I literally had to peel myself out of the Jet Airways flight 418 seat last night upon arrival to Mumbai. It wasn’t all the hand shaking, high-fives, and cradling babies that exhausted me, but the rollercoaster of emotions I had been riding the past week.
Five international visitors, four locations, three foundations, two episodes of tears, and one almost adoption later, I am back in my home away from home ready to spread awareness about the incredible work of these foundations and find a way to help them continue.
I am so thankful to have the opportunity to come to India to continue and further our company’s corporate social responsibility activities. A foreigner taking forward projects that encourage Indians to help India might sound bonkers to most, but a fresh perspective might just be the key.
Although my words will do these foundations no justice, I hope this three piece blog leaves you feeling as shocked, amazed, and inspired as I was on last week’s visits to Bombay Teen Challenge, City of Joy, and the Vincente Ferrer Foundation.
Hold onto your hearts.
Coaxing 5 visitors from the United States and Spain out of the Oberoi Mumbai for a 10am departure to Badlapur went easier than expected. A three hour car ride paired with multiple wrong turns made everyone all the more thankful when we finally arrived at the gates of the Jubilee 4 home of Bombay Teen Challenge.
Jubilee 4 is an AIDS orphan home for children ranging in ages from 1-13. All the residents of Jubilee 4 have been rescued from the Red Light District, but flaunt smiles that could melt a heart made of stone. An album of photos used to record the conditions in which the children were found left each and every adult in the room nauseous and speechless.
The extremely well-behaved children displayed their spotless Hard Rock t-shirts and new home with immense pride. A playful tour ended in the kitchen where I demonstrated my plate balancing skills from years of slinging booze on the Las Vegas Strip. The children far preferred the vast amounts of beef, chicken and veggie burgers being served to any tricks I had up my sleeve. Hard Rock Café and Shiro provided a smorgasbord covering everything from noodles to cakes as well as entertaining service while the little ones stuffed themselves to the verge of explosion.
A mass exodus occurred when the cutting of the ribbon for the Jubilee 4 playground inauguration was announced. The idea of playing on new swings, slides and a merry-go-round made those tiny, recovering feet move at the speed of lightening. Full bellies and a playground to explore made a tear free exit possible for all.
Ashagram: Village of Hope
Badlapur is also home to our second stop, the Ashagram for Bombay Teen Challenge. Known as the Village of Hope, the Ashagram provides safe housing for the rehabilitation of sex traffic victims as well as those dealing with substance abuse. This program has been set up to rescue and restore victims of sex trafficking through love and acceptance as they are usually shunned by society and particularly by their own families and usually have no place to go to when they leave the red light district. More often than not, they are either illiterate or have very little education and are not at all able to fend for themselves. It is this very vulnerability that landed them in the brothels in the first place. Also, since many of them are already HIV+ by the time they are rescued, they are too sick to be able to work and look after themselves.
Vocational centers provide the victims with training in trades such as fashion design and jewelry making. This training will allow the victims to earn a stable income outside the world of flesh trade and drugs upon departure from the Village of Hope. The women also take part in daily education and extracurricular activities such as dancing, singing and cooking.
With a mixture of pride and humility, the women display their hard handiwork. Of course, I fell in love with a few pieces that I will wear knowing I helped further the rehabilitation and recreation of the life of a woman one earring at a time.
Kamathipura, the Red Light District
Hazel Thompson, the world renowned photojournalist and one of my personal favorite women, along with a man whom she refers to as her “brother” in Mumbai guided 4 of us into Kamathipura for a slightly goosebump inducing experience.
Hazel spent two months earlier this year in and out of the Red Light District of Mumbai documenting child prostitution. Her porcelain skin is quickly recognized by gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes. Shivers are sent down my spine as our car becomes surrounded by a barricade of men peering into the windows with piercing looks that convey the message of what will happen if any of us decide to step foot outside the vehicle.
Nothing compares to the shock that struck Hazel when she recognized a face of one of the girls she documented in her book set to release the same night. A look of horror explained to all of us this shell of a girl was not supposed to be back in Kamathipura. Ever.
Without revealing too much, the girl was 11 when promised a job as a maid in Mumbai by her neighbor. Coming from an extremely poor family, the tender child agreed to help her family survive and left to Mumbai only to be met with a life in hell for the next 11 years.
Layers of cages keep these children sold into flesh trade locked deep inside the brothels of the Red Light District. It takes about 3 years to “break” a flesh trade victim allowing them out of one layer of bars at a time.
The girl that Hazel recognized was rescued and sent back home with money to her family. Her father and brother stole the money and kicked her right back out to the streets. She of course returned to Kamathipura, the only place that still welcomed her with open arms.
Witnessing the continuation of this tragic cycle caused a domino effect of quiet breakdowns in our car. Cue episode of tears #1.
CAGES launch, Break the Chains event
To spread awareness and encourage support, Bombay Teen Challenge held a spectacular event at the Taj Lands End. The Tata Family graciously provided the space which would act as a platform for many distinguished speakers and stage for Bombay Teen Challenge residents to show off their dance skills.
One of our international guests on this journey, Hamish Dodds, wrote the preface for the book and introduced the women of the hour. Two of the girls followed in the book were almost unrecognizable as they advanced to the stage. Both held their heads high as they weaved through a crowd applauding only for them. I was overwhelmed by the honor of presenting flowers to girls onstage. The challenges they have overcome made me quickly snap out of my apprehension due to my lifelong struggle with stage fright.