I apologize for the delay on these photos. Going through 1300 photos was daunting and we have been quite busy, lame excuse I know. But might I just say that Julie and my lives were impacted forever through this trip. It was something I have wanted to do my whole life, then all of the sudden within about three weeks from the minute we heard about the trip, we were on a plane on our way there. Before we left, we spoke with family and friends who had been to India in the past. They described it as “indescribable” – I was like “huh, how can something be indescribable?” – then we went to India and figured out exactly what I meant. India is a giant slap in the face or people, culture, smells (good and bad), beauty, poverty, smiles, bobbling heads, humility, happiness, light, overly crowded everything, history, spirit… I think I could keep this list going for pages. Really though, India is indescribable. You have to see it to believe it. I loved the people. They are so genuine, so happy, so intriguing, so faithful, so eager to learn, and eager to share. They just seemed happy and content with making the best of what they have been dealt in this life.
What made the trip even more amazing/special is that we (Julie and I) got to go to India with some our favorite people in the world…my brother Noah and his wife Kristi. With those guys, every minute is an adventure – you’re either thinking, how the heck did we get in this place, or crying because you are laughing so hard.
As has become my custom with big trips, I am going to split this into 3 posts: Part 1. Rising Star Outreach Part 2. Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi, and Part 3. Dubai. Otherwise I think I would bore you to death with all the photos I am going to put up here. This way, you’ll get your blogocation – but it will be in palatable amounts, instead of a 10 pound burger.
Part 1. Rising Star Outreach (http://risingstaroutreach.org)
Rising Star is what brought us to India. This is a fantastic organization, that we’ve had the opportunity to hear a lot about over the last couple of years. Two years ago, Julie and I (along with my parents) went to a Rising Star fundraiser hosted by the Utah Jazz. Then last year, a couple of my siblings spent extended periods of time at the Rising Star School in Southern India. One of the great parts of Rising Star is the school. They bring children in from surrounding Leprosy Affected Colonies and give them an education. Were it not for Rising Star, these kids would be outcasts and untouchables – destined for a life of begging (I am not being dramatic here, that is the case). Because of their parent’s health, they (the kids) become outcasts. This school was created to bring these kids in, give them an education, and exponentially increasing their chances of breaking the cycle by educating them and preparing them to get a job and succeed in life. The ability to speak fluent English (without a heavy accent) is a key aspect of this process.
That is where Imagine Learning came into the conversation. Imagine Learning Inc. is the company that Noah, Tal, and I all work for. Imagine Learning’s software program is used in schools across the US and around the globe to help kids learn English (language and literacy). The program is used by ESL students, Special Ed Student, kids that are struggling to read on grade level etc. The leadership of Rising Star heard about Imagine Learning, and asked that Imagine Learning donate the software so that these fantastic students could learn to speak fluent English. Noah took this one by the horns, and asked Imagine Learning to help – they were as excited as we were and immediately said yes. They have a beautiful computer lab at Rising Star that was donated by the Dell Foundation – but there wasn’t a lot going on in there. By the time we left the school, the lab was packed all day long as students rotated through to do their daily session on Imagine Learning English.
The first week of January, Noah and I were together at a conference for Imagine Learning and he was telling me that Imagine Learning had just agreed to donate the software. Right then and there I thought to myself, “why the heck aren’t you going too dummy?” – I asked Noah what he thought, and he was all about it. So I called Julie and said, “Hey, you want to go to India in two and half weeks?” – she of course thought I was kidding, then she thought I was crazy when I told her how serious I was. When else were we going to get to go to India with Noah and Kristi and work with this great organization. After a little explanation – Julie was as excited as I was. So she spent the next week frantically pleading with other nurses to take her shifts (you have to sign up for vacation like 6 months out at the hospital where Julie works, so our only hope was finding people to take her shifts). Thanks to some VERY kind co-workers of Julie's who understood this great opportunity, she was able to get all of her shifts filled and it was ON!
That is how we got to India. I love it when life is like that – how just all the sudden you are doing something you only dreamed would ever happen. Serendipity as my dad would say (that mixed with some luck and craziness).
I flew out to LA and met up with Julie who was already out there for a gathering with all the sisters/sister in laws and my mom or the Eyre fam for a get together. We all jumped on a plane at LAX and were on our way to Chennai, India. The flight was wicked long. 16 hours. Whoa. Luckily it was a flight that had quite a few empty seats so we could spread out a bit. We slept and watched a lot of movies that day or night or whatever it was.
