They say first impression is the last impression. It was my first day of the Street Children Program when the children of Jamghat, left on me, a life-lasting impression. The first day and overall experience in the program sparked questions in me that are answering all the deeper questions I have ever had about wealth and poverty, survival and transcendence.
It was two days after entering India that I found myself walking the busy streets of Chandni Chowk, amongst street salespeople vying for my business and an orchestra of auto-rickshaws, rickshaws, cars and pedestrians making their way in an interesting uncoordinated synchronicity. Bubbling with curiousity about who I would meet and what I would do, I walked down the narrow alleyways beside Pigeon market and up a set of steep stairs to my placement.
After a few minutes of meeting and greeting the Jamghat staff, the children of the shelter started pouring in like water out of a jug, steadily but readily. Wide-eyed and curious, they walked in and greeted me by calling me didi, a term in Hindi meaning sister, usually used to address an older female of sister-like age. Shortly after greeting me, the children eagerly shared with me, some of the games they play and stories they tell. They asked me many questions about myself to get to know me, and sought my assistance with their schoolwork. I was flooded with warmth! Never had I felt so welcomed in my life, and this led me to ask myself, how is it that these children appear so happy despite living in poverty? How are they so energized? So curious, keen and eager? The radiation of joy pierced through any assumptions I might have previously made. Any anxiety, stress, or reserve I might have had melted away like butter. There was no opportunity to be wrapped in the bubble of self protection and isolation because there was way too much warmth in the air! I looked around to observe my environment further: some of the children were wearing ripped clothing, there were no extravagant toys or learning materials in the room, the heat was relentless, and amongst it all, wide eyes and bright smiles. The juxtaposition was mesmerizing.
During lunch hour, a handful of the children asked me to have lunch with them, share from their plates. Dhaal and chaval, a simple meal but hearty and nutritious. The children sat in a circle and said their prayers before eating, to express gratitude for the food. They observed to see how much I was eating and whether or not I was enjoying the food. They offered me water and more servings. This was a meal the children often ate and often times their last meal of the day, as there is no guarantee the children will have food available to them after leaving the shelter. I wondered to myself, how is it that despite knowing they may not get another bite again, the children still offer me the last of what they have? And how is it that they can care so much about my own hunger in spite of their own?
As I inquired about the lives of these children outside the shelter, the Coordinators offered to take me for a stroll in the area where the parents of some of the children stayed. We visited two shelters where I met some of the parents. Many of the parents were single unemployed mothers. Some parents were working in nearby factories, street peddling or begging. The majority of parents do not have time to look after their children because they are busy fighting for survival. Hence, children are often wandering around the shelter area, playing by themselves or with each other with little supervision. They say family environments and upbringing determine success, values and behaviour in children. I wondered then, how do the children of Jamghat know how to provide attention, understanding and care to others when many have not had the opportunity to receive these things themselves from their own families due to various circumstances?
Upon returning to Jamghat I later learned from some of the children that their siblings had been lost, simply by disappearing or as a result of sickness. How matter-of-factly these children shared their stories, as if such things were an everyday occurrence. I tried to gauge the feelings underneath their words and what I encountered was strength. How is it possible to have such resilience when facing experiences of loss so frequently? Multi-million dollar industries and companies are often created to provide aids and solutions to trauma and facilitate healing, but here healing didn’t require any special tool, process
or pill. Here, healing happened because it had to; this was life, and tools were primarily internal.
As my first day ended at the shelter, I walked back to the volunteer accommodation with many questions in mind, floating around. Reflecting on my life in the West, I felt so rich yet so utterly poor. I asked myself the ultimate and conclusive question, what is rich really? And what is poor?
We are taught to make something of ourselves, to achieve in the material world, to meet our needs and survive. We learn about evolution and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We learn through media messages and advertising that we must attain various things at various times to be something, to be worthy. We have these social scripts and timelines instructing us on how to go about doing this. Yet how often during our day to day, do we smile like these children? Are eager to learn about others like these children? Want to share with others without thinking about what we have ourselves?
In one day and one experience, I felt myself unlearning all the messages that were stamped onto my being from an early age. I peeled off the old messages like an onion and immersed myself into the deep waters of this new realization. As I swam around, I grasped that these children were teaching me just as much as I was teaching them, and maybe even more so.
I have no exact answers to the questions that had surfaced for me. I critiqued myself for prior assumptions with a fine-toothed comb. All I ended up with was one foundational understanding: true wealth is internal and comes not from the external world but an inner brightness that does not cease to exist. This wealth inspires love and giving, which is infinite in supply when you sees little gifts in everything and everyone around you, when you tap into your inevitable connection with others and feel responsible for their well-being just as much as your own. The children of Jamghat have inspired me to always mine for this gold inside of me, and spread this wealth just like they do, because it is infinite and multiplies in strength with each Midas touch. We are only poor when we forget this.
Thank you to the children of Jamghat and thank you Volunteering Solutions for this wonderful, transformative life experience.