Curiosity Abroad

Dec 30, 2014


This is admittedly a very long post that I’m certain violates Brownell’s Rule of Optimal Blog Post Lengths, but indulge me for once. I’m going somewhere with this one.

It’s a few days after Christmas, the presents are unwrapped, the cookies eaten, and I’m enjoying a rare moment of peace on the couch by the warm light of the Christmas tree. It’s been such a busy couple of weeks that I haven’t had much time to think about my upcoming trip. It’s only now just starting to sink in that in just a few days I will get on a plane and fly from Cincinnati to Chicago to Hong Kong to Kolkata (Calcutta), India.

Wait, what? India?

Rewind back to May of this past year when my dad invited me to attend a Women’s Luncheon sponsored by the Cincinnati Rotary Club. I agreed to go, not knowing much at all about the program. One of the featured speakers was an Indian woman named Deepa Willingham, and I hung on every word as Deepa told the audience about the Piyali Learning Center (PLC), a school she established in Piyali Junction, 90 minutes outside of Calcutta, to serve the impoverished area’s girls who would otherwise be married or sold off by their families for a handful of dollars before the age of 10. The people of this area live on $1 per day, and girls in particular have little to no opportunity. Her inspiration for the school came in part from an orphanage she had visited in 2003 where she observed one nun who had been tasked with caring for 64 children, all of whom were kept in a single room. And every last one of the 64 were girls, cast aside as unwanted members of their families.

Education is the solution, Deepa told us, to preventing these girls from abuse, trafficking and disease, and she made it her mission to do something. Eleven years later the school currently serves 250 girls and will serve another 300 by the time the remaining buildings are completed. What I love about Deepa’s philosophy is that she hasn’t just dropped a school like an oasis in the middle of nowhere but has rather equipped the campus with clean water wells, medical facilities and fruit trees that benefit the entire community. It’s a self-sustaining model she wants to replicate throughout other parts of the world, and looking at the unbelievable pictures of what she’s achieved so far, I wholeheartedly believe she can do it.

By the end of the presentation there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

It costs just $375 to pay for tuition at PLC for a girl for an entire year, or in my terms, roughly the same amount it costs to send one child to summer day camp in Cincinnati for just a single week. I went home that evening and immediately sponsored a girl for a year. But it just didn’t feel like enough. I took a chance and emailed Deepa out of the blue to see what more I could do and was shocked when she emailed me back less than 24 hours later and invited me to go with her on a trip in January to learn about and work at the school. Fast forward to the present and now I’m days away from meeting 16 other people in Hong Kong where we’ll journey together to Kolkata. I have been assigned to the “documentary” team, which means that one of my jobs will be to work with a film crew to help tell the story of the girls and the school. I know. Pretty much a dream assignment.

Now that the trip is just days away, the reality of traveling so far away is starting to set in. I have gotten the required shots, have my passport and visa in order and have packed every random item I can think of. I’m a big bundle of emotions ranging from nervous, excited, scared, worried and hopeful. This will be the longest time and furthest distance I have traveled, and I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive family (THANK YOU, Mom and Dad) and employer (and co-workers!) who are helping to make this trip possible for me to take.

I received a lot of wonderful Christmas cards this season, filled with smiling faces and happy notes. But by far the best card I received was a completely unexpected one that arrived appropriately on Christmas Eve. The smiling face on this card belonged to Purnima, the 6-year-old girl I sponsored several months ago. She’s colored a beautiful flower design on the front of the card and has written in perfect scrolling letters of grammatically correct (if a bit awkward) English that she’s excited to meet me soon and that she would like to share some ice cream with me and show me her pet parrot.

I’m on my way, Purnima, and I can’t wait to meet you, too.