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Calcutta

What excitement when Shauna Johnson, Chelsey Kearney, Rebecca Kennedy, Clara King, Rebecca Somers, Ms Macken, Mr Hayes, Ms Plunkett and Ms Connolly headed off on our annual school visit to Calcutta, India on 28th January 2012.

The object of this trip every year is to show our students what life is like in Calcutta, to allow us work with the poor and very needy there and for us to bring money to the various organisations who work with the homeless, the poor and the sick. This year our extended group (a few other adults joined us) brought out €35,000 which really helps fund some very worthy projects in Calcutta.

On our drive in from the airport we were immediately struck by the relentless poverty and squalor all around us. It really is a third world city. The biggest shock to us was to see people living, working and sleeping on the streets. As we walked along the footpaths we were literally walking through people's bedrooms and living rooms. The lucky ones had a canopy of corrugated iron or tarpaulin over them. Their few possessions were piled in neat bundles. They prepare their food, cook it and eat it on the pavement. All that we do in the privacy of our homes is performed for all to see on the streets. It is really distressing. Yet, in spite of their surroundings people take great pride in their appearance and in being clean and tidy. They wash their clothes, their dishes and themselves from a few buckets in full view of everybody. People also have little stalls trying to sell a few odds and ends, hoping to eke out a living. Men sit with a few tools in front of them all day long hoping someone will need a repair job. You can get your hair cut, get a shave, have your shoes polished, your clothes ironed, all at the side of the road. Yet, in spite of their miserable conditions we were struck by the dignity and good humour of the people who always had a ready smile for us.

Our students worked with the Rainbow Children in the Loreto School. They are called rainbow children because they are here one minute, gone the next. Many of these children were trafficked from the countryside and sold – some into slavery others into the sex trade. They go to school here and sleep on the roof on mats and each girl has a little drawer where she keeps all her worldly possessions.

Ms Macken arranged visits for us to the Hope Foundation and Goal, two of the organisations we donate money to. We saw at first hand the very good work that is being done by these organisations and we can assure everybody that the money you donate is being put to very good use.

Hope has a school cum home for young street girls from 5 to 13, another for young boys, a home for teenage girls, a restaurant run by the girls and a school and clinic in one of the many slums on the outskirts of the city. The slum was built beside the river, which is fetid. The stench, the filth, the destitution was everywhere. It really shocked us to see human beings living in such appalling, unsanitary and degrading conditions. Yet as we went through little alley ways people smiled at us and greeted us and welcomed us to their very, very humble abodes. Some were built of bamboo, others tarpaulin, others of cow dung – some looked no better than a pig sty. Hope runs a school and also a clinic here – both so necessary for the population of over 5,000 people.

Our next visit was to Goal, where once again we saw the good use our money is being put to. This time we visited a slum built on/beside the city municipal dump. There were about 200 households living on the dump and they made their 'living' by scavenging on the rubbish heaps. They collect any kind of garbage which can be recycled e.g. plastic bottles, cans, shoes etc. and they earn about 100 rupees a day – a little over a euro! The fumes coming off the heaps, the pigs scavenging all around, the dank, stagnant, fetid ponds of almost toxic water, the deplorable conditions are stomach-churning and extremely hard to bear for a quick visit let alone to live there permanently. They have virtually no services in terms of health, education, safe water, sanitation etc. It is really inhuman, degrading, a shame on society that it can happen. Now for the good news and again helped in some small way by our donations, Goal is running some very good programmes here. They have installed communal latrines and mended the wells ensuring that there is running water. They set up a school for the kids aged 5-14 who, from as young as 6-7 are engaged in garbage collection instead of going to school. Some students have graduated from this tiny school to school outside and we heard of one girl who became student of the year in the outside school and won a lunch box, which is her pride and joy.

So the experience of a lifetime has come to an end for most of us – although Ms Macken will return next year. She has been bringing students to Calcutta for 10 years now and we who have been there are amazed at how she does it. It requires great physical stamina, but more than that it requires a big heart and great generosity of spirit, which Ms Macken has in abundance. We applaud you, Ms Macken. Thank you for arranging these life-changing trips.

 

"I couldn't believe what I saw. People were just walking on the roads with no shoes on. We went up to Sealadh, the school/orphanage where we will be working. The kids were so nice, they love having their photos taken and they all called us "aunty". They were lovely and so loving." Rebecca Kennedy

 

"We went to school as usual this morning but today we walked instead of getting a taxi. All we could see were people begging and old people calling us auntie. There were people living under sheets on the path and trying to sell us all sorts. After this we went to see a shanty village which the Hope Foundation is trying to improve. This was hard to look at it. It was so poor" Shauna Johnson

 

"I learned a lot about how people live in Calcutta. It amazed me how they coped and managed to stay in good spirits in spite of their poverty." Rebecca Somers

 

"Calcutta was a life-changing experience for me. It opened my eyes to the poverty and appalling conditions that the people lived in. But in spite of this the kids woke up every morning with a smile on their faces." Chelsey Kearney

 

"It was a great experience. The conditions that the children lived in were horrible but they still managed to get on with it and were cheerful." Clara King