Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Room in their Hearts

A bone thin, wide-eyed little girl tapped on the window of Rebecca Sullivan’s Honda CRV and signaled for food by touching her fingers to her lips. Rebecca felt a tug in her heart.

But the scene was nothing new for this Australian expatriate. After 10 months living in Mumbai, all her car’s windows bore the dusty fingerprints of child beggars who dart in and out of the chaotic traffic every day. Even her two young daughters had grown accustomed to the cupped hands of Indian children peering inside with equal parts curiosity and despair. Yes, such heartrending episodes were beginning to feel normal for the Sullivan family.

Looking back, she calls it her “car window moment,” the moment in which Rebecca knew she had to do something to help.

“I saw the great need for me to make a contribution to the people of India—the country we had chosen to call home for the coming years—and to show my own small children what it means to make a social contribution and how we as a family can play a part in helping,” she says.

Rebecca needed to find the best way to make a difference. She had the desire to help. She had an educational background in business and years of work experience in Project Management and Finance. How could she make use of her strengths to give back? What would her Mumbai calling be?

In November 2009, Rebecca got her first hint.

Laura Entwistle, a Canadian expat and current President of the American School of Bombay, lent Rebecca a book by John Wood called Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. The memoir describes how a trek through Nepal inspired Wood to quit his high-flying Microsoft career and establish the NGO Room to Read, which promotes education and literacy in nine of the world’s poorest countries. Mrs. Entwistle spearheaded the Mumbai chapter of Room to Read and encouraged Rebecca to consider joining the chapter.

Rebecca’s interest was piqued, but there was more. She soon learned that Room to Read does not run like most non-profit organizations. This NGO operates on a unique business-like model, by concentrating on low overheads and high sustainability and efficiency. John Wood’s story and his work struck a chord with Rebecca. She saw how her business background and her desire to help the children of India could both be engaged with Room to Read.

“Room to Read believes that world change starts with educated children and that all children deserve access to quality education. The vision resonated so strongly with me, and the results-driven, scalable, focused nature of Room to Read, which runs like a finely tuned business, led me to ask how I could be more involved. I was amazed, impressed, and excited. I was hooked!” Rebecca exclaims.

The Room to Read business model is a success. In just ten years, the non-profit has reached the lives of four million children and plans to more than double that amount by 2015. The developing world has gained over 1,000 schools, more than 9,000 libraries, nearly 200 computer labs, three million donated English language books, and over four million local language books thanks to Room to Read.

Rebecca Sullivan now co-leads the Mumbai chapter of Room to Read with Laura Entwistle and Yuti Dalal. With the help of nine dedicated volunteers, the chapter raises awareness and funds in the Mumbai community. Their events and social functions connect Room to Read with individuals, corporations, foundations, and schools interested in providing education for children in the developing world.

For the Mumbai chapter, promoting literacy and gender equality in education throughout India is the main objective. According to the United Nations, India is home to over 269 million illiterate people, a shocking thirty-five percent of the world’s illiterate population. Making matters worse, about 52 percent of Indian students—the majority of which are girls—drop out before completing secondary school.

“Room to Read focuses on establishing libraries and building the capacity of teachers to encourage the habit and joy of reading. We also publish high-quality, illustrated reading materials for young readers to respond to the dearth of appropriate children’s literature, especially in rural India. And our Girls’ Education Program helps disadvantaged girls complete secondary school so they can develop the skills needed to negotiate life decisions. This includes slum dwellers, migrant workers, child laborers, girls without parents or guardians, Dalit and tribal girls, girls who are physically challenged, and girls living in very remote and rural communities,” Rebecca explains.

In India alone, 3,200 libraries have been established. Over 2,000 girls have been awarded education scholarships. And over 600,000 local language books—in Hindi, English, Garhwali, Rajasthani, and Telugu—have been distributed to schools. In just five years, there is no doubt that Room to Read India has substantially impacted its target communities.

Room to Read maintains sustainability by coaching local communities to bring about change. Rebecca clarifies: “Our model is one of empowering the local people to work to create change. Room to Read does not rely on people from outside the community coming in to help with the project work in the needy communities. Instead, we ask the village residents to build the schools; we rely on teachers who grew up in the countries where we work; and we hire local staff to implement our project work in a given country.”

Have you had your “car window moment?” Do you think you’d like to be a part of this amazing organization?

The Mumbai chapter of Room to Read welcomes volunteers with backgrounds in event planning, event management, communications, and PR, though anyone with a go-getting attitude is encouraged to participate.

Visit Room to Read online at http://www.roomtoread.org for more information about volunteering, donations, and employment in India and around the globe.

Written for Shetizen Journalist: http://www.shetizenjournalist.com

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Swell Hitting

Yesterday afternoon I was crouched on my hands and knees, picking up bits of food from the kitchen floor that Isabel had either dropped or thrown. As I stood up, I banged my head directly into the door of an open cabinet making a loud thud; I fell to the floor, blacked out for a few seconds, and the next thing I can remember is my maid Julie fussing over me with an ice pack. The pain was sharp and I choked back tears. Isabel laughed. After I spent a minute or two feeling sorry for myself, crumpled up on the floor, I went to the couch to recover.

Over the next couple of hours, I became dizzy and mildly nauseated so I thought it'd be best to have my head checked out at the local Lilavati hospital, one of the most reputable in Mumbai, and which is conveniently located in my neighborhood. I knew there would not be much they could do about the injury itself, but there are too many stories about neglected bumps on the head that end up being more serious than they seem. I wanted to go for reassurance more than anything.

Martin drove me to the hospital that evening. We walked into the casualty, a small, poorly lit room. An old man was lying on a gurney in one corner. Four or five men were gathered around what I suppose was the front desk. No one paid any notice to us when we walked in. I made my way to the counter to explain my situation to the only woman in the vicinity who I guessed was the receptionist or nurse. She wore a putrid yellow uniform and she seemed irked that I had a question to ask her.

"There's the doctor. Tell him," she said gruffly.

To my left stood an Indian man in a candy pink shirt, high-waisted jeans, and a black belt to cinch up his already secure looking jeans for added security. I turned towards him and started my story.

"I was on the floor picking up something. I bumped my head into a cabinet and I just want to have this bump checked out," I said while fingering the top of my sore skull. I totally confused him.

"What? Tell me what happened," he said with a furrowed brow. I repeated what I had said this time remembering to include the important detail that I had blacked out.

Then putrid yellow woman ushered me into one of the three curtained sections where I was to repeat my story for a third time. By this point I felt ridiculous, but at least the doctor finally understood what I was trying to convey. He felt the top of my head, pressing lightly to locate the tender spot.

Once he did find it, he said, "This is no worries. It is no worries." With confidence, but without questioning me or further inspecting me, he assured me the bump on my head would be gone in three days. Or 72 hours. Who would have guessed this doctor would also be a mathematician and a soothsayer!

Martin asked if I should rest or do anything, to which the doctor replied, "No, it is no worries. It is called a swell-hitting. That is the term, swell-hitting." I glanced sideways at Martin. The doctor found the bump on my head again and pressed it firmly with his thumb.

"Ow!" I cried and shrunk away from his hands.

We smiled and nodded politely and left shortly after my "swell-hitting" diagnosis. I had only wanted reassurance that I was fine, that it was just a negligible bump on the head that would soon heal without any issues. And that is what the doctor told me.

But a key question remains: Did he have any clue at all what he was talking about?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Watermelon Wishes

When the blade of the knife hit the cutting board, releasing a mist of intoxicating watermelon fragrance, I was no longer a mom in Mumbai chopping up fruit with the maid. I was a skinny thirteen year old. I was home on Cape Cod. I was sitting on the sidewalk outside my house, knobby knees pressing into hot tarmac, with a red and juicy half-moon clamped between my fingers. I was sinking my crooked teeth into the fruit, catching slippery seeds with my tongue, letting the July sun dry the pink, sticky droplets to my chin.

It only lasted a second, but the pleasantness of my memory enhanced the joy of watching Isabel experience her own watermelon wedge this afternoon. Even though she was a mess from ears to toes, even though she rubbed the watermelon rinds into the just-cleaned kitchen floor, and even though I had to give her a third bath, seeing her enjoy that summer fruit with so much bliss was magical. Maybe one day, I thought, she too will sit on a Cape Cod sidewalk, in the buzzing heat of summer, watermelon juice running down her chin, with her mind as clear and blue as the July sky above...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

One Fine Thursday

Today was one of those days that made me love my life, just as it is. I loved being a mom. I loved being in Mumbai. I loved being able to stay home with Isabel and do whatever I feel like doing. In fact, the only thing I didn't love is that Martin had to go to work. But of course that's a necessity, and it was only a Thursday, after all.

When I woke up this morning, I could have been waking up in Cape Cod on a warm day in May. It was sunny, not humid, and just warm enough to go out in bare shoulders and flip flops. Just as bad weather can put me in a bad mood, good weather brightens me and gives me extra energy.

I did the usual routine in the morning with Isabel to prepare for the day. When Julie came in, I caught up on emails with friends back home. Then I went and baked some chewy, oatmeal raisin cookies. I love baking, but not when it's a million degrees outside. Since today was so lovely, I felt totally fine heating up a 300 F oven. And the cookies came out pretty well:
After baking and clean up, Julie and I took Isabel out for a walk. It was the first time I've taken her outside without a stroller and without the Baby Bjorn- just with a pair of cute baby sandals on her little feet. Isabel can walk a few steps without help, and she can walk very well with help, so Julie and I held her hands as we took a slow, wobbly stroll to the park in our neighborhood.

