I interviewed the poorest people I've ever met today and it started to get to me. But one of them was Radha*, and I am starstruck. She lives in a box with her husband and 2 boys and her youngest is affected by disability. But she is the most radiant person I've ever met in India so far and that is saying a lot. Her hair was down and had a single flower in it and she moved like a dance. Literally, her house is a box but she hosted us like a queen. And a tiny detail: the fact that she got a few cups of leftover lilac paint from somewhere and painted the wall behind her stove....my HEART. I want to learn from her.
She smiled and laughed so easily but when we got to the part of the interview where we talked about how she felt when her son was diagnosed at the age of one, she cried big shining tears that rolled down her face. And then just as quickly—that smile again. I will be sharing more of her story, with her permission, in the next hour or so if you are interested. It is a hard story but not a sad story— rather a story of the beauty and strength that she embodies and I hope you will share it with your friends.
The first time I saw her, we were in a rickshaw and we turned a corner and she was running down the gravel road, waving, wrapped and fluttering in a coral and lilac sari with her raven hair pouring out behind her. She hopped in to direct us the rest of the way to her house and although I didn't understand the Tamil words pouring from her lips I could easily understand the laughter and the sparkle in her eyes. There was one single flower caught in her hair, hovering there as if by magic.
I was told that Radha had been chosen for my interviews among the other parents of students at Hope Special Education School, with the criteria of living beneath the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Radha was my eighth interview. I'm in India right now at the culmination of six years of trying to understand the experiences of very poor families in India with children who have disabilities—a very elusive group of parents, hard to find and hard to hear, invisible in most sources of information about life in poverty, child and family health, orphan prevention, orphan care... But I am determined to find them. Because I am so close to being complete with a huge plan that I can't wait to reveal to all of you and invite you into, to find and reach and change everything for these families.
I always hate the common argument that the very poor don't have a voice. They DO have a voice. We just don't often take the time it takes to find them, and to listen. Today in great part to the efforts of the amazing social workers we partner with in Chennai, I heard Radha's voice.
Radha, her husband, and her two sons, aged 11 and 9, live in an 8x10' room that costs $14 a month to rent. It's what they can afford. Radha's husband works as a driver, on-call whenever he can find work, and whenever the health complications from advanced diabetes don't halt him indefinitely. Last year, they lost their larger apartment when the work and good health refused to align for over a year. So now they are here. At night they push back the two plastic chairs and the desk and roll out sleeping mats. All in a row, they sleep.
"Why can't you work?" my translator asks Radha. Because, she says, between getting the boys to the different buses for their respective schools and then picking up Sai, the youngest, from Hope Special School, that leaves her only 3 hours a day to work. And who will hire for three hours a day? Their relatives have pooled together some funds to send the oldest boy to school. But they are also very poor.
Radha pours us coffee with milk and sugar and we sit on the floor and sip. She answers all my questions with smiles. I ask her about Sai, her youngest. She says they thought he was fine until he was 18 months, when they took him for a routine health check and were told he would never develop like his brother had. At a year and a half, they had already lost precious time for early intervention therapies. "How did you feel?" we ask. And just like that, tears fill her eyes. Big, fat, shining tears that roll down her face to her chin. She says that she manages. But that her husband, still to this day, cries sometimes. That he loves Sai very much.
Radha is smiling again. She says there is a private doctor nearby who treats Sai for free. That today is a good day and she feels happy. That she has some friends but not close friends— "I'm afraid of the things they will say about Sai, so I keep my distance." That her favorite thing about Sai is that he loves to be with her. He sticks with her everywhere she goes.
This is Sai, Radha's son. He has his father's face and his mother's light. I actually have a camera full of photos of him already—before I knew who he was, he was always there when I visited Hope Special School, smiling and waving and sweet.I've told you most of what I know of Radha's story. It wasn't a long interview. We rode back to Hope Special School in the rickshaw. Rani, my translator and the founder of Hope, repeatedly saying she had no idea that Sai's family was so poor.
Globally, almost no one knows about these families. Here, those who do know, know that their lives are hard. That with stigma and a hampered ability to work, and very little support, life becomes a cycle of poverty impossible to break. But even here, very few know the details of their lives as I've just told you.
For years I have dreamed about finding these families. And all at once the big ideas are coming together, the partnerships are in place, and the families are here. Soon, I can reveal the plans we are working on to create a huge difference in Radha's life. Radha knows that I hope to use her story to create some support for her, but she has no idea the extent of the dreams we have for her and her family. Dreams which, hopefully, you can be a part of. For those of you who have asked, from today (January 22) through the remainder of my weeks in Chennai, all one-time donations will be set aside into a pre-campaign fund earmarked directly for families. I can say with full confidence that these donations will change lives.
*Shared with Radha's permission to tell her story to all of you, and to use her name.