By Namratha Atluri, junior neuroscience and global health major
When I was applying to the Student Research Training (SRT) Program last October, I definitely knew I wanted to be part of the India project examining the physical and mental health outcomes of orphaned and vulnerable children living in residential care homes. I love children, and child health/policy is something I am passionate about. Moreover, I have volunteered in Indian orphanages before and enjoyed meeting and playing with what always seemed like lively and welcoming children.
So I anxiously went through the application and interview process, really hoping to be placed on the team. After I got accepted, I excitedly spent around six months with my three other teammates planning for the trip. We had weekly meetings with our faculty advisor and frequent Skype calls with our community partner—Udayan Care, a residential care organization in New Delhi—to learn, develop ideas and finalize project objectives and design.
I obviously had several expectations for the experience. I expected to see how NGO’s functioned, learn how to plan and manage global health research projects, understand and improve team dynamics, meet and get to know children and staff and eventually collect and analyze data that can help Udayan Care improve its services as well as further psychological literature in the area.
What I did not expect is for my perceptions and thoughts about residential care homes, orphans and India to be drastically changed.
Prior Assumptions About Care Homes, Orphans, and Service in India
Before my experience in India, whenever I thought of orphanages I just imagined big school-like buildings that housed many children with maybe a few supervisors to run the home. I always one-dimensionally thought of the children I played with as “orphans” who had no family, and I often worried about their futures in terms of development and education. But, I never once thought about the children’s pasts. It never struck me to wonder how the children got to the orphanages or what they may have suffered before getting there.
Similarly, I had preconceived notions about India’s efforts to solve its social issues. Both Western and Indian media/entertainment that I was exposed to growing up led me to believe that not much was being done to solve any of India’s problems.
The traditional Indian education system that my parents grew up with and what I saw my cousins experience prioritized academics, with extracurricular activities and volunteer work having much less value. And with the popular stereotype of how many Indians tend to become either doctors or engineers just to earn a decent living, it made sense to me that people may not know how to engage in community service or social work.
My thoughts seemed validated by the fact that a huge bulk of foreign global health and service projects take place in India.
However, spending two months in India working with Udayan Care easily proved my beliefs to be misconceptions.
A Vastly Different Model of Child Care
Udayan Care is an NGO based in New Delhi, India, that has been working for 18 years to provide quality care to orphaned and vulnerable children as well as financial support to girls and underserved adults to pursue higher education and vocational training. Udayan Care runs several programs such as vocational training centers for underserved youth and adults, education programs to support economically disadvantaged girls and women, advocacy initiatives to improve research on and quality of alternative child care, and many more.
Udayan Care staff hosted a workshop called “Depression in Children and Young Persons Living in Alternative Care:
Challenges and Possibilities,” which was attended by psychologists, activists and policymakers.
During our two months, we worked with Udayan Care’s Udayan Ghars program, which consists of 13 long-term residential ghars (the word for “homes” in Hindi) that each housed, on average, 12 orphaned and vulnerable children. These ghars are located all through New Delhi and the surrounding states. Unlike any orphanage I had volunteered at before, the Udayan ghars had a clearly outlined system to take care of children.
Orphaned, abandoned, or vulnerable children are first identified by the local city’s Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and are either restored back to their families or referred to residential care organizations like Udayan Care. The children that are referred to Udayan Care by the local CWCs are placed in the nearest Udayan ghars, which are typical-style houses or apartment flats located in busy, ordinary neighborhoods so that the children can grow up in a conventional environment.
In order to create an authentic family setting, each of the ghars has at least a couple of caregivers who live with the children and take care of them as parents would. In addition, each ghar also has a social worker who handles all the legal work for the children as well as mentor parents who spend time with the children to provide guidance and motivate them.
In addition to this care model, the ghars have an aftercare program to financially support those who are older than 18 years (hence not qualifying as children anymore) but want to pursue higher education or vocational training. And throughout the year, there are programs to keep the children engaged, such as summer camps and annual sports competitions, where children from all the ghars congregate.
Girls from different ghars right before a running race as part of Udayan Care’s annual sports competition.
Passion for Children and Change: A Theme at Udayan Care
I was so impressed to see such a structured care model at Udayan that was not just providing food, shelter and clothes to the children to help them survive, but instead was giving children a family, quality education from the best schools, access to various extracurricular activities, and a real chance to thrive.
I was also surprised that so many people working in Udayan were extremely passionate about bringing change to alternative child care. All the Udayan staff and members, from the head office employees to the caregivers, social workers and mentor parents at the ghars, were very enthusiastic about their work and loving towards the children. They were always interested in our research and were excited that the results could help improve their services.
In addition to the staff, Udayan also gets more than 500 applications every year from eager Indian college students who hope to work with Udayan in their own journeys of pursuing social work.
Holistic Orphan Care Includes Considering their Past
In addition to introducing me to a great NGO like Udayan Care, my summer experience also changed the way I think about orphans. Our research was focused on the mental and physical health outcomes of the children living in these homes. To collect this data, we interviewed children in all the ghars using several psychometric tools/questionnaires, measured physical health data and gathered information about children’s backgrounds.
Most of these children have gone through traumatic experiences that do not just include losing their parents, the first and only trauma we tend to associate with orphans. Many of these kids suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, child labor and familial discord, and some even witnessed murders of their parents or immediate family members. And, based on the data collected so far, these experiences seem to have a significant impact on their current mental and physical health statuses.
Until this summer, it had always been so easy to ignore the dark pasts disadvantaged children have experienced and to be completely focused on their present lives and futures. Having spent time in the ghars, I now realize the importance of acknowledging and unraveling these pasts because they continue to have lingering effects on the quality of their current lives.
Proven Wrong about India’s Commitment to Social Change
Throughout my stay in New Delhi, I also found out that there are many other great NGOs in India like Udayan Care that address a myriad of social issues.
One of the aftercare individuals that I interviewed was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in social work, and he described his internships and volunteering experiences with around 10 different organizations in Delhi alone. These organizations were working on issues ranging from slum development to HIV/AIDS and family planning services.
Another aftercare individual I interviewed described an initiative by the University of Delhi to send homeless children, who can usually be seen selling small merchandise or begging on the streets, to school. In addition to financing their education, the initiative also sought to tackle barriers, such as transportation costs, that could prevent them from performing well at school.
One of the mentor parents I talked to described how the Indian government recently passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, making education free and required for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. The government was taking many actions to ensure the law is properly enforced. I was amazed by all the progress happening around me, and I had never been so happy to be proven wrong about India’s potential to address its social issues.
Beyond my Expectations
My fieldwork experience definitely met all the expectations I had prior to the trip—and much more. I gained an appreciation for how NGOs work despite the difficulties, understood how to navigate the roadblocks associated with global health work, and had the chance to meet inspiring children and alumni as well as passionate staff members.
And, more personally, I have grown as an individual and have a much more mature understanding of alternative child care and social justice within an Indian context.