We got to Chennai after a stopover in Dubai. It was 2:30 in the morning. I will never forget walking out of the plane, and then out of the airport. As we went through security screening of our checked luggage – someone pulled me aside and asked for another look at one of the bags I had. This bag was full of about 30 headsets for the kids to use on the computers with Imagine Learning. They ran the bag through the scanner and asked me what in the world was in the bag. I told them they were headsets. We were in a bit of predicament as we were there as “tourists” on our visas, not as volunteers as that makes the process take much longer. I decided to just be honest with the guy and tell them that they were for a school that we were donating them to – as opposed to trying to explain why I needed 30 headsets for my time in India. He kind of looked at me in disbelief, and then walked me over to his manager who then asked me the same question. I told him again that we were donating them to a school. He looked at me for a while and then said “You are not supposed to bring more than a couple of these into the country, but since you told me you are giving them to a school, I am going to close my eyes, and my colleague is going to do the same, and you are going to walk past us and take these headsets to the school.” I kind of looked at him like “what?” and he just motioned for me to walk past. It was like we were in a movie or something. Right off the bat, I knew I was going to like the Indian people. We picked up the bag and headed out of the airport.
The place was packed with people and it was the middle of the night. I quickly learned that cities in India are crowded all the time. We walked out of the airport to the smell of India – mixture of spice/burning garbage/gasoline and people. We were swarmed by people asking if we wanted a taxi – after a while we finally got a hold of our hotel and they sent someone to pick us up at about 3am.
The next morning after an awesome breakfast buffet, we jumped in a van along with some other volunteers that were headed to the school and headed to Rising Star. It was light outside and we really saw India for the first time. My first sight on the road was a guy running along side an overcrowded bus and then jumping on the side, grabbing the window bar and then clung to the side of the bus (like Marty McFly on Back to the Future except no skateboard) and rode off. It was awesome. Riding in the cars/buses and people watching was like my favorite thing in India. Packed buses, rickshaws, trucks cruising around – no real lanes, just everyone smashed into the little road trying to get to where they were going. In the middle of all of this were countless motorcycles and bikes, most with more than a couple people cruising around on them. Families of 4 just cruising along on a motorcycle like it was nothing out of the ordinary.
After a 2 hour or so drive. We stopped at one of the Leprosy Affected Colonies to drop off a couple of the volunteers. We met some amazing people there, one of which was an Austrian guy and his wife who had started an art school there in the colony. He taught the Leprosy Affected how to paint, and let me tell you, their art was amazing. This guy lives there in the colony like 4 months out of the year, then takes the art work back to Europe to sell it as form of fundraising for the colony and his school. These are some of the awesome people we met at the art school.
This is the Austrian guy I was talking about.
This was the sweetest little old lady. She had the highest voice you’ve ever heard (kind of like when you breath in helium and then talk).
We then headed the rest of the way to Rising Star. The location of Rising Star is so beautiful. It is out in the countryside, surrounded by deep green rice paddies and palm trees. Rising Star has done an incredible job building a beautiful campus there.
Just outside the front gate are these beautiful paddies.
Front of the school.
Back of the school (below).
I will never forget what happened next. We went out to back of the school (open field area) where the kids were just coming out for recess I think. All of the sudden we were surrounded with the sweetest, most beautiful, bright eyed, happy kids in the world. They were SO excited to see us, and we were SO excited to see them. They all remembered Tal and Anita and Charity…constantly saying “you’re Tal’s brother?” over and over. They were so excited that we knew those guy (Tal, Anita, and Char), they definitely left a legacy at Rising Star. Anyway, just seeing the light in their eyes and talking and laughing with them there in the middle of India is an image I will forever have in my head. Those kids are just amazing.
We spent the next few days there at Rising Star. Combining spending time and playing with the kids with the installation and set up of Imagine Learning. We had a great training with the teachers and got them all filled in on the program and using it. Luckily the installation went perfectly (there lab was amazing – better than a lot of labs in the schools I see here in DC!). The teachers were very bright and picked things up quickly. We got the kids on the program, and another thing I will never forget is their faces and seeing how excited they were when they got on the program for the first time.
I loved watching them and seeing their engaged determined faces. And then hearing the occasional giggle or shriek of excitement.
Part of the training that we did for the teachers. The woman on the far right is one of the house mothers (that lives with the kids in their dorms there) and one assistant computer lab coordinator), next to her is Nayeem (the one who is in charge of the lab and the tech guru for the school. Nayeem is awesome and so excited about the program; he will be a fantastic facilitator of Imagine Learning there. Next to him is Celina – the principal of the school. She has been there for like 8 months and just comitted to be there for another year. She is awesome. Such a powerful influence for good and success at the school. She might have been the most excited about Imagine Learning. Next to her is one of the volunteers there for a few months and helping out as a tutor in the lab for the kids.
