Foroige youth services, Le Cheile school completion program and Terence McSwiney Community College in Knocknaheeny on Cork’s Northside recently collaborated on a once in a lifetime opportunity to volunteer with our host the Hope Foundation [i] children’s charity in Kolkata India.. The group consisted of 5 young people and two leaders who travelled as part of an eight day Hope U Can Paint program. The trip was sponsored through the Tomar Trust [ii].
The group of Transition year young people had been selected to participate in the program based on their involvement in both the life of the school and the Outreach & centre based support services Foroige provide in Knocknaheeny. The group bought a fantastic energy and enthusiasm to the program and at all times were fully engaged in all aspects of the program be it the preparation, hands on direct street work, fundraising etc. They embraced the notion of stepping outside their comfort zone and this experience was going to not only challenge them but could have life changing outcomes. A core priority for our group was that this experience would enable them to build on that resilience and empathy and to grow more connected to their community and society.
The Hope You Can Paint element of our program was in a boy’s home called PunorJibon which was a residential home for boys who had been rescued from traffickers and all had significant health problems both physical and psychological due to addiction and other issues from their time in captivity. The boys greeted us with warmth and openness and were very excited about our visit. We spent 5 happy mornings working on painting murals and decoration the living and social areas of the centre with the young residents. Their energy and enthusiasm was a fantastic chink of light amongst such poverty, and our group of young people were fantastic, open, and completely committed to giving of themselves for the few days we were there. The whole community rallied around and expressed such huge gratitude for such a small act. It was both a very humbling and exhilarating experience. Our final morning with them was a very emotional time for our group who built such a strong rapport and bonding with the Boys.
(One of the young participants wrote this testimony on her return home; ” We met a homeless family living on the pavement near our hostel and on a couple of occasions we gave them our left over food from dinner and they cried because they didn’t expect us to help them, that made us cry too!” “That’s Kolkata in a nutshell- great joy and great sadness.”)
The group also attended the Hope Foundation day celebrations with 1,500 children and young people in a conference centre. It was a day of beautiful colour and pageantry, celebrating all the work and individual achievement of the Hope foundation on its 19th Birthday. We all had to dress in traditional costume for the event. Two of our young people were invited on stage to represent the group and sang “Halleluiah” for the audience to rapturous applause.
Another unique aspect of the program is the visits to the Hope projects in Kolkata. We visited a total of 17 such projects ranging from residential boy’s and girl’s homes to the Hope hospital and vocational training units for older teenagers. Many of the homes and centres we visited had similar characteristics in that the warmth of the welcome and the gratitude for the sharing of what little we could offer was very deep and heartfelt. We had collected many stationary items and toys prior to our trip to distribute to the children and the joy these small tokens bought meant so much. I also had a Polaroid camera with us and took photos of the children and presented them for individuals to keep and it was the 1st time they ever had a photo of themselves to keep. That felt very special as these young men had endured unimaginable trauma prior to being rescued.
This allowed participants to see first-hand the broad range of residential, medical and vocational setting’s run by Hope and it also was an opportunity to give some time and energy to the children who live in the Hope homes. Residents of these homes have access to the emotional and vocational supports Hope provide until they reach the age of 18 when they will hope to have acquired the skills and experience necessary to enter the mainstream workforce and develop an independence from the service.
The poverty we experienced was overwhelming and a very real and challenge for the group. We met with families living with no protection or shelter from the weather and others living under tarpaulins all sleeping on open ground. The slum areas are infested with rats and cockroaches and wild dogs who pose very serious risk to the health of the whole community. There is no running water or electricity so night time can be very dangerous. (This year alone there were 178 documented young women have disappeared from the slum areas of Kolkata, all presumed trafficked into the slave trade.) Health care and other essential social services are non-existent. The Hope hospital has an ambulance which visits these slums by night to hold informal clinics on the side of the road. On one such visit we saw rats crawling on top of sleeping women sifting through their few belongings for any food, it really felt very shocking and something akin to a post-apocalyptic scene of total devastation. This event bought home the stark realities of the total desolation of the slums dwellers. As one young participant remarked “How can this happen in a country with more billionaires than any other?”
The work of the Hope foundation, whilst a drop in the ocean, is making a significant difference to so many individuals and families in the slum areas by giving them the skills to lift themselves from poverty and to break that cycle for the next generation. The volunteers need to be acknowledged for their skill and empathy, plus the Trojan efforts they put into the 6 months they commit to working with the most vulnerable residents in this vast city.
The impact of the experience has had a significant impact on the Knocknaheeny group. Social care and Political science are now targets for two of the students at 3rd level. Four of our group have expressed a wish to return to Kolkata as volunteers with Hope when they finish school.
The benefit for young people’s participation in the program can be categorised under the following headings;
Life & Social skills;
- Team Work
- Communication skills
- Increased self-confidence
- Increased self-awareness
- Public speaking
- Experience different environments
- Cultural exchange
- Advocacy work
- Involvement in campaigning
- Building networks to make a difference
- Realisation of life in developing countries
- Meeting targets
- Administration skills
- Presentation skills
- Accountancy skills
I would like to acknowledge and thank my line management Declan and John for their support and trust in me to represent Foroige in such a unique way.
John O’ Mahony
Youth Outreach Services
[i] HOPE is an Irish charity established in 1999 working for the street and slum children of Kolkata, formally known as Calcutta. The charity currently funds over 60 individual projects for children and their families in areas such as Education, Healthcare, Safe and secure accommodation, Vocational training, Counselling and Advocacy. The charity was established in response to the terrible plight of the abandoned and abused street and slum children of the city who would face a bleak future of poverty, disease, violence, exploitation trafficking.) Kolkata is a city of 16million people and has over 5,000 slum areas with the average slum having a population of 8,000. (4million slum dwellers)
[ii] The Tomar trust is a support program for evidence-based approaches that are proven to be effective in building resilience, and empathy, and in so doing, improving attainment and building protective factors for mental health and addiction among young people and their community.