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Reach Home: A Mission to the Children of India

December 2010/January 2011

It is 6:15 A.M. on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at REACHOUT School and Orphanage in Bapatla, India.  Outside their classroom four 8th grade girls are sitting on the stone walkway taking a test as other students work in class.  These students have been up since 4:00 A.M. to come to this early class.  They live at the REACHOUT girl’s residence which is one mile from this REACHOUT School classroom and boy’s resident.  As I walk by, the students look up with their ever present warm smile.  

These 8th graders are studying especially diligently now, because they have comprehensive India tests coming up soon.  These tests will determine what education track they will follow.  Students at REACHOUT School have historically done very well on these India tests.  

REACHOUT students’ families are from the lowest castes in India where education is not universally available.  So the REACHOUT School is a real God-send making it possible for these children to have more opportunities in life.  While the India caste system, which has kept the lower castes in menial jobs, is no longer mandated by law, it is very present culturally.  The only way for these children to break this cycle of poverty that their families have lived under for countless generations is through education. With an education these children have hope and a better possibility of reaching their full potential and living a better life.  

That same evening on the day that I walked by these 8th grade students taking a test at 6:15 A.M., I saw they were still in their classroom at 6:30 P.M. – over 12 hours later.  

REACHOUT students not only successfully complete high school, but many have gone on to become teachers, nurses and engineers.  For many millions of children in India this kind of education is only a dream.  The REACHOUT School helps to make it a reality for 275 students in Bapatla, India.  

While these older 8th graders were in an early class, their younger school mates were also up early doing chores around the school before they all gathered for the first assembly at 7:00 A.M.  This 7:00 A.M. assembly is held in the same room where many of the boys sleep every night side by side on straw mats.

The assembly starts with enthusiastic and boisterous singing accompanied by tambourines, cymbals and drums.  Kusuma Paul, who with her husband Pastor Vincent Paul, founded REACHOUT School in 1977, teaches the students this first lesson of the day.  Kusuma reads from a series of books called Aunt Vera’s Bedtime Stories.  While this book has a simple sounding name, the stories we heard along with the children taught important principles on which to base their lives.  The stories sought to build the children’s confidence in God’s ability to do great and mighty things in their lives and introduced the children to a God with a loving heart specifically for them.  

This is the setting ten volunteers from Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri came to this past December.   We ranged in age from 24 to 75.  For 5 volunteers this was their first time at REACHOUT.  My daughters, Siri and Leah, and Leah’s husband, Michael, were part of this enthusiastic group.

Our primary initial focus on this trip to REACHOUT was to treat the students’ and staff’s dental needs.  Then once the state of their dental health had been determined, we planned to evaluate what other needs the children had that we could help with during our time with them.   

In the first two days, we examined all 300 students and staff to determine the extent of their dental needs.  When we started treatment, the 10 volunteers were planning to focus their time on this mission trip primarily assisting with all needed dental care.  But in the first days at REACHOUT we found there were 3rd year nursing students living at REACHOUT and attending nursing school at a local college.  These students (Laxmi, Premelatha, and Sonita) were eager to observe and help us in any way they could.  In India, nursing school starts after 10th grade, so these 3rd year nursing students were 19 years old.  They were very enthusiastic to learn about dental health and dental care.  

After their first day observing, they received permission from their nursing instructors to remain with us during our time at REACHOUT and learn modern dental treatment techniques and dental assisting.  They asked many questions and learned rapidly.  I learned later that Premelatha is 1st in her nursing class and Laxmi is 2nd.  I was not surprised to hear that.  

While working with us was beneficial for them in their nursing education, it also helped us a great deal in that it allowed the volunteers to branch out and assist REACHOUT staff with other needs.  A long list of jobs was accomplished because of this.  These included taking all the children and staff for eye examinations to a local optometrist where eye glasses were purchased for 27 who needed them.  Daily multivitamin therapy was started to supplement the children’s diets that lacked some essential nutrients.  Plans were made for repairs that are needed for the buildings.  Many other physical needs of the children were addressed.  Much was accomplished by these 10 committed volunteers.  

We found there were other benefits in using the nursing students’ skills in dental treatment.  First of all, they acted as our translators with the Telegu speaking students. The nursing students quickly learned how best to reassure the other REACHOUT students in their nature Telegu dialect.  Having lived together with them for many years, the REACHOUT students trusted and respected these nursing students.  The reassurances given by Laxmi, Premelatha and Sonita were invaluable.  The level of apprehension also decreased as the week progressed because students who had dental treatment talked to their fellow schoolmates about it.  

As the dental treatment progressed, we were able to completely turn over the dental assisting responsibilities to these nursing students.  They did a very fine job considering their very limited initial knowledge of dental treatment and dental assisting.  By the time we left the REACHOUT School, we were able to examine over 300 students, staff and their families and complete all needed dental treatment.  

One other area that the REACHOUT staff requested we focus on was to give the students the opportunity to practice their English speaking skills.  Students throughout India are always eager to improve their English.  In India, English speaking proficiency is essential for advancement in both education and employment.  Since there are 18 major languages in India and many more minor languages, India has chosen English as the official language in government and business on a national basis.  

Sharon McElwain, another Estes Park resident, was one of these 10 volunteers to REACHOUT students.  She taught conversational English to the students and told each class stories from the Bible.  She then had the students write plays depicting these stories.  They so enjoyed acting out the Bible stories in play form.  

As an aside, as the volunteers played and talked to them the students also liked to teach us words in their language.  We learned Telegu words for body parts as well as many things around the school.  

My wife, Stephanie, and I have a long relationship with two of the nursing students at REACHOUT.  Bhavani and Laxomi are sisters who have lived there for over 10 years.  Laxomi is one of the exceptional 3rd year nursing students who eagerly wanted to learn more about dentistry and helped us to complete all the dental treatment needed by the students and staff.  She is a true leader at the school and is respected by everyone there.  She is also now highly respected by all of our volunteer team members.  

Laxomi’s sister, Bhavani, is one year older and now completing her nursing internship in Hyderabad, a major city north of Bapatla.  She and four other REACHOUT nursing graduates we visited there are perfect ambassadors to show how a good education can change lives.  

Bhavani and Laxomi’s mother, a field laborer making $2/day, is so thankful her daughters have received such a good education.  We learned that new nursing graduate’s earn 5000 rupees/month while field labors earn 2000 rupees/month.   

While in Hyderabad, we had the opportunity to ask one of Bhavani’s fellow nursing friends, Vimini, about her education at REACHOUT.  Vimini said she started at REACHOUT in the 3rd grade and lived there for 10 years through her nurses training.   She said it was difficult at first to adjust to the very diligent work and study that was required at REACHOUT.  This was quite different from the schooling she had experienced in her family’s small India village.  But in the end she realized how blessed she was to have had the opportunity to receive the fine education that she did at REACHOUT.

In conclusion, I thought I would share an observation Michael, my daughter Leah’s husband, made.  Michael, Leah and Siri visited the homes of several REACHOUT students who live with their families near the school.  While 150 students live at the school, another 150 students live with family nearby.  

In our visiting to their homes the students were so eager for us to see where they lived.  They loved that we came to visit and enthusiastically showed us their homes.  These homes are very basic, often with thatched roofs and few possessions.  They have so little materially yet are happy living as they do. Michael observed how thankful these students and families are.  This also shows in their schoolwork.  They know they have a wonderful opportunity for an education so they work hard and value it.  

While we came to help these children at REACHOUT we also received so much in return. We received their love and thanks.  And coming away from these children in Bapatla, India, we too learned a valuable lesson in what children and families in such circumstances truly value in life.  It can give each of us pause to reevaluate our priorities.

December 2007

At 5:00 a.m., the boys at Reach Out Home in Bapatla, India are up and getting ready for school. More than 100 boys, ages 8-15, have slept in one large room side-by-side. Their thin, straw sleeping mats are rolled up now, because soon many of them will reassemble in this same room before breakfast to sing and listen to Reach School founder, Kusama Paul, teach them their first lesson of the day. This lesson is often one that teaches a moral character quality, like honesty, dedication, and reliability.

One kilometer away the girls at the Reach Home girls’ dormitory are getting ready to come over to the boys’ building for breakfast and classes. Some of the older girls arrive at the boys’ home for an early class starting at 6:00 a.m. These 8th grade students are working especially hard in this early class to help them do as well as possible in the upcoming India school tests. These tests are part of determining the  educational path students will take. Students at the Reach Home have historically done well on these tests. Other young boys are busy with chores that are to be done before breakfast. One boy is raking the sand covered courtyard where children play at recess. Another is cleaning out flower beds in front of the classroom building.

When breakfast is served at 8:00, the 245 students line up and sit in two rows facing each other on the concrete walkway outside in front of the classrooms. After breakfast, all the boys and girls assemble in the courtyard to sing and pray before finally going to their morning classes. This is the setting our team of 12 volunteers came to this past December 31st. We were a diverse group of men and women, ages 19 to 73, from California, Arizona, Minnesota and Colorado. We had come to India to do what we could to assist the staff and teachers at the Reach Out home and school with improvements and repair to the facilities, and to do dental and eye examinations and treatment. For about half our group, this was their first visit to the Reach Out home with its school and ministry to children from India’s lowest castes.

With life expectancy at only 40 years in Bapatla, it is our hope that good hygiene will decrease infection incidence and severity.

Reach Out was started by Kusuma Paul and her husband over 20 years ago when they saw the desperate need of the poor children in Bapatla, India. Their ministry has been to those children who have little hope of a good education. With an education these children have a better chance to reach their potential and achieve a better life. Two local sisters whom my wife Stephanie and I have known for 10 years are examples of this. Naga Bhavani and Laxmi are now 17 and 18 years old. They have been at Reach Home since their enrollment in 1997. Their single mother is a field worker in a village 28 kilometers from Bapatla. She makes approximately $1.25 a day. It is difficult for the family to be separated, but their mother knows without the Reach Home and School Laxmi and Naga Bhaviani would most likely be working at very low paying jobs. Through the education at Reach Out they have done well in the India national tests and thus have a brighter future. Naga Bhavani is in her first year of nursing school. She showed me with pride the detailed notes she had taken in her nursing classes. Laxmi also hopes to attend nursing school next year. They are both very grateful for the opportunities they have received through Reach Out.

