Jan. 18, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab
Third-world visit provides life-altering education
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – For Slippery Rock University’s Geraldine Jenny, assistant professor of elementary education and early childhood, winter break provided a “life-altering, deeply affecting, unforgettable experience.”
Jenny spent Dec. 30-Jan. 13, involved in an aid project to help Indian children who are separated from their parents because the parents have leprosy. Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease.
“I traveled with my husband, Fred, a computer science professor at Grove City College, my brother, Dan and his wife, Jan, and seven Grove City College students, to a remote village near a jungle in northern India. “What we saw was post-traumatic stress inducing, at least for me,” she said.
“When a child’s parent or parents contract leprosy, they try to hide it because of the social stigma, but when it is finally revealed, the family is separated and the parents enroll their children in a children’s home and school where they are cared for. We delivered four huge bins of vitamins, clothing, coloring books, crayons and other toys collected by SRU students and faculty to the homes. The children’s parents, who are unable to work, are reduced to begging in the streets, despite the fact they are given drugs that reduce the communicability of the disease. It is heartbreaking to see the children who truly depict what it is like to live in a third-world country,” Jenny said.
Leprosy is an infectious disease known since biblical times. It is characterized by disfiguring skin sores, nerve damage and progressive debilitation. Those with the disease have been shunned to “colonies” or often banished to islands to live out their lives.
“The children’s home, operated by Mission to the World, a Christian group, that we visited is actually two separate facilities, one for girls ages 4-18 and boys to age 12, and one a short distance away for boys ages 13-18. The home we visited serves nearly 500 children,” she said.
Parents who contract leprosy apply to have their children admitted to such a home where they receive free education and care until they are 18. The home is supported through worldwide donors, including some who sponsor individual children, Jenny said.
“There are far more applicants than the home has finances to support as there are hundreds of thousands people with leprosy in India. The home we visited has empty beds because it cannot afford to take more children in even on so meager an existence,” she said.
“The children, who can return to their parents when they reach age 18, cannot be adopted. Trust me, if I could have brought one home, I would have. I fell in love with them,” she said.
“While there is love and a nurturing home environment, the children’s existence is meager, by any standard. In addition to shelter and clothing, the children are given a breakfast of porridge – think Dickens – with lunch being a plate of garbanzo beans. Dinner is a very light chicken stew. It was still amazing to see how appreciative the children were. There is a joy and appreciation for whatever they are given. I broke up nutrition bars and each child was very thankful for every morsel. It is very moving,” Jenny said.
While at the home, the U.S. group worked with the children teaching and learning songs, nursery rhymes, skits and games popular in the U.S. such as Duck, Duck Goose and Tag. The Indian students taught the Grove City College students about cricket and rudimentary Hindi. “The children are bright and appreciative, but they need a better diet. I am grateful for the hundreds of bottles of vitamins collected by students and faculty in our physical education department and the SRU Council for Exceptional Children. They were desperately needed by the children,” Jenny said.
During the U.S. group’s visit an unusual cold spell hit the area taking nighttime temperatures into the 30s. The high for the days was in the 50s. There was no heat. “I wore nine layers of clothes in my sleeping bag. And there is never hot water for the shower or anything, ever,” Jenny said.
“My husband and I went to the local market and purchased all the blankets we could find – 85 of them. It broke my heart when the children lined up and we got to the 86th child,” she said. They also bought and distributed socks, gloves – and hot chocolate, a first for many of the children.
“As a term of affection, the children call older adults working at the facility ‘Auntie’ and “Uncle’ and they refer to younger people as ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister,” she said.
“The children have so little, but do not complain. The have a playground with a couple of swings and a merry-go-round. Still, they have developed a strong sense of community. The older children take care of the young and they all work well together. All of the children speak Hindi, and they all learn English,” Jenny said.
While most of the American contingent’s time was spent working with the children, Jenny said she and her husband also became aware of nearby happenings.
“Poachers from a helicopter shot an elephant that then went on a rampage killing four people in their cars. And when the group traveled to Jim Corbett National Park, a tiger killed four women as they searched for firewood. Traffic is hair-raising; drivers use their horns rather than their eyes. They make new lanes, and you have to go around ox carts and people riding camels. The roads are just jam-packed. There are also random cows, pigs and monkeys wandering everywhere. We went on elephant rides and a Jeep safari where we saw a number of exotic animals, including a Bengal tiger. Another highlight was a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra. Its beauty defies description.”
Jenny also conducted some research, which she plans to write and do presentations on later this year.
“I interviewed each participant and conducted a qualitative survey with the students and advisers involved regarding their prior perceptions, what they expected in India and at the children’s home and what was the reality. Many commented on how life-changing the trip was and their desire to do more service-learning projects. To look at India as a very needy country was one thing, but to actually experience it in a hands-on way, to live with the deprivation was very different,” she said.
The week concluded with a picnic with the boys and girls at the two facilities gathered in one place. As the American group departed, the youngsters serenaded their visitors with a goodbye song titled “Give Thanks.”
Jenny said the trip was too emotionally difficult to consider returning. “I will continue to support the children. In fact, my husband and I have agreed to support two of them, but I won’t go back. I will encourage others to give and to appreciate in a deeper way what it means to be an American and live in a land of abundance, but the reality is most of the world does not live as we do.”
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