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Activities @ 7 Months

Miss the previous update about my work at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh? Read it here.

About six months have passed since my last formal update about how this year at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh (aka Loving Community) in Ahmedabad has been going. A lot has happened.

Reflecting on that time, the numerous activities, and the full and expansive experience it has been, a single term comes to mind to describe the one theme underlying everything...

Family.

I’ve said before that this small community of people bound by their shared, challenged story of the leprosy disease and the social it created, has become my home away from home, my family away from family. I wake up in the community. I go to bed there. Take my meals there. Play with the kids there. Have done some work there. And many of the members have become like close relatives.

Take for instance, Jyotiben, who during the Raksha Bandhan festival, told me sincerely that I am now her brother, that there is no difference to her between me and her biological brother. Or Induben, Guru's mom, in motherly fashion, who often and randomly delivers chai and some sweet to my room just because (and just recently did so when it was raining because it
was raining). And there are numerous other examples.

It's this closeness I've developed with the community that is largely responsible for the success of the activities outlined in this update.

Planting seeds

Overall, my attention turned to what we were calling the Loving Leadership program.

This program was designed for a brilliant group of 12 youngsters, ages 9 to 18, who all had a certain glow to them that I noticed within my first few weeks living at the community.

They demonstrated extraordinarily caring characters—caring about their environment, caring about others. All were, for the most part, also willing to help somebody or do something, if asked, even if something else more fun was going on around them. Not so for many of the other kids of the community.

The idea was to take this group aside and nurture these somewhat uncommon qualities to plant seeds for future community service leaders. We also have been playing with the theme of "cultivating optimism" for those interested in working towards a dream.

All the kids have grown tremendously in demeanor and gained confidence, especially after the final public speaking assignment and competition. You can read dedicated updates, which go into greater detail about this program, here and here.

Each part affects the whole

During the summer months — a subject in and of itself due to the extreme heat that had temperatures well above 105 Fahrenheit daily for months on end, with some days topping out at 120 and “cooling” to the low 90s at night — I was seeing five or six people a day for Jin Shin Jyutsu treatments.

I enjoyed the quiet, meditative time with all those who I was seeing, some with leprosy, some not.

During this time, I witnessed some powerful transformations. Here are a few that particularly stand out:

  • A young woman with Typhoid Fever, a disease that typically takes weeks to heal, was back on her feet and well after only three days of treatment.
  • An older man with leprosy showed up one night with excruciating pain in his arm. I treated him that night. Within 20 minutes, he fell asleep on the bed and after that 1st treatment, the pain decreased to a whisper. Two more treatments later, the pain was entirely gone. No trip to the hospital or medication was needed.
  • Another young woman reportedly under the influence of a black magic spell with debilitating full body pain. In this instance, our daily treatments have brought her overall situation into greater balance, symbolized by a recent visit to a doctor who properly diagnosed her condition.

And, of course, there is Guru who I talk so much about and who has practically defined my entire experience at the community. His dedicated thread starts here.

Since the last update, our work came to completion when care was transferred from me to a team of specialists at a hospital that specializes in the treatment of children with severe disabilities. He visits this hospital for rehabilitative treatment weekly.

The doctors are confident that over time, slowly, improvements in his ability to chew solid food and hold his head upright, as examples, will be seen. They also organized a custom built chair for him. The day that it arrived (pictured above) was an exciting one, as it marked the end of Guru laying on his back all day, as he has for the past 10 years.

Guru appears happy now, especially when you encourage him—a far cry from the frail boy I met in February.

Though we no longer work together formally, I still visit in the evening everyday to spend time with him and his family, a part of the day I always look forward to.

Though it would be difficult to prove conclusively, as each part affects the whole, I have a sense that all the treatment work, all the behind the scenes work, that yes, was geared to individual people, was also positively affecting the community itself somehow, someway.

Nutrition and companionship

This program, one of my favorite parts of the day, was launched by Manav Sadhna in conjunction with the community in April to provide a free, nutritious meal to a group of approximately 20 leprosy patients (mostly elderly women) who beg for about Rs. 20/day (~.50c) and are without family.

What I enjoy most about the program is that it’s conducted with a high level of care and compassion. We try and make all of our guests feel welcome and cared about. I'm sure they must appreciate this because typically they are out on the street all day begging, and are not used to being served as if they were at a restaurant, quite the opposite!

That, and I have fallen in love with the group of elderly women the program caters to. They are so sweet, so adorable and almost every one after finishing eating will approach me and say, “Jai shri Krishna, good night!” or utter some words of blessing. It is something to meet and befriend the human being behind the beggar we typically ignore.

Special Guests

We received a number of visitors and volunteers who conducted various programs, mostly for the kids. Some did big things, some did small things but in every case, every single one always added something valuable—their energy, their presence, their love.

Consider how it might be from the kids’ perspective. They are living at a small leprosy community in poverty conditions. Though they are all "negative," meaning they will not develop leprosy, they still face exclusion and shunning from their peers for living at the community and having relatives with the disease.

Warmhearted people from around the world showing up to do things specifically for the kids is appreciated by them and I always say that whatever the activity and desired result is, it is 100% secondary to the simple act of showing up.

In mostly chronological order, here’s a recap of some who came and did specific, more formal programs.

