By Ashley Mackin
Several women from La Jolla embarked on a trip to India last November to see how the programs implemented by San Diego-based Project Concern International (PCI) are working out.
As financial contributors, they checked out the Vulnerable Children program, which establishes “shelter homes” that take in homeless children and teach them skills they can later apply to a job, and they saw how the Women Empowerment Program (WEP) is changing the financial situation for women in rural India.
PCI board chair Anne Otterson was one of them. Otterson said that though she takes trips to the many countries where PCI has programs — including Ethiopia and Tanzania — the trip to India was “the most satisfying.”
Via e-mail, Otterson said, “In Delhi, (through the Vulnerable Children program) we engaged with young people having a remarkable agility and endurance joyfully pursuing skills that will enable them to climb out of poverty with future employment.” For example, the vocational center attached to the shelter home teaches women to sew and apply makeup, so many of them later get jobs at companies in India and other countries.
“For all of us, it was humbling to see how most of the world lives,” Otterson said. “These trips do effect a change in one’s life from that moment on.”
A Family Affair
For Molly Eldredge, the trip was a family affair. Through The Bishop’s School, her daughters Maddy and Annie went on a similar trip to India to visit PCI’s programs in 2011 and April 2013, and stayed at PCI shelter homes. During their visits, the daughters each befriended a buddy.
During her trip, Eldredge got to meet her daughters’ buddies, whose faces she had only known through picture frames in her daughters’ rooms. “It was such an incredible experience for another mother and myself (whose daughter went to India in 2011 as well) to see and meet these kids. It was a full-circle experience to see what my children saw,” she said.
As a mother, seeing the children in these conditions resonated with Eldredge and left her pondering her life back home. “It’s very emotional going into these (shelter) homes and centers and meeting these kids. You think of your own children and ask yourself why are we the lucky ones, with the opportunities we have, while these kids have nothing,” she said. “I wanted to take as many as I could and bring them all home. When you look at these kids with so little, you want them to have every opportunity your own children have.”
When they left, Eldredge said she vowed to return with her whole family. She also said she especially appreciated the child and maternal health program, where volunteers go to remote villages and try to educate women — most of whom are illiterate — on the importance of maternal health, immunizations and nutrition.
A ripple effect
Lynn Gorguze said the programs have a ripple effect, providing skills to women and children. “They don’t need funding from an outside source for the program to continue,” she said. “It’s the model of ‘if you teach a woman in the community, she will teach other women.’” To date, approximately 250,000 women have been taught skills and given information they can, in turn, teach others.
Gorguze said many of the volunteers who find homeless children were once homeless children themselves. “These volunteers go to the train station (where the children are living) and encourage the kids to go to the drop-in center where they can get a meal and a shower and learn a skill. They know what these kids are going through and how to talk to them.”
The other PCI program the La Jolla women visited — the Women Empowerment Program (WEP) — trains and encourages women to form independent groups of 15-25 members, who collect money to distribute as they see fit — whether for medical emergencies or for one of them to start a business.
“WEP gives them resources to have a voice so they can become agents of change and transformation in the community,” said Amy Corton, WEP development director of fundraising.
Gorguze said that in addition to seeing the tough conditions for children, other things that took her by surprise included the number of women around age 14 who are married and have children, and the sheer number of people in Delhi.
“There are so many people there tugging at your arms, begging or trying to sell things,” she said. “The mass of people is hard to imagine until you go there.”
Corton said she was prepared for the crowds, but surprised by how she reacted to them. “I thought it would be difficult; people told me because of the crowdedness and the smell and noise, we’d feel overwhelmed. However, I found it fascinating and more interesting than overwhelming,” she said.
For Otterson — who is in her 80s — trips like this provide her with a “perspective refresh.” “I come home after seeing streets filled with trash, no running water and dirt floors, and then I see my alley in La Jolla with white walls and flowers spilling over them, and I realize what a rich life we have in America and we are not even aware of it,” she said.