By Sinéad Goldsboro
Last August, Sharon Hayes from Kilbreedy, Cashel was full of excitement at the thoughts of heading off to Calcutta for three and half months with the HOPE Foundation. Sharon, who is in the final year of her course, Early Childhood Studies at UCC, was lucky to be chosen as part of the HOPE Programme that gives students the opportunity to work and live in Calcutta as part of their college education. As a student at Cashel Community School, Sharon had the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, with The Niall Mellon Township Trust so she knew that she had a challenge ahead of her going to Calcutta where HOPE fund over 60 projects working with street and slum children and their families. The projects include healthcare, education, shelter and counselling as well as human rights.
On arrival to Calcutta, Sharon was hit with the humidity from the climate in Calcutta and wondered how she was going to manage but she did and in no time at all she got used to the difficult heat. Another thing to get used to was the bus seating system. Men and women had to sit on opposite sides of the bus. If the bus was full then a woman could sit on the men’s side but the men could not sit at the women’s side of the bus. The standard cost for Sharon’s bus journey to work was 6 rupees which works out at around 9 cent. It does not sound like a lot of money but to the people of Calcutta it is often expensive to use the bus.
Sharon said that the people have little or nothing. Their most prized possessions could be their pots and pans or a faded item of “good” clothing. The poverty is as extreme as the wealth though. The usual trappings of the Western World can be seen in Calcutta - McDonalds, KFC and even Domino’s Pizza but these places were only for a certain few who cold afford them. Sharon said that they ventured into McDonalds to enjoy the air-conditioning but not the food. She said that the wealthy locals dressed in Western clothes where expense was not a problem for them.
The HOPE office in Calcutta employees 6 or 7 people with a team of volunteers. There was 12 volunteers working out of that office when Sharon was there. After her arrival, Sharon had two weeks of induction and she got to visit the majority of the projects that HOPE works on. Some of these projects were based in very difficult and poor areas. One thing that stood out for Sharon though, no matter how poor and destitute the people were in these areas she visited, was the welcoming smile from the children. They were all so friendly and the loved having the volunteers around. The local dialect is Bengali and even though Sharon and her colleagues were speaking English, they all managed to communicate very well with each other. The children call the female volunteers “Auntie” and the males “Uncle”. There are men and women that live in the care homes with the children and they are referred to as “Mother” and “Father”. HOPE have four care homes in Calcutta, two for males and two for females. These are further broken down to accommodate age groups and children that have addiction problems such as alcohol and drugs.
During her time in Calcutta, Sharon worked on four different projects. She got to see first hand the positive impact that HOPE has on the children. They are so eager to learn and want to do the work, so as a result the children are very quick to respond to information thought to them. Sharon worked at a creche for three mornings a week with a group of about 20 children alongside their regular teacher. She also worked in a boys home two mornings a week teaching English to some of the children there. The boys loved their Irish Aunties and Uncles. Sharon also worked at one of the girls homes, again teaching English. As if that was not enough to keep her busy, she also worked at a rehabilitation centre with four or five children. The children here would be recovering from operations as well as other medical procedures and would have very little in the way of visitors so Sharon and the other volunteers were always very welcome here and they knew it as the children’s faces would light up as soon as they saw the group arriving. On top of all the volunteering work, Sharon also had to file reports with her college tutor as this placement is part of her course. She also had the opportunity to go out on a night visit. During these visits the HOPE volunteers would monitor street children who could be in danger from drugs and prostitution. The night Sharon was out they picked up a girl of 12 who had come in from the country to work as a prostitute. Both her parents had died and there was nobody in her village to care for her. Unfortunately they cannot help every child, but they monitor them all and do what they can to save the most needy.
Living conditions are very tough in Calcutta for the poor. Families live on pavements and the lucky ones would have some sort of make-shift shelter in the one of the slums. These people were always very friendly and helpful. Sharon was warned that the smell would be very difficult to take in the slum areas but she managed fine. The streets were often littered with rubbish as bins do not exist. There is however a big effort being made to sort out this problem and most days people are out collecting rubbish from the streets with brushes and carts. It is then taken to a central point where it is collected by trucks to be removed to the dump. The dumps in Calcutta are unlike the dumps here in Ireland as they are a thriving area for business and employment. Women and children scour the dumps day in day out to find items that can be reused and sold. These people live in terrible conditions and in order to help them in some way, HOPE along with the SEED programme has set up a school in the dump to try help the children to escape from the extreme poverty that life in the dump brings them. The men in these dumps do not work. They supervise the women and children and usually drink any money that is made so the hard workers get little or nothing in return for their efforts.
It was not all bad though as Sharon was there for the annual Foundation Day celebrations. The current Rose of Tralee, Tara Talbot from Queensland was over for the event. She is the Irish Ambassador for HOPE. All the children performed for about two hours and Sharon said that the whole day was magical. Through HOPE these children get to display their talents and develop them further. It helps them to escape from the harsh realities of every day life.
The whole experience was amazing according to Sharon and she would not change any of it, even though she ended up being very sick the week of her 21st birthday due to food poisioning. She said “the children are the life and soul of everything that happens with HOPE in Calcutta”. With her experience of their lives, Sharon feels that she has grown as a person and has learned so much from the amazing children she met over there. She could not believe how quickly time passed and the day she left to come home was a very sad day indeed. The people of Calcutta made a huge impression on Sharon and I get the feeling that it won’t be too long before she sees that special city again.