Amitha* was born on June 8 2000 to Monika who has two other children. In July, 2006, Monika’s husband abandoned her and her three children. Monika works as a coolly, part time manual labor, when work is available. She lives alone with her children and when she goes to work, there is to one to stay with them. Monika cannot support herself and her three children, so she applies to have Amitha, the youngest who is now two years old, come and live at MBKG Pannai where Amitha will be guaranteed three meals a day, basic health care, clothing, shelter, and an education. With the recommendatio of a leader in Monika’s community, Amitha is admitted to MBKG Pannai in late September, 2002. Now at age 6, Amitha lives in the 6th Cottage with Amudha Amma (amma means mother in Tamil) and six other children, and she attends first standard (the equivalent of first grade) at King’s Matriculation School.
*This scenario and all names in it are fictionalized.
While I have made up this particular scenario, it offers a realistic representation of the case histories of many of the children who live here. A few have no parents or relatives to speak of, some children’s parents may have died or abandoned them, but most do have family who simply cannot afford to care for them.
Watching Amitha swinging on the cheerful yellow swing set, I find it hard to believe that she and the children I see playing and studying, the children who call to me, “Thandiwe, akka. Thandiwe, big sister,” come from such backgrounds. How does such a history affect a child’s psyche and sense of self-worth? How does Amitha feel about herself and her own background? I imagine that, when she does think about it, Amitha experiences a myriad of emotions – the pain of abandonment, a lower level of self-esteem, perhaps gratitude for the opportunities she has here that she would not have at home. Whatever she feels, Amitha is a child who laughs and plays, who bickers with the other children, who scrapes her knees and elbows and who longs for the love and attention of the adults around her. In general, the children’s awareness of their backgrounds and personal histories certainly varies with age; for the youngest ones, M.B.K.G. Pannai is the only life, home and family that they know.
When I arrived at MBKG Pannai the questions most frequently asked of me by the children, other than my own name, were my parents’ names and, for those sponsored by individuals in the United States, whether or not I knew their sponsors. Family is the primary social structure in India. Pannai children, living separately from their biological families therefore identify themselves with people from outside, their sponsors for example. For these children, sponsors are real people: they have names, they write letters and send gifts and sometimes photographs. They play a very real role in the children’s lives. Letters, visits and the steady flow of sponsorship money enable the children to continue to live here and be cared for, and the children often lift up their sponsors in their morning and evening prayers.
My family has long sponsored a child in northern India – Diksha* is a young Tibetan refugee whose family has relocated to Darjeeling, West Bengal. When we remember, my mother and I go shopping for new clothes, hair accessories, stickers and stationery supplies for Diksha. I always assumed that Diksha herself would receive our packages and birthday cards. Being on the receiving end of things, I see that this cannot be the case, because some sponsors send gifts and others do not. Furthermore, not every child has a sponsor. So the gifts, clothes and school supplies are set aside and divided among all the children. Some of the gifts may be given to the child on their birthday or another special event, but this will only be if each child can receive a gift. The clothing may be reserved for Christmas or another holiday when all the children receive new clothes.
Correspondence with sponsors is very meaningful. This builds the relationship and helps the child recognize the humanity of their sponsor. It makes their sponsor a person and not simply a checkbook. As a sponsor, be in touch with the organization where your sponsored child lives and ask what supplies they need or what current projects they have which need help. Currently, here at MBKG Pannai, we are working to build up our libraries and to encourage reading among the children thus improving their English skills. English is particularly important to the children who live here because King’s Matriculation School (the school that the MBKG Pannai children attend, which was founded specifically to meet their educational needs but has since enlarged to enroll children from neighboring villages) is an English medium school. So we can use new and used children’s books.
School supplies – mainly pens, pencils, rulers, erasers, pencil sharpeners, crayons and markers – are also always in demand and can be divided among the children of school going ages. Other art supplies can be used for special occasions. Hair accessories for girls and small toys for boys are also easily distributed. MBKG Pannai has some special projects such as the painting of the cottages and nurseries for which it needs money. Money can also be designated for a birthday party, which may be thrown for several or all of the children, not just an individual child, or for extra fruit at meals, or for a special meal for all the children. The site’s sponsorship co-ordinator will know best what needs are specific to his/her site.
While Amitha* comes from a family that cannot support her, in my observations of her and other children here, she has a profound sense of being loved and cared for by her sponsors. She thinks of them often and regularly holds them in prayer. Without their knowing it, her sponsors are the benefactors of a little Indian girl’s gratitude and love.