Fix the house, School the girl!

My name is Chris McDonell, also known as Cleetche. I’m a filmmaker from Vancouver, Canada, and I’m here in Goa, India, asking you to help me help my precious friend, Shilpa.

I first met Shilpa in 2008 when she was a 9-year-old beach hawker selling clothes and jewelry to support her family of six. When I learned that her dream was to go to school, I became hooked – and subsequently returned the following two years to document her story while making it my own mission to get her into a classroom.

Ironically, however, Shilpa had now acquired a multitude of skills and languages by engaging with tourists that made her invaluable to her family, and despite reaching out to two local charities, I was simply unable to break the cycle of her age-old tradition.

We lost contact shortly after my last trip, and now 5 years later, I’ve just flown 20 hours across the globe – with no guarantee she’d even be here still! – in hopes of finding Shilpa and learning what became of this precocious young girl. And now that we’ve reunited, it appears I’ve arrived in the midst of a family emergency…

But first let me put things in context. Shilpa is a migrant worker from the neighbouring state of Karnataka who spends most of the year selling her wares in the beach town of Anjuna, Goa. Her parents are illiterate and don’t work. Her two older brothers contribute next to nothing to the pot. Her older sisters are married off and, according to Indian culture, obliged only to provide and care for their husband’s family. Her younger sister attends boarding school offered in her village (a mediocre education at best) paid for by Shilpa. This makes Shilpa, now 17, the main breadwinner and sole provider for her family.

And now the crisis…

Four months ago, Shilpa’s village home in Karnataka totally collapsed. Fortunately no one was inside when the roof caved in! Her family sought shelter in the bus stop across the road and have been living there ever since. Their confines are small, hot, and thriving with mosquitos – and there is no shower and no toilet. They get by on one meal a day from the little money Shilpa sends them. But making matters worse, much worse, Shilpa’s father had a stroke two years ago (my best guess, considering his left-side paralysis) and is now seriously debilitated. He is cared for by his wife and eldest son (a gentle simpleton).

The bus stop is across the house from them and the villagers want it back! They have nowhere to wait, and the bus is the only affordable way in and out of town. They’ve given Shilpa’s family 15 days to move out.

Since the collapse, Shilpa has been traveling to and fro – a full day’s journey requiring two buses and a rickshaw – and has arranged for a contractor to rebuild the house. (It is the family’s only real possession and it’s where her father grew up, and his father before him.) She’s paid the man with money received from another tourist-friend like me, who she met on the beach, and construction has begun. But she needs another 3.5 Lakhs (roughly $7200 CAD, $5600 USD) to finish the job. She has one month before the heavy rains set in, possibly causing more damage and leaving her parents utterly destitute.

But here’s the good news. We can turn this emergency into an opportunity… an opportunity to help Shilpa finally realize her full God-given potential. If we can fix the house, she’s agreed to go to school.

Now this should not be interpreted as a form of bartering or negotiating! Shilpa has always wanted a proper education. She can speak Russian, German, Spanish and Italian… but when I take her out for dinner and the menu comes around, she’s always embarrassed that she can’t read and order for herself. Going to school, and committing to the hours, has just never been possible given the expectations placed on her by her family, culture and tradition.

And amazingly, it’s not too late. I’ve met twice now with a local organization called El Shaddai who have a program specifically for working teenagers who have never been schooled. It runs from 9 am – 1:20 pm Monday to Friday, allowing Shilpa to tend to her shop after class. We have an interview set up for next week with the head teacher and I can provide updates as things progress.

So fix the house, school the girl! Let’s help a selfless young lady help her family, and in the process, help herself. The burden she faces is too great for any one person, let alone a 17-year-old girl. Let’s show Shilpa she’s not alone.

Thank you and God bless.

To view the TRAILER FOR THE DOCUMENTARY, click below:
To learn more about me, visit my website .

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Christopher McDonell 
W Vancouver, BC
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