and social media, we stay connected with their lives, even while living in another part of the world.

I always leave a piece of my heart behind when leaving Kolkata. I'm looking forward to my next opportunity to visit in 2020 and watching the lives of our students continue to unfold, as we walk alongside them as their allies, advocates, and friends.

Joya embracing Purbasha, who started college in 2018 studying accountancy, during our visit to Kolkata in February 2019.

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