Sarah Wanstall, ARC Music’s production manager, has just returned from volunteer work with the Hope Foundation in Kolkata, India. Here, she tells the story of her trip.
It was 2010, I was home alone and decided to watch the film Slumdog Millionaire, unaware that the following two hours were about to sow a seed of inspiration within me. As I watched starving orphans sleeping on cardboard mats, real-life bogeymen torturing them for more lucrative begging results and young girls sent out to ‘work’ the streets, sadness planted itself deep inside my soul. How can this be happening to innocent children in this day and age? I turned the film off, disbelief still running through my mind. I was left with the distressing but inspiring question: What can I do about it? That question sat with me for years, unanswered.
2016 saw the release of the film Lion, a heart-breaking movie once again highlighting the troubled lives of slum children. As the ending credits rolled, through teary eyes, I read that a portion of the film’s profits were going to charities helping street children throughout India. A mixture of relief and excitement washed over me as I started researching the various charities, looking for the best way I could get involved and help from afar.
In 2018, I became a volunteer graphic designer and video editor for The Hope Foundation, a charity working with street-connected and slum-dwelling children and their families in Kolkata, India. I also decided to sponsor a child’s education, and was graced with a beautiful young girl. In 2022, The Hope Foundation announced a fundraising trip to visit the various projects, schools and hospitals that they run. It also provided me with a chance to meet my sponsor child after four years of correspondence. I signed up immediately, and after fundraising for 12 months, I boarded the plane for India on October 28th, 2023. A 13-year-long ambition was finally coming to life; I was heading to the ‘City of Joy’, Kolkata, India…
Still unsure exactly how I was going to help, apart from the combined group effort of raising €27,000 for the charity, my family and friends thought this was a ludicrous idea — ‘Why travel to the squalid streets of Kolkata, where everything, including food and water, is unsafe? Can’t I just give money and stay here?’ And believe me, I did second-guess myself as my luxury double-decker Emirates plane lifted off the runway, catapulting me into 10 days of the unknown… But I knew this call for duty deep within me had been growing slowly now for over a decade — there must be a bigger reason for it, even if it’s unknown to me right now. As in the words of one of the Hindustani Upanishads, “You are what your deepest desire is. As is your desire, so is your will. As is your will, so is your deed. As is your deed, so is your destiny.”
So, I landed, 4,758 miles away from the safety of home. Within minutes of travelling on the bus, I realised that no matter how many stories I had heard, TV documentaries or photos I had seen in the run-up to this, nothing had prepared me for seeing it first-hand. It just hits you on a whole other level of disbelief. Amongst the sheer number of people cramped into tiny side alleys, there were families all huddled together, washing their clothes, cooking utensils and their own bodies from the smallest pots of water you can imagine — right there on the roadside for all to see. Pop-up shacks aligned the roads, made out of bamboo pipes, tarpaulin and even old billboard paper, and these were people’s homes! It was an unsettling sight to see but once I had gotten over the shock and looked a little deeper, I started to catch the eyes and smiles of the beautiful brown-eyed individuals that had made this sorrowful situation work for them. And much to my surprise, they seemed happy! Joyfulness radiated from them as their hands clasped in Namaste greetings. I was in the grimmest place I had ever seen, and yet, I was returning smiles left, right and centre — their joy was infectious. Over the following days, I came to realise, in Mother Teresa’s words, “that the poor don’t need our pity and sympathy; they need our love and understanding.”
1st and 3rd photos by Sarah Wanstall, 2nd by Breda McDonald
Travelling the streets via bus was one thing, what with our insides being tossed up and down like pancakes in a frying pan (thanks to the worn-out suspension), and the constant honking of horns and petrified gasps of ‘Oh God!’ as cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks weaved in and around us. But stepping out into the madness was another experience altogether. I will never forget the mad moment of having to cross the street, just a mere 5 meters to the other side. There were 6 of us white ladies, huddled together like petrified sheep, all holding each other’s arms, and our breaths, too scared to make a run for it. In the end, we surrounded a local chap and decided to go when he did. The poor fellow must have been scared out of his wits when we surrounded him, all screaming simultaneously as we hurried across, sending up panic-stricken prayers to get us to the other side in one piece. I’m sure we highly amused the locals that day!
