Fellow freelance writer Shelley Seale, of Austin, Texas, writes about traveling with a purpose. Her recently released book, “The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India,” chronicles the lives of some of that country’s 25 million orphans and the people, mostly volunteers, working to better the children’s lives. “Weight” is a more accurate version of the “Slumdog Millionaire” story.
Because virtually everyone I’ve spoken with who has traveled to India mentions the poverty and especially the young children begging for money, I asked Shelley if she would write something for this blog about what we travelers should do when we encounter young beggars.
Her reply came in the form of this thoughtful essay. As you can see, there are no easy answers. But, then, you didn’t really expect any, did you?
In Plain Sight but Invisible (written by Shelley Seale)
Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.
Two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging.
There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.
When brought face to face with them, it becomes impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul. No matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation.
Child advocates will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like these, or in fact anyone in desperate need, supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.
I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to groups that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.
A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.
Within moments after we board the train, there is a knock on the window. Two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station.
As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.