This is chapter 10 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, Ryan, Aom and Ashley travel to Calcutta, a place Ryan has been visiting for years. It is in this city that Ryan sponsors four children via Children.org.
After a month in India we finally reached Kolkata. The last stop on our tour was a much-anticipated visit to Ryan's sponsored children. We checked into our hotel, a fancy 4-star joint with one of the best buffets I've ever had. But when I walked out the front door I was confronted by a makeshift slum a few feet away. Directly across the street families were sleeping under a tarp while I slept on Egyptian Cotton.
We planned to visit one of Children International's (CI) three Kolkata community centers. Children International is a charity that provides health, education and in supplies for more than 5,000 kids in this particular center. A driver named Raju picked us up at our hotel. Ryan had known Raju for four years.
When we arrived at the community center groups of kids and their parents stood out front. They were excited to get a glimpse of us, the ambiguous donors who very rarely visited them. We pulled up and immediately the director, a woman named Aarti with a big smile and a fuschia sari, started the tour. Someone brought us coffee and then laid out a plate of cookies, inscribed with the word "bliss," and Aarti began to tell us about CI's mission.
Children International's facilities offer full medical and dental care. When a child joins the CI family, doctors will check their nourishment levels. A majority of the kids are critically malnourished, so they'll receive a diet of dahl, rice, soya, fruit and curd until their health improves. The doctors also work to cure gastric issues, lessen bowel problems and improve digestion.
Donations go toward games and activities, too. In addition to health maintenance, the kids are able to participate in art contests, write letters to their sponsors and read more than 200 books in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and English. A few years ago, Ryan donated $600 of his own money and raised an additional $900, which went to a Winnie the Pooh cabinet and loads of textbooks and storybooks.
Ryan said the families here are very smart, but they're without opportunity. Children International provides them with the ability to grow. But there's one catch: kids can only get access to the amenities if someone chooses to sponsor them. If not, they're unable to benefit from anything CI offers.
After the tour of HQ, we hopped in the van to the visit the kids in their homes. About seven or eight people stood outside their homes, peeking behind hanging laundry and smiling at us.
The children have no running water and share community latrine, which creates a safety issue for young girls. In many villages, there will be two toilets for 12 families or about 60 people. The sanitation problems are severe, and many of the children will have worms, scabies, infections and other hygiene-related diseases.
First, we visited Diya, who proudly presented her award-winning artwork. Then, we saw Ankit, who held up a sports trophy he'd recently won. Atiqua, Ryan’s first sponsored child, was our last stop. When we approached her neighborhood, about 15 Muslim children ran to meet us, excited to observe us.
“Aarti, why does she look so sad?” Ryan asked about Atiqua.
“She is fasting because it’s Ramadan,” Aarti said. Atiqua’s family had cooked food for later, but in this moment, she looked very weak. “She is also sad because she thought you were not coming.”
“Atiqua, I love you," Ryan said. "I want you to know that you’re the reason I sponsor children all around the world.”
Diya and her family, Ankit and his family, Atiqua and her family loaded into CI vans. With Ryan, Aom and I included, we were a group of 14 total. We headed to the mall to have lunch. Ryan ordered plates of chicken and rice with ice cream as dessert, though Atiqua and her family kept to their fast.
After lunch, it was time to shop. Ryan had a budget for each child and their siblings, and the group went to town. Ankit picked out nice, khaki pants, while the girls shopped for jewelry and saris. Everyone seemed so happy, so connected.
I saw the impact that Ryan's sponsorship made -- the real, tangible improvements in his children's overall quality of life. I felt their gratitude and joy. In that moment, I decided I would sponsor someone too.
My child's name is Kainat. She's 17 years old and she lives in Kolkata. Her home includes a multi-use room and kitchen with regulated electricity, a kerosene stove and a community sink and latrine. She loves languages, playing outdoor games and listening to music.Kainat waited for more than three months before she received sponsorship. I can't wait to begin the CI journey of supporting her, and hopefully, more kids along the way.