In her early teens, Devi thought she’d never be able to attend school. But then, Holt sponsors lifted her family out of the darkness.
When Devi imagined her life, it looked a lot like her mother’s. She would never learn to read or write. She would get married and have children at 15 or 16. She would work on the farm or do chores for a wealthy family. Life would be difficult.
“I had in my mind that I would never go to school,” 17-year-old Devi says today. “Since I was small, all of my relatives told my parents ‘Don’t teach her. Don’t educate her. There is no point in educating a girl.’”
When Life Was Dark
After her father died, Devi, her mom and her three younger siblings lived with her grandparents in the village. They worked constantly on neighboring farms, but in their grandparents’ eyes, they never earned their keep. These were the same family members who said there’s no point for Devi or her sisters to go to school.
It didn’t matter anyway. In the village, there was no school! But Shanle, their mother, dreamed of a different life for her children.
“I’m not educated at all,” Shanle says. “Because of that, I’ve had to undergo lots of hardships. If my children are educated, they’ll not have to face all that I’m facing right now.”
Hoping they would find a better life outside the village, they moved to Pune, a city of over 3 million people. Because Shanle is illiterate, the only work she could find was on a construction site, then later as a cook and cleaner for wealthy families. School is free in India, but Shanle couldn’t afford the uniforms, books and supplies required for each of her children to attend. She earned enough to send her youngest children to school, but not Devi. To support her siblings, Devi worked alongside her mother.
Devi made a huge sacrifice for her siblings. But they all made sacrifices for the dream of an education.
Although Shanle’s face is thin and worn from years of hard work, her eyes are soft and vulnerable as she describes the difficulties she and her children endured in Pune.
“In the most difficult times, we went without food,” Shanle says. “But the biggest problem was when the children got sick. I couldn’t take them to the doctor, or buy medicines. I had lots of anxiety and confusion and educating my children was not my priority. My priority was earning [money] for survival. Life was filled with darkness.”
Life, she says, before sponsorship.
Sponsorship Changed Everything
As she shares her story, Shanle and her four children — 17-year-old Devi, 12-year-old Soni, 9-year-old Ganesh and 6-year-old Dipika — sit on white plastic chairs on the second level of the DEESHA. Run by Bharatiya Semaj Seva Kendra (BSSK), Holt’s longtime partner in Pune, the DEESHA is a community center for sponsored children living in the slum neighborhoods that surround it. Here, children and teens attend camps where they learn about health and hygiene, receive tutoring and are empowered to combat gender-based violence, while their parents also attend courses and receive the individualized support they need to overcome poverty. Children and mothers are at ease here. It’s a safe place.
Where we sit upstairs in the office area, the sound of car engines, loud music, crying children, laughing children and a whirring fan fill the thick, humid air.
Shanle’s eyes fill with tears.
“Sponsors help us more than our relatives,” she says. “My economic condition was very bad right after my husband passed away. I couldn’t have taken care of [my children’s] education. It was very hard for me even to fill up their stomachs.”
Soon after moving to Pune, Shanle reached out to BSSK for help. And shortly afterward, sponsors stepped up to support two of her children. Shanle has four children. But when even one child in a family has a sponsor, it lifts their entire family. Once Devi’s siblings were sponsored, her mom could afford to send Devi to school, too.
I Want To Thank You
Upstairs at the DEESHA, each child shyly introduces him or herself in English. Ganesh loves to play kabaddi, a traditional Indian sport. Soni wants to be an engineer someday and dreams of building tall buildings. Dipika says she wants to be an injection doctor when she’s older.
“I like getting injections,” she says, giggling, as the adults in the room laugh at her response.
“Can I say something?” Devi asks, shyly. Devi has a thin face and large, deep eyes, just like her mom. She looks less tired than her mom — although her eyes hold more suffering than most teenage girls.
“Of course,” we tell her. She had been mostly quiet during our time talking with the family, so what she says next surprises us all.
Immediately, tears cascade down her cheeks.
“I’m not speaking in English nicely, but [I want to] so thank you. It is God’s grace and mercy that you help us. I want to say, God is helping me through you. God is working, and you are His engine for good,” she says, becoming more choked up and passionate as she goes. “My mom is working and I’m working, but really, you are helping in my education and studies and all things. I am very thankful for you. Nobody sees me, but you do. You help give us medicine, milk and food. All my family was in darkness, but now there is light.”
This takes her about two minutes to say in English. And by the end, she isn’t the only one crying. She is like a spokesperson for her family — for her mother who works so hard and for her three younger siblings. Devi gets sponsorship. And from deep in her heart, she wants to say thank you.
They Are Our Family
The next day, Devi meets us at the DEESHA and guides us through the streets of Pune to her home. She is wearing a green kurta and matching pink pants and scarf, and her black hair is pulled back into a low braid.
Behind a concrete wall with a wrought iron fence, we walk down a long alley of one-room houses with crumbling whitewashed bricks and sheet metal roofs. Devi walks to the first home on the left. A curtain hangs from a string over the open doorway, with tanks of water on either side.
Devi slips off her sandals, and both she and Shanle welcome us inside. Inside, their room is small, but clean and organized. There’s a twin bed where Devi and Soni sleep, and bedrolls on the floor where Shanle, Ganesh and Dipika sleep side by side every night.
“What’s your very favorite item in your house?” we ask Devi. Without having to think long, she reaches up to take a photo album down from their shelf. She flips through the pages. There are school photos, and a photo of their family together. She turns the next page, and there we see photos of their Holt sponsors — images their sponsors sent along with birthday and Christmas cards.
“They are our family members,” Devi says, “so they’re in our album.”
Just then, Ganesh and Soni arrive home from school. They run up to us in tidy school uniforms and oversized backpacks.
“Once there was a time that I never thought of educating my children,” Shanle says. “But now, by God’s grace and with sponsors’ support, the children are getting educated. God is coming through [sponsors] to ease my suffering.”
Living in Light
Life is still hard. But because of sponsors, their lives are so much better and so much more full of hope. Every day, the children eat three meals of chapati, rice, vegetables and milk. All four of the children go to school. They have medicine when they’re sick.
But perhaps most of all, their sponsors see them. They see their needs, and they see their potential. And this care, love and value they feel from their sponsors brings profound meaning to their lives.
At their greatest point of need, Holt sponsors came to help. And that’s why they consider them family.
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer