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A little insight into the life of Free Spirit - a melting pot of our thoughts, beliefs, suggestions & ideas to inspire you on your path as you journey through life.

Published: 02/03/2018

Finding HOPE in the City of Joy



 

It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, volunteering with the HOPE Foundation - the fantastic project that we support through Free Spirit to help children out of poverty in India.

Out of the thousands of amazing charities out there that I could possibly donate something towards.. this is the one that resonated the most with me.. no matter how poor, I believe children should always have access to an education and that’s something I’m extremely passionate about. I’ve always felt a connection with India and despite it being a challenged and challenging place there is something that draws me back time and time again..

 

I’ve always said that I had a love hate relationship with this wonderland.. because so often one minute I will be in awe of the beauty, the sights, the smells, the spices, the opulence, the warmth.. and the next moment I will be cursing for the exact same reasons...

 

 

 



 

It’s a country of astounding contrasts. The most opulent of palaces grandly stand almost obscenely next to the ramshackled huts others are lucky to call home. I say lucky because this is again rich in comparison to the blankets that lay on the ground below the flyovers... or yet worse still.. some don’t even have that..



The smells are an assault on the senses and smack you in the face like losing three rounds with Mohammed Ali.. cumin, ginger, lemongrass, urine, cow dung, cardomom, sweat, marigolds, chilli.... it’s one giant melting pot that takes you from delight, to disgust and back to delight again with every inhalation...

And then there’s the people.. the warmth and kindness that I experience on a day to day basis that makes me fall in love with this country even more... only to be upset the next minute by the sheer vastness of poverty, the intensity of the crowded streets, or someone pushing in front of you in line, because actually there is no line and it’s just every man for himself...

Every time I come to this country I feel that I peel yet another layer off both the culture here and myself.. learning to accept that this is just the way things are. And this is the biggest challenge. Acceptance. I realise this is something I have overcome since my last visit here. I realise in the past I have resisted, fought, argued even when things didn’t exactly go to plan. I realise that then panic sets in and turns to fear... this “flight or fight” mode kicks in and then boom, before I know it I’ve worked myself up into a stressed up mess, looking for the “emergency stop” button to get off this ride and return back to my comfort zone...

 

But not this time. I don’t know what changed in the last 2 years but I have never felt more calm and at ease as I have the last 3 weeks here.



 

 



 

Maybe it’s because I’m here for a purpose and it’s less about my own experience and more about what I’m trying to give back.. although of course the love you give is reciprocated ten fold when it comes to these beautiful children..

I visit home after home full of beautiful boys and girls all under HOPE’s care. All rescued off the streets or from bad family situations. Many have been saved from sex or slave trafficking, some just merely abandoned... each set of eyes tells another sad story that we can only dare to imagine.

Yet you would barely know. From the first five minutes spent with these kids, I am in love with them all. Their sheer joy and energy is infectious. They have so little yet are so happy and grateful. So eager to learn and curious to discover. Many are very good at English and we have conversations about hopes & dreams. “I want to be a doctor” says one... “I want to be a teacher says another”... “I want to be a fashion designer” says a third... and I smile. We are at a school in the middle of one of Kolkata's biggest slums and yet the kids here have the same aspirations as any child in the Western world. And of course they should! Just with a little helping hand by the HOPE Foundation, these children have been given just that...HOPE.



One night I join a doctor, a nurse and a social worker on the “Nightwatch”... This is an ambulance that goes around areas where the homeless are known to reside, and offer medicines or help for those in need. Hospitals cost money in India so it is unfortunately a luxury that many just cannot afford. It's cold this night, as just coming out of winter the evening temperatures are around 6-8C, and many people we find are sick with flu. The ambulance is their saviour as they stock up on medicines they need to help recover. Anyone in need of urgent attention is taken to the HOPE hospital and any child found abandoned or in danger by the ambulance is also taken into care.

This night there are (thankfully) no emergencies. But once again I am struck by the kindness of the people. All so grateful. So polite. SO friendly and curious towards us as foreigners. Those that could speak English asking questions about our families, children coming to play with us or to see what blonde hair feels like. We meet one family living under a fly-over. The man is cooking and the others are wrapped up in blankets keeping warm by the fire. The area is suprisingly organised and clean (almost cosy!) and the family are so warm and welcoming.

One by one they come to greet us and shake our hands. Even the tiny frail old Grandmother pulls out her tiny wrinkled hand for me to shake and say hello to. I am overwhelmed with their kindness and hospitality, I feel they would have asked us to stay for dinner had they not barely had enough to go around for themselves. We chatted for a while with them, dispensed the medicine they needed and said our goodbyes. Something really struck me about this situation. Again, a family with nothing, but a FAMILY nonetheless. And it seemed it didn't matter so much as long as they were warm, fed and had eachother. I felt such a warm energy from this and realised this is replicated across many situations here.



 



 

Even in the homes where the children live. They may not have direct family, but they have each other and wonderful teachers (Auntie's) who care for these kids like they are their own. A kind and caring community that money cannot buy. This comes straight from the heart.

I spend some time in my second week with some older students in the life skills centre. An important part of the HOPE system that enables training in specific areas that in turn helps the children to enter further education at 18 or to get a job, essentially supporting them into adulthood. The life skills include catering, IT, beauty and textiles, all popular trades within India, especially Kolkata.

I jump at the chance to work with the textiles students and am a little nostalgic as I see they are learning to sew the exact same pieces I did as a student all those years ago! However, as they have not really been taught the design aspect here, I offer to teach a little that I know. I go to the local shop and come back armed with sketch pads, pencils and colours and the girls are so excited – some of them have never drawn before! I teach them to draw some basic blocks and how to make technical drawings and all the while they are taking Selfies with me, their novelty foreign teacher. The energy is joyful and fun and I can't help but wish I was there for a great deal longer so I could teach them even more..



 



 

But sadly my 2 weeks draws to a close and I'm so sad to leave... Every single person, child, student, teacher, masala tea man, uber driver... has been an absolute pleasure to meet in this crazy dusty city..

 

My whole time here, especially with the HOPE Foundation, has been an absolute humbling experience, and has taught me (and reminded me!) so many important life lessons. We get so distracted often in our day to day lives, some of us rarely take the time to sit back and be grateful for what we have. And I'm not talking about material things. It has taught me the importance of community and family, and to really appreciate the small things, and every little moment.

At first glance, Kolkata does not strike you as a city you want to spend much time in.. there is little tourism, a lot of pollution, an incredible amount of people and is one of India's poorest cities. But what is lacking financially, is more than made up for in the richness of the spirit of this place. Dig a little below the surface and you will find so much more... Kolkata - City of Joy, if ever there was a place that lived up to its name so well, it's here.



 

Free Spirit donate 5% from every t-shirt you buy towards the HOPE Foundation. Thank you for helping make this happen! xx



 

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