Our group of volunteers arrived at the Reach Out home and school with hopes of accomplishing a wide variety of goals. My primary focus was the dental health of the children. Very few of them have ever been to a dentist. In India’s poorest castes, dentists are only seen when there is a tooth that needs to be extracted. In fact, I did not see any fillings or dental treatment in the teeth of the more than 275 children and staff I examined.

My initial focus was to determine the extent of the dental problems for every student and staff member. These examinations were completed during the first two days we were there. At the same time, eye screening examinations were done by other members of the team. From these two examinations it was determined who would receive treatment while we were at the Reach home. For the remaining days we were there, I completed the dental treatment I could. Then a local dentist was contracted with to complete the remaining treatment.

It was interesting for me to observe the improvement in the oral hygiene of the students at the Reach Home since I was there in 2000. Seven years ago the children brushed their teeth by putting a powder on the index finger and rubbing it on their teeth. At the time toothbrushes were given to the students. This visit I was glad to see the students had continued to use toothbrushes since 2000. It was fun to see many students around the school yard and on the walk-up roof of the school conscientiously brushing their teeth for longer than five minutes. This diligent use of toothbrushes is undoubtedly a reason for the number of cavity free children I examined.

Naga Bhavani leaned forward so I could hear above the noise of all the children and said, “Please come back to India.”

Several members of our group did an excellent job reinforcing the children’s toothbrushing by teaching them correct oral hygiene. This was taught in small groups just before they were examined. The children, who are mostly between 3rd and 10th grades, seemed to really want to practice the correct toothbrushing technique they were taught. Doing it together with their peers made it enjoyable for them.  Thorough hand washing with soap was another skill we taught the students. The use of a UV light helped show the children where they needed to improve their hand washing efforts. With life expectancy at only 40 years in Bapatla, it is our hope that good hygiene will decrease infection incidence and severity.

Our time with the children also included many one-on-one conversations with them. Well, at least it would start out being one on one. Then a group of children would quickly congregate around us. Since the main language there is Telugu, and the children’s English is limited, we spent a lot of time talking in short sentences. The children all made name tags the first day, so the start of many conversations began with the child asking, “What is my name?” They would hold a hand over their name tags as they asked this question, wanting us to try to remember it. They loved this game. Everyone loves to hear their name spoken by others. These included such names as Ashok, Gopi, Padma, Nagasiva, Mounika, Srikanth, Naveen, Sharada, Vamsi, Rajov, Laxmi, Ram, and so many others.

The children also loved to teach us words in Telugu. I think I learned the Telugu words for all the body parts. I hope this narrative gives you a feel for our time in Bapatla. Everyone in our group agreed it was too short. If you would like to learn more about Reach Out, a blog has been started by one of the volunteers. It is at reachhome.blogspot.com. If anyone would like to learn more about helping these children in any way, I would be glad to share more about our personal experiences. Sponsorship of a child is available for $1/day. It is also possible to be a partial sponsor to a child. There are many children who would benefit from sponsorship now. The blog has pictures of names and some of these children. One time gifts are also welcome to buy specific needed supplies.

To give you an idea of what our dollars can do in India, $2,856 will put in water purification systems for both of the two Reach buildings, $260 will construct a new concrete outhouse (six of these will be done) and $10 pays for a storage trunk to keep the children’s clothing from being damaged by rats. (40 of these trunks are needed). A long range goal is to someday construct a dining hall that would have multiple uses.

Before I left on this trip, many loving Estes Park neighbors donated t-shirts, children’s vitamins, and monetary gifts to bring to India. These were carried over in the suitcases of the 12 volunteers. Needless to say, our suitcases weighed in at the 50lb maximum. All of us in the team that went to Bapatla are thinking about a “next time.” I know Laxmi, Naga Bhavani, and the rest of the children at the Reach home are as well. As we were leaving, Naga Bhavani leaned forward so I could hear above the noise of all the children and said, “Please come back to India.”

If you would be interested in learning more about this year’s 2010-2011 trip to India, one of the volunteers has started a blog at reachingouttoindia.blogspot.com.

I would also like to thank all those who took part in our office tooth whitening fundraiser before this trip.  $3,010 was contributed.  These funds were used to purchase multivitamins to supplement the limited diet of these students.  A water filtration system is also being added to the girl’s residence with these funds.  Both the vitamins and water filtration will directly benefit these children’s health.  Thank you to all who took part and helped these dear children.

If any Estes Park News readers would like to learn more about sponsoring a child at REACHOUT or making a onetime gift, I would be happy to answer any questions.  My phone numbers are 970-214-4925 (cell), 586-8073 (home) and 586-9330 (office).