Journey to Odisha, India
I recently returned from an overseas trip to India, and I wanted to share some of my experiences. LWB’s work in India to date has been primarily in the medical field, helping with rural medical care and partnering with Mission Smile for cleft surgeries.
Our hope for many years has been to expand LWB’s foster care model from China, Cambodia, and Uganda to help orphaned children in India as well. While it’s difficult to get an exact count on the number of orphaned children in India, a number frequently cited is between 20 and 25 million. Less than 1% of those children will ever find a permanent home, leaving countless numbers to spend their entire childhoods in crowded institutions. We, of course, would love to do our small part to help change that, as we believe every child born deserves to be raised in a caring family.
India actually has a national foster care policy, but the reality is that extremely few locations have implemented family-based care. The majority of abandoned children in India are sent directly to orphanages, with many providing only the most minimal care. India’s current system divides orphaned children by age: children 6 and up are cared for in orphanages known as Child Care Centers, while babies to age 5 are sent to orphanages known as SAAs.
LWB rarely works in easy locations, and so it wasn’t a surprise when the group I most wanted to meet regarding foster care was based in the east Indian state of Odisha, located along the Bay of Bengal and home to over 60 indigenous tribes. Due to Maoist unrest, the area was mostly off-limits to foreigners until 2016, and travel guidebooks frequently describe it as a destination for “the most adventurous travelers.”
However, I had heard wonderful things about the work that Youth Council for Development Alternatives, (YCDA), a 25-year-old local charity, was doing with vulnerable children in the region. So in mid-June, I flew from the US to Delhi and then onto Bhubaneswar, the state’s capital. From there we began a six-hour drive west into rural Odisha, passing through dense mountain forests, home to elephants, Bengal tigers, and wild monkeys.
The vistas were absolutely beautiful, and we drove past tiny rural villages with thatched roof abodes.
Our driver was amazing, hitting speeds of 120-140 km/hour through the mountains while artfully dodging the hundreds of cows we passed along the way.
I’m sure many of you already know that since cows are sacred in India, they have the highest population in the world (over 45 million). They gently wander wherever they like, into homes and shops. Amazingly they sleep regularly right in the middle of the roads, seemingly oblivious to all the traffic trying their best not to hit them.
About halfway on our journey, we stopped to eat in the town of Nayagarh, whose local markets were bustling with activity.
After registering with the security office in western Odisha to ensure our safe passage, we finally arrived a few hours later to the YCDA headquarters in Boudh. We were met with flowers and a beautiful chalked message by their head, Rajendra Meher, and his team.
It was wonderful to finally meet the YCDA team after many months of online talks about the work they’re doing in this severely impoverished part of India. They had already shared with me that western Odisha is considered one of the most “backward” regions of the country (India’s word, not mine) and is severely lacking in education and access to health care. The area is well-known for drought, hunger, and great poverty, with only 50% of the residents able to afford one full meal a day. In addition, vulnerable children in western Odisha face risks with trafficking, child labor (often in brick kilns), sexual abuse, and child marriage. Thousands of children in this region live without parental care, and YCDA helps with group homes, kinship support (usually with aged grandparents), formal foster care, and projects for teens who have aged out of the orphanage system. They also run early childhood programs and “drop-in” centers for when children are found abandoned.
Due to a lack of government resources, however, YCDA can currently support just 27 orphaned children into foster care. When I asked how many children they would like to see moved from institutional care to families, without hesitation they said, “200.” You know we love to hear big dreams when it comes to the health and well-being of children, especially in a region where orphanages are the standard of care.
After our meetings, we went to visit foster families so we could see their model in action. I was so happy to see children who had lived through the difficult loss of their birth families doing very well in their new homes.
The warm welcomes we were given by the foster families and neighbors was truly humbling to experience. Orange flower garlands were placed around our necks, and red paste and lotus seeds were rubbed on our foreheads.
I so enjoyed visiting the foster homes YCDA has put into place and would love to see their program expanded. The parents were clearly invested in the children’s lives, which is what every child deserves.
At one of the homes, the little boys asked if we would like to go with them to visit their school, and of course, we said we’d love to. Off we went following them through the village, passing several styles of homes.
We saw lots of women carrying buckets of water as the only water supply is a community well.
We had a great visit to the school, meeting the beautiful children and speaking with the teachers who are trying their best with the most meager resources.
Just five girls remain in all of the 8th grade since the pressure is high for females to drop out in this region. We’re making a gift of books to the rural school, as $500 in this area can provide a library.
We also went with YCDA to see their critical work with kinship care, which currently receives no government support in India, no matter how impoverished a child’s circumstances might be. We visited an extremely poor family living in an old-style mud home with a thatched roof.
They were basket makers, and we got to watch the older women weave.
In far too many homes in this region, parents often migrate long distances searching for work, leaving their children behind in often very vulnerable conditions. In this home, the grandmother was trying to care for all her grandchildren even though she couldn’t afford to provide them with food. Sadly, immense poverty is often a reason that children are relinquished to institutional care.
Tomorrow I’ll share about our visit to orphanages in the region, as well as a very emotional meeting with a regional court who decides the fate of those who are abandoned. I’ll end with this photo taken with some of the wonderful staff from YCDA.
As we were traveling to different villages, the YCDA staff asked if we would like to stop briefly by the Gandharadi Temple, built in the 8th century. Ummmm…yes, please.
~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer