Tamrah Schaller O’Neil is volunteering in Kolkata, India, through the organization Pathways to Children. She has agreed to send occasional reports about her experiences.

Kolkata streets are quiet at 5 a.m. but the air is thick with a distinctive scent of coal smoke, diesel and spices. Five of us are travelling with Pathways to Children, which facilitates extraordinary volunteer experiences. We drive to Mercy Hospital to see where they cook the rice and lentil mixture that feeds 25,000 people daily. Men load huge food-filled steel caldrons into a truck and we follow in a car. Women and children are lined up with steel bowls at established points on the road to receive their only meal of the day. Men unload the giant pots and one or two female village leaders step up to distribute the rice. Family representatives carry cards stating the number of their family members in order to get the appropriate amount of food.

Our leader today is Amitabh Singh, donor relations manager of Children Need Love, an affiliate of Mercy Hospital. Singh says that most residents of the city have no idea these people exist. We hand out food, mostly to children, and take their pictures as they eat. Their smiles nourish us as they enjoy the attention of our cameras and admire their own images in the digital viewfinder. As the sun rises, we reach the last stop where the remaining food is emptied into children’s bowls. Then we retrace our route to pick up the empty pots and return them to the hospital to be refilled for the following day, and the day after that.

Our next stop is the school for the blind. We take a tour and observe students learning their lessons. There are 135 children here aged two to 20 years, and all were rescued off the street. Mercy Hospital pays their tuition. We had planned to reorganize their Braille library, but because the windows have no glass, dust perpetually blows in. We discuss the library’s needs, which range from capital improvements to tapes to record books and lessons for the students to listen to.

After lunch we head to Mother Teresa’s. Except for the sign that says “Mother’s House” and the nuns wearing distinctive white and blue trim habits, you would never know that so many receive care within these shabby walls. The nuns have a very set registration protocol for volunteers. We are assigned the afternoon shift of the young handicapped and will be able to return tomorrow to help.

For dinner we have a special invitation. A friend in Minneapolis has notified her best friend Jyoti in Kolkata that the five of us from Pathways to Children are in town, and Jyoti invites us all to her home. What an honor to have a dinner in a private home. She is a board member of Society for Indian Children Welfare. Its founder, Dr. Z.P. Dadina, comes to pick us up. The organization does amazing volunteer work, much like Mother Teresa’s, with an orphanage for special needs children. The other members of the all-women board join us for dinner. In addition, we meet Monica and Maria, who work on adoptions for special needs children from India through Adoptions Centrum in Sweden. Most of the women dress in non-traditional Indian clothing, no saris, but the meal was traditionally spicy Indian. The amazing cuisine can’t compare with the company of so many inspiring, highly educated women dedicated to helping the children of India.

Pathways to Children
Children Need Love
Mother Theresa of Calcutta Center
Society for Indian Children Welfare, Dr. Z.P. Dadina

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