Fix the house, School the girl!
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 .
It hasn't been an easy 2 months since my last update, which of course came on the heels of me leaving India. Shilpa's father had another stroke. From what I gather, he's now fully paralyzed. Shilpa promptly returned to Karnataka to help her mom cope, and while there, settle matters with the house. Then she fell ill. We were talking by phone one night when I asked how she managed to call me from her village. It’s in the countryside and there’s usually no cellphone reception. She told me she was standing on the roof of the new house. And that it was raining. I did the math and realized it was 10:30 at night – pitch dark! We cut the call short so she could go back to her little cubby hole in the bus shelter, now soaking wet. The next 4 weeks, she was in hospital with a serious chest infection. She couldn’t even talk the first week and told me she thought she was dying. She communicated this to Abha and I through long agonizing bouts of coughing.
The timing of these setbacks couldn’t have been worse. When school started on June 4th, Shilpa was laying in a hospital bed a day’s trip away. The doctors insisted on running expensive tests before finally releasing her weeks later. Shilpa finalized matters with the bank and contractor – unfortunately the house isn’t finished yet, but her family are managing – and boarded the bus back home… back to her work home.
When she was sick, she never stopped promising that she would go to school. But life has its way of throwing up obstacles and roadblocks and introducing temptations that prove too difficult for even the strongest to resist. Her shop was taken from her and a new season will soon dawn. Shilpa needs to negotiate a new location to set up business as a matter of necessity. She’s seventeen and her family still needs her to provide. Thoughts of this keep her awake at night and prey heavily on her mind. But Shilpa made a promise and suddenly it appears that everyone, including the bank manager in Goa, is rooting for her, proclaiming the importance of school! So as nervous and frightened as she was about starting something new, something unheard of amongst her peers, she headed to class last Wednesday and embarked on a new journey towards freedom… freedom through education.
The teachers are friendly. The lady calls her “beti” (daughter in Hindi). They had her write out the alphabet then try to spell out words on the chalkboard. It was scary for her but she did it. The younger kids want to play with her and the teacher had to shoo them away: “You let her be now, she’s studying.” The supervisor who I first introduced Shilpa to told her that if she had started school as a child, she could’ve become a doctor or a police woman, she’s so smart. They have lunch together at noon – chicken curry and rice – then Shilpa returns to Anjuna to try to sort out her business. So it’s weekdays from 9-12. They even gave her books and an assignment to do over the weekend. Shilpa was giddy with excitement when explaining the week. But in short, it sums up like this:
India is hard. But school is fun.
So folks, we’re on the right track but challenges remain. For starters, the taxi is expensive (the equivalent of $18/day). This is Goa, a tourism state. Everything’s more expensive there and the school is in a different town. We’re considering buying Shilpa a moped as she suggested and appointing one of her trusted older friends to be her chauffeur. She can buy one for $1000. You can’t think about this like a Westerner (Mom, I’m talking to you!). In Goa, this is the main form of transportation and it really would make economic sense.
The schooling itself is free but Abha and I will soon be making a donation on Shilpa’s behalf. If anyone else wishes to do the same, you can find out how by visiting their website: http://www.childrescue.net
Shilpa’s hospital treatment cost $840 (42,000 INR). A family friend loaned her the money. She has to pay it back. She doesn’t want to trouble me with this which is why she didn’t even ask for the money. But when the girls continue to accrue debt, as they so often do, it enslaves them to their job and can only prove to be a hindrance in the long term. To further illustrate this point, Shilpa’s friend Sangeeta wants to go to school as well. But her father needed an operation to remove cysts or tumours from his arm just last week. Sangeeta borrowed the money and is committed to paying it back, which means spending all day of every day trying at the expense of her own desire to go to school with Shilpa.
There are so many challenges facing the lives of these young girls and of course we too have our own challenges! But Abha and I will remain committed to helping Shilpa and we will do our best to help Sangeeta as well. If anyone wishes to continue participating in this journey, you are more than welcome – ether through GoFundMe (contributions can exceed the goal so I don’t need to raise it) or by contacting me directly.
Thank you once again for helping to bring us this far! At some point, you can watch it all unfold in my documentary…
Chris (aka Cleetche)
There’s a few loose ends to finish up still, such as arranging for Shlipa’s transportation to and from school every day, and the final price tag for the year will probably be another $2,000-$3,000. I’m not going to modify the GoFundMe goal though. If anyone wishes to donate further, you can contact me for more details. Otherwise, Abha and I will manage on our own with the help of your prayers.
Finally, I want to thank each one of you for helping to make this happen. When I launched this campaign, alone in India on the other side of the world, I never could’ve imagined the love and support that has been sent my way. I was a one-man-film-crew making the documentary. But I was part of a vast community in helping Shilpa to fix her family home and finally realize her childhood dream. And that community was you: family, friends, coworkers, even strangers. I think we can all be very proud of what we’ve accomplished as a team.
Please continue to keep this special young lady in your thoughts and prayers, especially in the coming month…
We meet with the teacher on Thursday. I then fly out on Saturday. But the logistics are in place to keep things running smoothly in the months that follow (net banking, communication via social media, school transport, special incentives, etc.).
Until then, here's what Shilpa had to say when we settled things with the house (I'd love to post the video, but the wifi here is just too crazy slow):
“Tell all people, thank you very much Chris, because I’m very happy and I’m very proud of them. They helped me… They didn’t even see me, they didn’t even come to India. Only they see the video and they help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much! My dream come true, you know, so I’m so happy.”