Isabel's excitement was palpable. She wanted to stop and touch and pick up everything on the streets (not actually a good thing in a messy city like Mumbai), she laughed at the people we passed along the way, and she pointed and giggled at dogs and pigeons and trees, when she wasn't too focused on her footing.

And I couldn't get over how grown up she seemed- walking like a big girl, looking like a fashion plate in her cherry shirt, patched jeans, and bright pink sun hat. I can't believe she's the same tiny baby I cradled in my arms just thirteen months ago! I took lots of pictures. Julie was smiling. It was a relaxed, happy afternoon.

Now the day is winding down, but the night has not begun! This evening I am planning to make a trip up to Thane for a girls' night of chit chat and drinks. Good weather, good cookies, good friends and family- I really couldn't ask for more.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fish Fetish

Here are Isabel's new fishy friends: Big Fish, Yellow Fish, Orange Fish, Red Fish, and Blue Fish. Not all that creative, but we are keeping it simple. Isabel is only one year old, you know. :)

Big Fish is big. Big and scary....
So Isabel won't play with Big Fish. That leaves us with his four little companions, who Isabel is 100% determined to get back into their natural or semi-natural habitat.

It all started yesterday with Blue Fish.
I was finishing my business in the bathroom, and Isabel was playing with Blue Fish. The toilet seat has a slow release on it so that it never slams when you close it. As it was slowly closing, Isabel was able to sandwich Blue fish in between the toilet seat and cover. I was sure Blue Fish was already going for a dip, so I quickly opened the lid and "plop!" in he went. When Blue Fish was retrieved from the toilet to be washed and dried, Isabel screamed her protests until I managed to distract her with something else. Blue Fish has a new name now- Swirly.

Today, the fishy business continued. During snack time, Isabel found it far more entertaining to soak her goldfish in her cup of water rather than to eat her goldfish and drink her water. Evidence:
Then it was Red Fish's turn for some H20 action. I was taking a shower with Isabel and she had all her fish, except Big Scary Fish, out to play with. Then she noticed the drain and that the drain cover can be removed. If you remove the cover, there is a bit of water that gathers when the shower is on. Perfect for Red Fish! Isabel held him by the tail and sloshed him around until he was good and soaked, then covered him up with the lid. Just like this:
We can call Red Fish "Draino" after his baptism.

Now I'm left to wonder where the last two fish will be relocated à la Isabel. In a cup of juice? In a puddle? In a bucket of soapy water? In a soup, perhaps?

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Love with Isabel

This evening as Martin was taking his post-work shower, I sat in the bathroom and told him about Isabel's latest tricks and antics:

Isabel started the day by deliberately dropping a toy fish into the toilet. Almost understandable, really, what was the fish doing out of water in the first place? And do we need to start calling the royal throne a "toylet" now?

During the afternoon, Isabel raced around the house pushing her walker, laughing effortlessly. She looks so tall when she's walking. Dawn and Ena came over and Isabel loved playing with Ena, in spite of her reluctance to share all her toys. She got feisty when I tried to help her eat some fruit because she just wants to do it herself. In keeping with the fishy theme of the day, she gobbled too many Pepperidge Farm goldfish and flopped (like a fish) onto a floor pillow for some cuddling when she was feeling tuckered out.

When I finished the baby report for the day, Martin and I both sighed "Oh, Sveske*," dreamily and simultaneously. Martin paused for a moment, towel dried the left side of his head and said, "We are both very much in love with our daughter, aren't we?"

Yes, we are.

I'd always heard that having kids changes you forever, that you feel so in love, that you feel extremely protective. And it's true what they say, but I never knew how strong I would feel about my child until I had her.

Becoming a mother and feeling such love for Isabel has changed me inside and out. I don't wear heels nearly as much as I used to, my hair isn't always neat, and my makeup rubs off pretty fast if I do manage to put some on. I am full of worries and fears and sentimental feelings. I am terrified of flying, though I never was before, not even during pregnancy.

But there is much more joy in my life now. I laugh more often. I smile more often. And I've reclaimed all those wonderful things we let go of when we "grow up," like the right to be ridiculous, the right to be silly, the right to be playful and messy and ridiculously silly!

Here are some pictures of my inspiration, my reason to be on this planet, who potentially has the most contagious smile the world has seen yet:

* Sveske is a Danish nickname that literally means "prunes," similar to saying "cutie."

Heart and Sole

Here's a plus to living in Mumbai: Pedicures with all the scrubs and soaks and unidentifiable pink gunk and lotions and pretty polishes you want or can handle for $6.00.

As I sat in my comfy chair with my feet in a swirl of bubbles, I did something I don't usually do. I picked up a copy of Cosmo- the Indian version- and actually enjoyed flipping through all the fluffy fashion articles. It was mindless and colorful entertainment for 35 minutes, just what a weary jet lagged mama could use upon returning to Mumbai.

Thoughts after the pampering? 'Wow, that was cheap. I could get used to this decadence. I should read more Baudelaire.'