Saturday, May 26, 2012

Suchana Community

Willson learning to play cricket.
Below is a documentary on Suchana Community, an organization based in a village called Khonjonpur in the district of Birbhum, West Bengal, India. Suchana is a non-profit that lends support to very marginalized children three to 16 years-old in literacy and other educational activities. The children are mostly from the Santal and Kora communities - the majority of them are aspiring to be the first generation in their families to be literate. This film was made by students from the Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India.

HTA volunteers
We - volunteers with Humanitarian Travel Abroad - visited Suchana last January, 2012. During our visit we helped to paint the flower pots you see and one of our volunteers, Danny, brought the stilts and small soccer game for the center. Both are hand-made by Danny's father!

I think this organization is everything a good non-profit should be, culturally sensitive and sustainable. You can see for yourself by watching co-founders Kirsty and Rahul relate their philosophy in this piece. Great job of filming and editing by the university students too!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Role Models

1979, with Moon Sung, from Seoul, Korea to Buffalo, NY
In 1977 I learned about Jodie Richers and Americans for International Aid and Adoption (AIA) in Atlanta, GA, a group of airline volunteers who used their travel privileges to bring adopted orphans back from foreign countries to their new parents - saving these families thousands of dollars in airfare and hotel expense. I was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines living in Miami at that time, I became a volunteer, and my relationship with AIA opened up a new way of seeing the world.

From 1977 to 1987, I made six to 10 trips a year on my off days to Korea, India, Afghanistan, Bolivia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia and Thailand, taking donated supplies to orphanages and refugee camps and picking up children (two babies plus a couple of 'walkers' per escort) to bring home to the US.  Sometimes I escorted children who had been in the US for  medical care: some were severely burned, or had congenital heart ailments or other types of birth defects that could not be treated in their home countries.

With Deepta, Calcutta airport, 1979 

After 12 years as a flight attendant, I quit flying for Eastern in 1987 and continued my volunteer work with Healing The Children, NE, Inc., as a foster parent, board member and volunteer administrator on dozens of international surgical missions. Along the way I had a family of my own, adopting one child and birthing two, and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Connecticut. I can say with honesty that every choice I made in my life, personal, educational and professional, was influenced by the time I spent with AIA and Jodie in Atlanta during the 70s. Often I flew to Jodie's house to pack the many suitcases of supplies that we would take with us on our trips to bring back the children. Jodie had started her volunteer work with orphans in Vietnam working with adoption agencies and orphanages to help process the departure of hundreds of children as Saigon fell.

Packing supplies at Jodie's, 1977
It was during our endless conversations while packing suitcases of supplies or drinking coffee and smoking too many cigarettes that I first heard about Betty Tisdale and saw photos in Jodie's home of An Lac Orphanage. Betty's story of courageously arranging the departure of 219 orphans out of Vietnam was made into a movie in 1980 starring Shirley Jones called, The Children of An Lac.  Betty, in my mind, joined Mother Theresa, (who I met in 1979!) as my role model for humanity.

At Jodie's, I could and did listen for hours about the last days of the Vietnam War, of desperate mothers leaving their children at the gates of orphanages, especially if those children were 'Amerasians' (fathered by Americans). There was no formula, no diapers, not enough cribs for all of the children in those last chaotic moments of 1975.

While volunteering, I met many of the personalities in these stories who continued their work of helping children in other countries after that war. I became friends with Cherie Clark who founded International Mission of Hope, first in Calcutta then, in 1988, in Vietnam. I escorted a pretty little girl named Sohini from Bombay to the US for Helkie Ferrie of the Canadian Kuan Yin Foundation. I met other women in other countries too who had in some way been moved to humanitarianism through their work with children and orphans in Vietnam. And finally, just two weeks ago, 35 years after first hearing about her heroic effort in Vietnam, I met Betty Tisdale, right here in Danbury, Connecticut!

Betty and Audriana, May, 2012
I now teach cultural anthropology at Western Connecticut State University. One of my students asked to be excused for a week from school this semester as she was volunteering in Colombia at an orphanage, but she would most certainly make up the work. I asked the student, Audriana, to please bring me a brochure or something about the organization she was traveling with as a reference. Audriana said, "Have you ever heard of Betty Tisdale?" Wow. Had I ever.

Betty now has a non-profit organization, H.A.L.O., for 'helping and loving orphans,' and she raises money to help a variety of NGOs around the world, one of those in Bogata, Colombia, Luz Y Vida, where Audriana volunteered. On June 1, Betty will travel to Afghanistan where she is supporting projects run by Parsa. Did I mention that she is traveling alone and that she is just shy of 90 years old?

A month or two after Audriana's trip, Betty came to  our area to attend a fund raiser. She visited WCSU with Audriana and I had the most wonderful pleasure of having lunch with Betty followed by and an entire afternoon of conversation and stories at my home. We even checked in with Jodie - they serve together on the board of AIAA and on that afternoon Jodie was Betty's proxy at their meeting. Betty told me about her inspiration, Dr. Tom Dooley, and I told her that I had taken a three-month leave of absence from Eastern Airlines in 1981 to be a 'Dooley Girl' in Nepal (I volunteered on a vaccination team for the Tom Dooley Foundation/Intermed in Gorkha District).

Life does has a way of coming full circle. I met Betty and it was amazing. I offered to travel with Betty on June 1 (you know, so I could learn to be more like her!), but the cost to fly to Afghanistan is crazy. Anybody with frequent flyer miles out there? If not, all's well as I'll be traveling to the Himalayas next June with an anthropology/medical team organized by the Himalayan Health Exchange - I will teach medical anthropology on a three-week trek to remote villages in the Indo-Tibetan borderland. Must be that 'circle' again!

PS: Over the years my own feelings about humanitarian efforts in foreign countries by Westerners has taken shape - but that is for another blog!

Below, check out a clip about Betty from ABC News with Diane Sawyer and on the Nightly News.