After the first night of use, Celina was excited to sit with us and go through the reports. Just FYI, Imagine Learning pre-assesses each student and then creates an individualized curriculum for each student so they basically have a tutor helping them in the areas they need it most until they are full on readers and speakers. All of their progress is tracked an always available in reports. Here, Noah is showing them how to generate and use the reports to help the students.
There was even a documentary team there that week. Here they are interviewing Noah about Imagine Learning and how we partnered with Rising Star.
We had the chance to read with the kids, play with them, talk with them, eat with them, see them dance and sing, just got live their lives along with them for a few days. I wish we could have stayed there for weeks. The other volunteers, along with the family that lives there full time to run the school were so great too. Each night, we’d all gather on the roof of the building where the volunteers stayed. We’d eat amazing curries, fruit, red rice, breads etc. off of banana leaves and share our “highs, and lows” of the day. It was so cool to hear from all of the people that had brought their various expertise to come to the school and contribute. It really put things into perspective for me. What is important in life? It’s so easy to get caught up in the every day “gotta make money, gotta get this, gotta get that.” There are some truly amazing people in this world, and many of them were there at Rising Star with us that week.
Eating in the cafeteria with the kids. They know how to eat!
These kids LOVED Julie. Seriously.
We found Aniston’s (our neice) long lost sister in India. She seriously looks just like Ana.
I was having a hard time with this guy’s name. So finally he just whipped out a pen and wrote it on his arm for me. Some of their names were tough to remember!
It was like Richard Eyre circa 1992 in Romania.
This little girl was convinced she could pull his finger off too.
Noah, the magic trick master…had these boys going non-stop. They loved his magic skills.
Each night before bed, the kids sit on the grass and read and pray together.
The kids were working on a special dance for a fund raiser being held in Chennai later that week.
We got to see all the kids dressed in their best and sing Indian songs for National Day.
This boy was dropping off his little sister for school. Look at the size of the bike in comparison to him…they were both riding on it.
Each morning before school they gather in the field to repeat the pledge of allegiance (I think) and sing the Rising Star Song.
Dinner on the roof.
We got to see the “Star Store” that was started by Tal and Anita. The kids were having issues with ownership, learning to care for things etc. So Tal and Anita came up with the idea that kids are rewarded in “stars” for everything from good behavior, to helping, to doing homework etc. When the accrue stars, they can take them to the store and buy everything from school supplies, to clothes, to the opportunity to eat dinner at the directors home with their family. It was amazing to see that the store was going stronger than ever and hear from the directors and administrators of the school that it was one of the best things that every happened to the school. The kids now took ownership. When they bought something that they had worked for, suddenly it was worth MUCH more to them. This is a lesson they’ll take with them through the rest of their lives.
The store is run by the older students; they have a register of all the students and how many stars they have/have used. Really cool.
Here is one of the girls Vijayalakshmi (amazing name) holding her card that tracks her stars.
One day we had the chance to go into another one of the colonies to assist the medical team in treating the Leprosy affected there. Another experience that will never be forgotten. When I think of Leprosy I think of the time of Christ. Here we were in 2011 seeing this thousands of year old disease that I assumed didn’t exist anymore. It was so fun to listen in as Julie talked with the Rising Star doctor and learned about the disease and how they treat it. Julie had the opportunity to put some of her nursing skills to work. We even had the opportunity to help clean and dress the wounds. Again, I was struck with how special these people are. Struck with a terrible disease, yet smiling and happy still.
Another day, we had the chance to walk into the village that was close by Rising Star. One of the cooks/helpers at Rising Star invited us to come an see her home. The home was complete with a small shrine, and a room for their cow to sleep in.
It was a sad day when we got up at 3 in the morning to head back to Chennai to fly up to Northern India. I really hope we’ll get a chance to go back to Rising Star again someday. I hope we can take our kids there someday – hopefully by that point, theses schools will be all over India. To be there with these kids, to look into their souls and know that they are my brothers and sisters. For whatever reason, I was born in the US, they were born in total poverty in India – yet they are SO happy. They were such a special example to us. It was so special to experience this with Julie. And to be there with Noah and Kristi. An unforgettable experience.
I will leave you with the faces of Rising Star. You’ll see what I mean when I say they are absolutely beautiful and full of light.
Come back in the next few days to hear about Part 2. Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi.