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Big hearts and even bigger dreams

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356I didn’t know how I would get here or when it would happen but I knew I would come to Parijat Academy again. There is just something magical about this school. And even on my second visit, I’m as fascinated as ever. I’ve been most mesmerized by the girls of ParijatAcademy. ParijatAcademy provides 9 girls with a home so they can attend school. Most of these girls are from a village called Garbangha. Garbangha is located in the mountains of Northeastern India and it takes about 4-5 hours to walk there. Many of these girls previously walked daily to attend ParijatAcademy because in Garbangha there is no school. I could not understand why they would walk several hours a day just to go to school, but after talking with these girls I have come to understand that they once walked for change. These brave girls took a chance and are now paving a new way for their village. These girls are the greatest example of how one can carve out a new path of hope.

When Uttam Teron (the principal of ParijatAcademy) saw how determined these girls were to get an education he decided to build a dormitory to allow them to live at the school. The girls have expressed that attending school is of primary importance because school opens up doors of opportunity that they otherwise would not be able to access. In fact one of the girls explained to me that in Garbangha children have only one choice: and that is to work hard. Children are required to engage in labor with their parents which is not necessarily bad; as it is cultural practice. But one of the girls said to me that she dreams of a future when children in Garbangha will have more than one choice. She dreams up a time when the children of Garbangha can go to school and re-imagine their future as doctors, teachers, lawyers, travelers or anything they choose.

These girls have big smiles and even bigger dreams. Dreams that not even poverty can hold back. Dreams strengthened by the obstacles they have faced. Dreams that seem to have been stitched into their souls. These girls understand that they have come from a place of abject poverty; but what I find to be more fascinating is that they also understand that poverty is not their destiny. These girls are using their dreams to rewrite their history. They are redefining what it means to be “poor.” In fact, one of the girls said to me, “How am I poor? Sure I don’t always have a lot of money but I have love and the sun and everything I need. And now I even have school. I don’t think I’m poor, I think I’m the luckiest girl in the world.” I could see the seriousness in her eyes as she said these words and then a huge smile spread across her face. Her words touched my heart. I find it magical how these girls have learned to transform education into freedom. And not just any kind of freedom; they have found the freedom of laughter, gratitude and peace.

These girls have the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen and they have even bigger dreams. Seuti (14 years old) once told me that before she came to ParijatAcademy she never knew what it mean to dream. She would go to sleep every night and her mind was like a blank sheet of paper. But now since she has been able to attend school, her mind is filled with the color of new things. She told me in a voice barely above a whisper, that now when she goes to sleep she dreams of everything. Her dreams paint a colorful new world of hope and opportunity. A world she would not have known without education. Oh yes, these girls have big hearts and even bigger dreams. And the most beautiful thing is that I believe one day their dreams will become a reality. Seuti also said she will not rest until her dreams and her future become one.

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Goodbye India, Hello Derrika Rashmi.

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I sat on the veranda of the tiny flat, which overlooked a beautiful garden park in Delhi. The bright sun cast a golden glow over the veranda as a cool breeze whisked the smells of cow dung and fried samosa into the air. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened to the sounds of birds chirping and the hustle and bustle of Delhi’s crazy traffic. I watched women in jeans walk alongside women in their Kurtas and Sarees as they all made their way to the local market. In the distance, I saw a small temple with a shrine of Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) next to a herd of “street” children picking through a pile of trash. This was India: a beautiful contradiction. The sound of an angry driver repeatedly blowing his loud horn interrupted my thoughts and I realized I needed to start packing for my flight which was only hours away.

For hours, I took my time neatly packing and often times rearranging things in my big pink suitcase. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything. But no matter how much I rearranged and double checked, I still felt like I was leaving something. I went through a mental list as I scanned my suitcase one last time. I gently fingered the eclectic array of souvenirs that filled my bag. Each souvenir reminded me of one of my bold adventures or heartfelt moments. I giggled as I picked up the Karma sutra book with bad English and ridiculous pictures. I laughed as I picked up a cheap gold bangle a street vendor tried to sell me for $20! I laughed as I remembered how he hassled me and eventually sold it to me for the $2 it was worth. I felt my heart skip a beat as I picked up and refolded the beautiful traditional cloth one of my girls gave me right before I left them. I sighed as I thought about the sadness of saying goodbye to my girls, goodbye to the school I volunteered with and now it was time to say goodbye to a culture that sent me on a whirlwind of emotions.

I often went from being intrigued with all of India’s rich traditions to feeling confused about how those traditions thrived in the worst poverty I’ve ever seen. I often found myself feeling curious to know the secret behind the smiles of people who literally had nothing to being excited when people randomly came up to me requesting photos. As I looked at the beautiful architecture of many buildings and bright colors I felt like a little kid, anxiously wanting to learn more about the history of India. But the thing that intrigued me the most about India was the women. There were many times I was in complete awe as I watched Indian women strut in their beautifully designed saree’s, adorned with intricate Mahendi (Henna) designs on their hands and feet, while gorgeous bejeweled bangles filled their arms. These women wore their culture beautifully and they were a like breath-taking age-old monuments that somehow never seemed to age. It was magical how the history of India was written in the faces of these women and it’s sacredness braided within their hair. The power of India rested quietly in them as they worked endlessly to build a land, their land. The secrets of India were hidden in their eyes which were like tunnels leading to a magical past. And the joys of India were entangled in their smiles.The Taj Mahal and many of the other great historical sites of India are stunning but nothing compared to the women of India.These beautiful women, who held life in their wombs but oppression in their land were the gift and hope of transformation for India.

The most difficult part of being in India.
I felt hurt when I saw mothers walking with half-naked children half-hoping to find some sort of relieft. Maybe they walked because that was all they could do. Perhaps walking kept them from remembering the pain. I once watched a mother walk up and down the small train station. She walked in circles with 3 children waddling behind her. She never looked back as she took long strides with her eyes fixed on the ground. I can only imagine what she was searching for. I stood there for an hour watching her as I waited for the train. And nothing could prepare me for what I saw her do next. She walked back to a little corner in the back of the station and took off her scarf. She meticulously laid the scarf down and all of the children sat on a little peice of it. They were hungry. And just when she thought no one else was looking she took some food from her bag and gave all of the children small bits of crumbs. She then laid the children down and started humming. They were living there in that train station. As I got on the train I felt empty as I watched this mother, who had nothing sing what I imagine to be lullaby’s to put her babies to sleep as she fanned away herds of flies. Life had made a fool of her. But like the caged bird, she too sings. 

My volunteer service
I came to Parijat Academy expecting to only teach English and engage in a short-term volunteeer project. But since being here, my life has changed for the best and I will never be the same. Parijat Academy provides on campus, dormitory housing for 7 girls from a remote village. Outside of school I spent a vast majority of my time talking with the girls and getting to know them. The girls of Parijat Academy have truly taught me the value of foraging human relationships. I scheduled and planned my time at Parijat Academy, but there was no way I could plan for how I would be changed. I was most inspired by 7 little girls from a rempote village who lived on the school campus just so they could attend school becuase their home was a 4 hour walk away. 7 girls who stayed up with me talking during late nights even though they had to start their day at sunrise. Girls who always checked on me to make sure I was ok. Girls who reminded me of what it meant to smile in the face of adversity. Girls who talked with me in broken English, teaching me bits of their sacred language. Girls who laughed with me. Girls who danced in the rain with me. Girls who held my hand when I was scared to walk down the steep hills during our hike in the jungle. Girls who always greeted me with a smile. Girls who would sneak and clean my room everyday while I was teaching. Girls who taught me how to knit. Girls who taught me how to use a sewing machine. Girls who pooled together all of their scraps of money to buy me a painting before I left. These are the girls of Parijat Academy. Girls who have reached for my hand, but have touched my heart.

Why I travel

The ancient Roman philopsopher once said, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” And I could not disagree with him more. If the world is truly a book then we can cross oceans, hike through the rain forests of Costa Rica, scale the tallest mountains, listen to unfamilar chatter of street vendors in Seoul, smell the mixture of greasy street foods in India, swim in the clear, blue waters of the Philippines, touch the ancient walls of Angkor Wat and even marvel at the beauty of women in Sierra Leone without ever leaving our homes. This is the beauty of books. We can see, touch, feel and smell the world from the comfort of our favorite reading place. I do agree with St. augustine on one thing however, the world is indeed a book and in my eyes those of us who travel are merely the writers.

I travel because I love everything about traveling. I embrace the difficult moments of being homesick to the indescribable feeling of locals smiling when I butcher their language in an attempt to communicate with them. I was born to travel. And for me it has become an art. I travel not because I’m running, but because I do not know any other way. I travel not only to see the world, but to feel the world. I do not travel because I want to fill my passport and brag about all of the places I’ve been. Instead I travel because each journey leads me to hidden places deep within me. I travel because for me, it is the only way. In essence, I travel because it helps me find myself. As I connect with locals, visit historical landmarks, take photographs, eat new foods and walk through unfamiliar lands I find a new peice of myself that I otherwise would not have known.

For the first time as I prepare to say goodbye I am smiling. I’ve always cried and had a hard time saying goodbye but now I’m no longer crying. Instead I am smiling because I have found a new part of me while in India.I smile because I finally understand that you can never truly say goodbye to something you love, because what we love never leaves our hearts. And so I maybe leaving India, but the lessons, memories, smiles, friendships, challenges and experiences are forever engraved upon my heart and that is truly something to smile about. Afterall, I am Rashmi. The Goddess of light. (read previous entry to understand this reference)

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Your smile lights up the world.

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We sat, crammed in Uttam’s (principal of the school I’m volunteering at) office room, talking as the flashlight lit the room enough for me to make out everyone’s face. Aimoni (Uttam’s wife/teacher at the school) sat neatly on a chair with her feet tucked beneath her. While Uttam sat perched behind his desk, with focus etched into the creases of his brown face. We talked about life. About our dreams. We talked about how we went from being worlds apart to sitting in the same small room…talking. Uttam eagerly asked me about my life. What is America like? Is it rich? I don’t know if I can truly explain America, because America is so many things. But, my America has been like a kaleidoscope. So many experiences mixing to create beautiful patterns. We talked about my life. I spoke in strides. Telling Uttam about growing up in Black America. He listened anxiously like a little child anticipating my every word. We talked about my childhood. About my family. About my mother. About my step-father. I told him now it’s only me and my younger sister, taking care of each other. Uttam looked at me as if stars had fallen from my mouth. The idea of me losing my mother and step-father really seemed to trouble him. How could you manage without the mother and father? I smiled. My smile seemed to confuse him. I told Uttam that everything in my life had been a divine plan and though I lost my mother I have gained so much. We talked. I spoke of soul food, poverty, community, love, family, books, music, and all of the things I remembered filling my childhood. Uttam listened, interjecting every so often to ask me to explain more about each thing. We talked. I glowed as I talked about my sister. How she is everything to me. How I know my mother gave us her spirit because she knew we would need each other. We talked. “Is soul food giving the people better soul?” I giggled. I told Uttam how soul food is love, it’s community, it’s our way of making the best out of the worst. Uttam was so intrigued that he kept telling me he wanted to try it when he came to America. We talked. I told Uttam about my experiences in college and how education saved me. I told him how traveling the world was a foreign concept to me as a child, but now it is my life. We talked about how dreams come true. We talked. We laughed. We had serious moments. Uttam spoke in waves, his voice rising and falling like tides as he talked about India: his home. I listened. Uttam told me about life in India. He spoke of traditions, Ganesh, villages, poverty, Krishna, Gods, family, tribes and community. We talked. Hours wrapped around our conversation as it continued to evolve and change from subject to subject. Finally the electricity clicked back on and the lights brought us back to reality. It was late, time for us to get ready for bed and for our next of day of teaching. As I was getting up to go to my room I asked Uttam and Aimoni to give me an Indian name. Uttam’s eyes lit up and he shouted “Rashmi! That is your name! Rashmi.” The look on Uttam’s face was something I will never forget. He looked like he had a revelation. He then looked at Aimoni, who nodded in agreement with a smile of her face. “Yes, this is for her. It describes her.” I looked between the two of them anxiously waiting for one of them to explain to me what Rashmi means. After a moment of silence, Aimoni explained that Rashmi is the Goddess of light. Uttam interjected, saying “Yes and you are spreading your light, so Rashmi is the name for you.” “And your smile lights up the world. When I see it, I’m not feeling the worries.” Aimoni said barely above a whisper. 

I felt tears stinging my eyes. And as I walked away from the tiny room I felt something tugging at my heart. All of my worries and fears about being so far away from home began to melt away. And I thought: maybe home is not a place, maybe it’s a feeling we carry in our hearts. Home is anywhere we feel loved. And with Aimoni and Uttam I felt love. Just days ago we were strangers and now we are like family. Actually we are family. Conversations have removed the boundaries. Conversations have helped us bridge connections to understand each other. I realize these conversations were more than just merely talking, they were a cultural exchange of sorts. These conversations opened up the door for us to truly connect with each other. I went to bed dreaming of my new name. Rashmi. Why did they give me this name after only knowing me for a few days? Light of the world.

 

 

Roses growing from concrete

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I promised to provide a post explaining how your donations, prayers and positve energy have all helped me in my quest to help children in India. In this post I will answer a lot of general questions I have gotten from some of you. I will also provide more detailed information about my service project as well as show you the beautiful children of Parijat Academy (the school I’m volunteering at).

What is Parijat Academy?

Parijat Academy is a school for underprivileged children in Guwahati, India. The Principal (Uttam Teron) has dedicated his life to making his village a better place. Guwahati is home to thousands of children who do not have access to education. According to Uttam it is important for the children of Guwahati to have access to education because without education they risk becoming victims of child labor. Thus, to keep the children safe and also to provide them with a sense of purpose Uttam started Parijat Academy. When Uttam first started Parijat Academy he only had a dream, tin walls, a bamboo roof and a few desks which served less than 10 children. Uttam’s dream has expanded and Parijat Academy now serves more than 500 children. To learn more about Parijat Academy and Uttam’s story please visit: http://www.outlookindia.com/mad.asp?fname=Making&sid=&subsubsec=Assam&fodname=20060213

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I have included pictures of the children who attend f Parijat Academy. The children are in grades ranging from Kindergarden through high school. These children are amazing. They go to school in very poor conditions (no a.c., cows and wild animals roaming the school grounds, sometimes the rain leaks into the classrooms) but they come to school everyday with a smile and open heart. I think we can all learn a lesson from these children. They have truly taught me to be thankful. But most importantly they have taught me that I may not have the best of everything, but it is important to make the best of everything I have. In the worst of conditions, these children are blooming! They are truly roses growing from concrete.

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How else can I help Parijat Academy?

If you, like me have been moved by the story of Parijat Academy you can do more to help. The school is funded strictly through donations and they do not recieve any governmental assistance. The children are in need of clothes, school supplies, games and literature (books.) If you or a group would like to donate any of these items please contact me directly at dreamer4change@gmail.com. You can also provide monetary donations to help in the construction and expansion of the school. To provide moneytary donations (which go directly to the school) please visit:
https://omprakash.org/DonationForm?go=DonationForm&p=26

What type of projects am I doing a Parijat Academy:

  • Teaching basic English grammar, reading and writing skills to students.
  • Developing a volunteer handbook for future volunteers (to provide future volunteers with tools and resources to help them have a successful experience at Parijat Academy)
  • Organizing a Summer Festival for the children. The children of Parijat Academy are generally very poor based on western standards (most living on only a few dollars per month) but they are rich in love. Thus, I wanted to have a day to celebrate the children. The Summer Festival is a day of games, activities and food for the children to enjoy and relax.
  • Researching the relationship between poverty and women’s development. Women usually do most of the labor in the world, yet they make the least amount of money. While in Guwahati, I have been conducting interviews with local women to begin to understand their perspective. I wanted to give the women a voice because in many developing nations (and globally) women are overlooked. I will be working with a professor from FSU to organize the data and eventually share it once I return from India.
  • Environmental Awareness Campaign. In India, the streets are often littered with trash. The Principal of the school encouraged me and some of the other volunteers to teach the children about recycling. The idea of recycling is very new to the children, thus we are teaching them the basics and we have provided bins for them to start their own recycling project.
  • Health Awareness Campaign. I’ve been working with another volunteer to promote health awareness amongst the local villagers. The other volunteer Kevin organized a Health Fair for the students in which students had a chance to interact with a local doctor. Please visit to see some of things we have already done: http://www.assamtimes.org/social/7081.html

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Why am I volunteering all the way in India and not in America?

I came to India because after reading the story of Parijat Academy and seeing how much the Principal has given to better his village I wanted to come and be a part of that legacy. I wanted to meet these beautiful resilient children of Parijat Academy. I also understand that living outside of my comfort zone in a new place will help to grow and become a better person. More importantly I wanted to serve. In fact, Rachel Naomi Remen said, “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.” I’m not volunteering because I want to fix Parijat Academy. I’m here because I want to serve children who have taught me the value of what it means to be humble. I embarked on my journey to Parijat understanding that it is not my job to “fix” or change the people of Guwahati, India. I also came with the understanding that though I will be teaching, I will learn a lot more from the locals than I could ever teach them. Lastly, I serve in America year-round in various community service projects. I recognize the importance of helping my own community as well as helping others. But, I truly believe we are all God’s children and helping anywhere is helping the world.Image

My time at Parijat Academy has been nothing short of amazing and fulfilling. I’m truly thankful God provided me with the opportunity to come to such a beautiful place to learn from such a strong, resilient group of people.

Do your dreams scare you?

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Yesterday reaffirmed everything I’ve been thinking. Everything happens for a reason. It feels like the Universe has already orchestrated every detail for my ultimate benefit. I’ve heard that quote a million times before, but it’s so different when you see it playing out in your own life.

Yesterday was my first official day of school with the children. Words cannot express the happiness I feel by being here in Guwahati helping the children of Parijat Academy. Throughout the day I spent time talking with the principle and his wife to get a better understanding of the school and their vision. To say I was inspired would not merely justify my feelings.

As I listened to Uttam (the principal) talk I could feel his words. His passion and love for the children radiated as he spoke about wanting to make his village a better place. Uttam’s words were like honey soothing a sore throat. Comforting. He went on to describe his dreams of expanding the school to help even more children. Uttam’s dreams are big, but so is his heart. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as dedicated to helping others. He has given his everything to offer these children a free education. Uttam looked at me with determination etched into his face. “Derrika do you believe my vision? Sometimes I want to give up because it’s too hard. But these children need me.” His words literally sent chills through my body. Of course I believed in his vision. But I too understood his fear of not being able to make it happen. Sometimes dreams are scary, especially when the world has said you can’t do it.

We talked about all of the money we needed to raise to help the children of Parijat. I told Uttam, I do not only believe your vision, but I know it will happen. There is no way for someone to have that much determination and the universe not make there dream a reality. It always makes me think of my favorite quote from the book The Alchemist “And when you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” I know the universe is conspiring for Uttam and his dream will manifest. I’ve often heard people grumbling about there not being enough leaders and change makers in the world. Well to those people, I say you must meet Uttam. He is paving the way of change not only for his village, but also for the world. Uttam has sparked a light in me that I didn’t know existed. I came to Parijat for a reason. I met Uttam for a reason. And sometimes my dreams scare me, but I dream them for a reason: to heal the world.

Today it rained.

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My first day in the village it rained. Beautifully, leaving an edge of calm hanging in the atmosphere. And directly after the rain, the sun illuminated the sky. It was bright and higher than before. I marveled at the beauty of nature. And if you know me at all, you know I find meaning in the simplest of things. I wondered why it rained the moment after I arrived at the village and then the sun came back out as soon as I finished unpacking. Perhaps God was speaking to me through nature. The rain reminded me that sometimes we will have difficulty, but there is always beauty in the midst of struggle. Even when things are their hardest and we’re at our breaking point, isn’t it beautiful how we continue to perservere. It’s amazing how we want to give up but deep down we know we cannot. That is beautiful. 

The emergence of the sun after rain reminded me that after struggle there is always happiness. Transforming our struggles into happiness is a journey. But once we get there it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful experiences. In my own life I’ve witnessed this time and time again. Most recently I witnessed it with my voyage to India [one of my favorite cd’s by the way :)] In my last entry, I wrote about how everything seemed to be going wrong before I came to India. In those moment of struggle I wanted to give up and not take the trip at all. But, now I’m here and words cannot express the happiness I feel. All of those struggles were worth it. Seeing the face of villagers light up as I entered the school was worth it. As, I saw the deep poverty lurking in the village I knew it was worth it. When I held the hand of the director of the school I’m volunteering at I understood why I needed to be here.

Today, my first day in the village it rained. It rained to remind me. And with this message from the universe I enter Parijat Academy (the school I’m volunteering at) ready to sprinkle doses of sunshine. Today it rained. But, tomorrow I will spread sunshine and love by pouring my heart into the people of this village.