Reports on how charity work and development continues at the childrens and young women's residential boarding school in Bhubaneswar in Odisha, India.
Malcolm Harper reports
There has been lots going on in Orissa, and here in England too, since our last newsletter in January; apologies for the long silence since then.
First, our new project on Bhubaneswar railway station, run by Manoj Kumar and his colleagues who have joined him to form our new partner organisation, 'SOCH', their acronym for 'Society for Children'.
Thousands of children show up at Indian railway stations every month. They have left their homes for all manner of reasons, sometimes trivial, sometimes not. Some of them find their way back home, or are picked up by the police and sent to state or voluntary care hostels, of widely differing standards, but most end up as beggars, labourers, thieves and sex workers. Or, often, dead.
Over a hundred such children come to Bhubaneswar station in Orissa every month. They come from all over Eastern India, and 'SOCH' has staff on the platform to identify and befriend these children, to find out where they have come from, and why. SOCH then contacts their families, which is not always easy, or even possible, and many children have travelled hundreds of kilometers from their homes, so that they have no idea where they are, or where they have come from, and they may not speak the local language of Orissa. You may have read earlier of Shanti, a little girl who is now at PUSS and doing well. She was lucky enough to have been found by a kind passer-by at the station but we have never been able to find out where she came from.
But even quite poor people in India own mobile phones now, and this makes communication much easier. After some counseling, and if it is appropriate, SOCH staff take the children home or arrange for their family to come and get them. Otherwise, they arrange for the children to be taken care of elsewhere, possibly at PUSS.
Lots of children run away from home everywhere, in the UK as well as in India, but we have official systems which, however imperfect, generally take care of them and reunite them with their families whenever it is possible. In India, the government is working to create such systems, but it is not easy, and those of you who have travelled in India and other similar places will surely have seen children on the streets and railway stations, begging, stealing, taking drugs and otherwise being abused. In a small way, we are helping to deal with this.
We started this work in July, and in August, the first full month of activity, we reunited 24 children with their families. You can read about Kim on our website.
Sonu is another case. He is a fourteen year old from Jharkhand, a state to the North of Orissa, who had been 'sold' as a bonded labourer to a nearby workshop to settle a family debt. He hated his work there, and when the owner beat him he ran away and jumped on to a train at the local station. Lots of children live on trains in India, scavenging for scraps of food, stealing, or sometimes helping passengers with their luggage, but after some time Sonu found this was too tough.
He got off the train at Bhubaneswar, not knowing where he was, and unable to speak Oriya, the local language. When the SOCH worker contacted him he had not eaten for three days; after he had been given some food and rest he admitted that he really wanted to go home.
He remembered a friend's mobile number and SOCH was able to contact his family, and after some counselling his parents realised that he should be at school. They travelled for two days to Bhubaneswar, and he was reunited with them on 9th August. SOCH staff talked to the family at some length before they went home, and they have followed them up since. So far, all is well, and Sonu is going back to school.
Sonu reunited with his parents
Most of the children who run away from home and end up at railway stations are boys; far fewer girls run away, and, sadly, many of those that do are grabbed very fast by traffickers, even on the trains themselves, because they are 'valuable merchandise'. So far, SOCH have not found any girls, but if they do, and if for any reason they cannot be reunited with their families, they will be able to go to PUSS, We believe, however, that 'home is best'; life in an institution, even as nice a one as PUSS, can never be as good as life at home, unless there is no home, or conditions at home are intolerable. The PUSS school takes care of those who cannot be at home, and the railway platform project sends home those who should be at home.
Manoj Kumar, who has started SOCH with our support, has many years experience of working for an organisation which does similar work for railway children in Bangalore and other larger cities, they send home several hundred children every month, and they have found that over 80% of the children whom they assist can and should go home; they place the other 20% with various institutions, and we are in contact with such institutions for children who cannot or should not go back home, and who cannot be accommodated at PUSS.
The PUSS school continues to flourish. Thanks to your generosity we have been able to improve the diet, and to provide beds for children who used to sleep on mats on the floor. This is what they were used to at whatever homes they have come from, but the better food, and improved sleeping conditions, have had a remarkable effect on the children's health.
One measure of this is the reduction in medical expenses. These have been almost halved in recent months; the extra cost of better food, including more regular servings of eggs and more fruit, has more than absorbed the saving, and the cost of basic food costs in India continues to rise at a rapid pace, but it is encouraging to see the direct effects of improved conditions.
Dear Bulari is still struggling with her HIV/AIDS infection, but she is cheerful and plays her full part in the school. She is getting good attention and the necessary medication from a nearby clinic, and we hope that she will continue to do well; nothing is easy.
Kuku has also recruited a new and experienced accountant, one Mr Mohanty. Kuku herself has extensive experience of working in accounts in various organisations, before she was catapulted into the management of the PUSS school by the untimely deaths of its two founders four years ago, and it has been difficult for her to delegate this vital work to others so that she can give more time to the children, the teachers and the general management of what is a rather complex organisation. A day-school with a hundred pupils in England may have a head teacher, a deputy head and an administrator. Kuku has to make do with much less help in a boarding school with around 400 children, and Mr Mohanty's arrival will give her more time to work with the teachers, and to help individual children, which she does so well.
Kuku talking to a
And there is lots of news from 'the home front' in England as well. John Fielding, our wonderful Hon. Treasurer, has decided to stand down. We are enormously grateful to him for all his good work. He has gently but rigorously kept us on the straight and narrow for many years, and has done a superb job with our accounts, ensuring that the Government gives us our due in 'GiftAid' every year and that we know where we stand financially.
He has also helped Kuku and her colleagues at PUSS itself in India to improve their systems, by going to Orissa and with frequent correspondence, and he will be sorely missed.
His successor has not yet been formally appointed, but we are confident that she (yes, she is a she) will maintain the same standards that Rodney Newth and John Fielding have set before her.
Her husband is also helping to keep us up to date, and is assisting in the management of the website which Mark Cullen set up many years ago and which is now the main vehicle of communication for most, but not all of our supporters. We are as ever grateful to them and everyone who helps us and thus helps the children in Orissa.
Fund raising is of course what it's all about. Hannah Durden ran in the 'Virgin Iron wo/man' event; she swam 1.9 km, ran 21 km and biked 90 km. Then, she went on to the 'Big Woody' and swam, ran and biked two times each of these distances. Her lunacy was rewarded by lots of money. Tom Durden restricted himself to one marathon, at Milton Keynes, and managed to break the magic four hours, Sarah-Jane Hailey raised almost a thousand pounds from her school friends in Bath, and lot others have done equally great things. Many thanks to all.
Please remember that all the children at PUSS, and the bewildered lost children on the railways, depend on you, and are grateful to you.
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