Another moment stepping outside of the bus that I will always remember is the first slum area that we visited, the Belgachia Bhagar Dump, one of the biggest dumps in West Bengal. As I took a step down, not only did the heat hit me but also the smell and the flies… We walked through the colourful streets that were lined with litter, and in the background, my eye skimmed what I thought was a natural hill. Then, to my horror, I realised this was actually a mountain of rubbish! As my eyes focused in, they settled not on earth and grass that my mind had assumed were there, but the biggest pile of rubbish I have ever seen. Then a second wave of disbelief struck when I spotted a couple of women crouched barefoot, sifting through it all to make a living, right alongside the goats, who were also searching for scraps of food to survive. This is when it dawned on me how important The Hope Foundation’s work is, as without the creches, education and nutritional support that they provide, the children of these slum families would be forced to join their parents on the dump mound, and this cycle of hand-to-mouth living would be repeated for many more years to come. The Hope Foundation shines a light for future change, but only those children who are lucky enough to be sponsored benefit from these facilities, and this is why child sponsorship is so important. For a small amount of money, we have the ability to bring a child off this dumpsite and into education. How can we turn away and do nothing when the opportunity to make a life-changing difference is so easy for us to do?
1st Photo by Sarah Wanstall, 2nd Photo by Aisling Plunkett
My emotions throughout the trip were as scattered as the rubbish around me. One minute I would be singing, dancing and playing Duck Duck Goose with the energetic and jubilant children. Then the next moment the reality of the situation would hit me, right in the pit of my stomach, tears would rise, threatening to spill out right in front of the happy smiles looking directly at me with such joy and appreciation. How could I break down and cry when they are so joyful, loving and accepting of their situation? There is a saying from the yogic sages that, “All pain of a human life is caused by words, as is all the joy”. It appeared to me in these moments that pain is also caused by perception. I had perceived, from my privileged upbringing, that they should be sad, angry and scared of the life they have found themselves in, but actually they have such a strong sense of joy, faith and love for all, which shines so brightly from their little faces that it’s hard to make sense of it all. I was confused, but I knew that by continuing to support Hope, I would be helping to make a change right now and for the long-term future of these children. I just had to carry on doing what I was doing.
1st and 4th photo by Aisling Plunkett, 2nd photo by Teresa Owens, 3rd photo by Noreen Peate, 5th photo by Una Butler
Another vitally important project provided by The Hope Foundation is the Night Round Ambulance. One ambulance and a handful of crew, aka real-life angels, go out onto the streets three times a week to offer medical care and support to the homeless. The hospitals in Kolkata do not take in undocumented people. As well as that, people are also not in a position to miss a day of work to queue in a hospital all day, so this is where The Hope Foundation steps in. I had seen this Night Round in action during a BBC documentary with Sue Perkins a few years ago and was very much looking forward to experiencing it firsthand. That was until we pulled up to Hastings Bridge in the dark hours of the evening with just our ambulance headlights lighting the way — reality set in. I would be lying if I said I was not afraid in this moment. Wild dogs barked outside the car door, desperately starved bodies emerged out of the darkness, looking like zombies from their exhaustion and injuries, while huddles of men seemed to be grouped together in circles, possibly playing games and drinking by the sound of the commotion. Not to mention the rats, cockroaches and extremely large ants that crawled on the uneven and treacherous grounds.
Again, disbelief sets in as you realise this is someone’s home… We were led into the eerie darkness and presented a 12-year-old boy who had fallen from the bridge and broken his hip. Even in the dark shadows, I could not look. Not being as brave as these incredibly inspiring doctors, I turned away and looked behind me. Only to come face to face with an incredibly young mother lying on a filthy mattress, propped just above ground level where the cockroaches festered. And alongside her were 3 children, all under the age of 6, and one tiny new-born baby — all of them lined up in a row on the bed in size order. All were wearing very little; all were exposed to the filthiness of their horrific surroundings, and yet once again I was greeted with a smile. My mother-in-law had knitted some new-born baby cardigans and hats that I had brought out with me, and as I handed them over to the Night Round team to distribute, I wondered: is this all I can do to help? Is it enough? I wanted to be one of those doctors who was doing some real good in this dire situation, but I’m never going to be a doctor; I can’t even speak Bengali. Again, what can I do? I voiced this distress to the team while expressing my admiration for them, and they explained that the best thing to do is to help The Hope Foundation raise money for supplies so that they have the facilities and equipment needed to do their job properly, as without that, they are as useless as me out on the field. OK, noted. A promise to myself was made there and then — campaign, fundraise, sponsor, volunteer — do whatever I can, small or large, for the rest of my life, and in doing so, I am helping.
Photos by Hayley Mc Keever
The boy with the broken hip would eventually be seen at the Hope Hospital, a small facility established in 2008 and run by a living superhero named Samiran Mallik. We were luckily enough to be shown around this hospital and this is where we learnt about one of its many heart-warming success stories…
12 years ago, Samiran Mallik came across a 10-year-old boy with a substance abuse disorder, struggling alone on the streets of Kolkata. He took him in, got him clean and then started to give the boy an education in medicine through The Hope Foundation. Now, 22 years old, this boy works for The Hope Hospital full-time and has a flat of his own nearby. Samiran took it upon himself to officially adopt him and give him his family name of Mallik. Such a heart-warming story, but it is scary how things could have ended differently for the boy, was it not for Samiran’s kind heart.
Photo by Noreen Peate
It is stories like this, and the film Lion, that make me consider the possibility of someday adopting a child from the slums too. That is not an option at this time for my husband and me, and maybe not ever, so sponsoring a child is the next best thing. Having sponsored a young girl from the Sundarbans region for the last four years, swapping letters and reports, I was excited to meet her in person but also a little nervous. Was it really fair to summon her on a 3-hour train journey just to have lunch with me because I wanted to see her? What if she didn’t want to see me? I had handmade her an embroidered sunflower and some resin jewellery because I knew she liked arts and crafts. I had also brought along a pink glittery rucksack because I thought it looked cute, but she was 13 years old, what if she thought it was too young for her? Over the previous days, we had met many children, and it was very hard to judge their ages. Some looked very young for their age, due to malnutrition and neglect. Whereas, others were so street-smart at a young age that I would have placed them as late teenagers. But I need not to have worried, as with every gift I brought out the bag her face lit up more and more.
She was shy, which was fair enough; I was shy too. She had travelled a long way to come see me, and I to meet her, so it was a big moment for us both. She had dressed in the most beautiful fuchsia pink kurti, and she liked my hair and nails, but with the language barrier we did come across some difficulties. The Hope team stepped in to translate where possible, but when left to our own devices we could only smile at each other. So, I showed her photos of my home, my family and a video of my husband trying to dance to flamenco music, which made her chuckle. She told me she had a passion for dancing, but was too shy to show me in the café. We ate lunch together, and then it was time to go. As I hugged her goodbye, I tried to express the gratitude I had for her taking such a long journey to see me. I don’t know how much was understood. I still wonder what she is up to now and how she is getting on back home. For my next letter to her, I am going to try and write in Bengali, with help from a neighbour of mine.
There are so many more stories that I could tell. Our 10-day trip was action-packed with various project visits, all emotionally and physically tiring, all incredibly inspiring. The Hope Foundation runs 58 different projects in total, ranging from homes for children with substance abuse issues and parents who may be caught up in the sex trade, to special needs centres to help those who may have been orphaned at birth due to their disabilities, as well as many more. My nearest and dearest didn’t really want me to take this trip, especially as I was to celebrate my 36th birthday out there, but I’m glad I followed my heart. I experienced things that I would never have had the chance to see if I had visited Kolkata as a tourist, and granted, I saw things many people would not want to see.
Kolkata is not for the faint-hearted, and the slum areas even more so. The air pollution is suffocating, there is not a rubbish bin in sight, and the constant noise from the yelling and car horns is enough to drive you insane. And then, to top it all off, some young man might just take a pee right along-side you in the street while another spits pink saliva at your feet with a great big smile on his face, as if it’s a welcoming gesture. An assault on the senses is an understatement; an assault on the mind is more descript. Yet, despite all this, it was the people of India, young and old, that really did make it a trip of a lifetime. Somehow, they have found a way to smile through the smog, radiate joy through the rubbish and drown out the constant noise through love and devotion for each other. If you could bottle this resilience up, I’m sure it would sell like hot cakes!
I feel honoured to have had the chance to witness their resourcefulness, resilience and never-ending faith in humanity; it was truly inspirational. I can’t just come home to my first-world country and privileged lifestyle and forget what I saw; these memories will last with me forever. So, I will keep the promise to myself that I made out on that horrendous Night Round evening, and I will do whatever I can to support The Hope Foundation over the coming years. My first call of action is to sponsor a second child for just £240 a year, giving the gift of education, healthcare, nutritional support, and, in some cases, where needed, housing, all for the cost of a large takeaway coffee once a week.
Why don’t you join me and do the same? An instant coffee every once in a while really isn’t the end of the world, but that simple swap and the money donated from doing so could be the start of a new life for a child out there in the slums…