Dhara and Mossina — commuted over an hour via bus for a week during the peak of the summer (not easy, not comfortable) to produce a 10-minute drama involving about 15 kids that was performed to the entire community. This was a true labor of love and they did an
amazing job.

Shradha — and her "One Shot Thought" experiment. She equipped the loving leaders with a Flip (humorously pronounced “slip” by those who couldn’t make an f sound) camera for them to take short video clips of things, people, events in their environment they found inspiring.

Jyotsana — an angel, who has worked directly with the loving leaders on different occasions. She grew up in slum life and summoned the will power to pursue her dream and improve her life circumstances. She is a great example of somebody who doesn’t need to do anything to positively influence somebody, who she is does all the work.

Robin — a Fulbright Scholar from the US who visited one day to teach about the tabla and its history, discussing his artistic journey with it.

Nikita — a volunteer from Long Island who, over several Saturdays, taught girls the moves to their favorite Bollywood songs.

Trupti — she came for about a week and did team building and leadership related activities.

Mukeshbhai — a devoted monk came one day to do a brief meditation with the kids.

Jesus — a volunteer architect from Spain. He lead the effort to build our playground and became beloved by the kids.

Lahar — besides being involved with the playground construction, she also facilitated an inspired T-shirt painting event recently for the graduating loving leaders.

Planting Trees and Cleaning Up

This project started off as an idea within the loving leadership group and grew into something much greater than we could have imagined.

I wanted the kids to work together on a sizable project within the community to really get a visceral feel for leadership. Aruna (my amazing project partner and collaborator) and I chose the project, but instructed the kids that they were going to be responsible for creating the end result and making a plan to realize it.

The project we chose was a clean up and beautification of the first piece of land you see entering the community (pictured above)—a filthy, barren area littered with trash and animal waste that you wouldn’t want to walk around in at all.

The kids met and agreed about cleaning up all the trash and measured out 15 trees to be planted. They also wanted park benches and an apparatus to provide water to the roaming goats and cows. One of the senior members of the group, practicing public speaking skills, presented the idea to Jayeshbhai Patel from Manav Sadhna for his input. He liked the plan but then did something unexpected.

He took the project over and made a few phone calls to people in the city government. Some time later, city workers arrived to clean the entire area, and on a huge day in the community, in celebration of Jayeshbhai’s wife’s birthday, we conducted a tree planting (about 30 trees) ceremony in the space.

Though I would have loved for us to do the actual labor of the job, this was a really important lesson for the kids about taking the first step towards a dream, especially a big one. They got to see firsthand what kind of magic can happen when you do so.

Building a Children’s Playground

One of the first notes I made in February was, “Build children’s playground” because I noticed the kids had nowhere specifically to play and were always improvising with whatever was lying around, including with construction materials. Now, several months later, this is exactly what
we’re doing.

From this scribbled note, the process started with an architect volunteer from Spain, Lucia, who measured out the space, took creative input from me, Aruna, and some of the kids, did research, and then designed an initial concept for the playground.

Lucia had to go back home, so the design was passed to Jesus and Lahar, who are here longer term, who refined the concept a bit and put together a budget.

Jesus then shared the design with his friend in Spain, Raffa. Raffa took it upon himself, without any asking from us, to raise all the money for the playground by emailing friends, family, and colleagues. He raised 1,200 Euros or about $1,800, which was enough to cover the cost of the entire project!

As of today, the site has been leveled and mostly cleared. We’re ready to start building and installing the equipment (swings, jungle gym, see-saw, slide, sand pit, etc.) and hope to be done by the end of November.

A Fitness Center Opens

Just this last week, we launched a community fitness center to much exuberance by the guys who all want to look like their favorite Bollywood stars.

The evening before launch, I explained the basic philosophy of the gym (named Sathya Shakti or True Strength) to the 20 or so initial members. 1) Health/fitness is one of the best personal investments to be made. 2) New found strength should equally be for the benefit of others, not just for vanity.

I noted the cost of the gym equipment (Rs. 30,000 about $700, a large amount by community standards) and stressed that members should feel as if they purchased the equipment with their own money.

Each was required to sign a membership agreement to, amongst other things, treat their bodies with respect, be responsible for the cleanliness of the workout space, be courteous to others. Monthly dues of Rs. 100 (around $2) was required to use the gym. With this, we were trying to create a sense of accountability so that the guys would take the project seriously and take good care of the equipment. 

Update: Unfortunately, the center was not the success we hoped it would be. For awhile, a regular group attended daily. Then those numbers started to dwindle. By the time I was ready to leave at the end of the year, less than five were attending. After returning to the community in 2013 after a year away, all of the equipment had been returned to
Manav Sadhna (who donated the money) because it wasn't being used.

The guys needed help with learning workout programming and movements. They didn't really know what they were doing and like a New Year's resolution, lost their initial burst of motivation. We never were able to find a willing volunteer to help them out and I was limited by the language barrier.

That about sums it up. It's been quite a ride. A joyful one. I love living here, the daily routine, and it has been a privilege to be involved with these projects.

I only have a few more months left before I leave for a new journey in Kenya, so I don't anticipate starting many more new activities but winding down and enjoying my remaining time with those that I have come to love as family.

Continue to the next update about my work at the Gandhi Leprosy Seva Sangh.