HYDERABAD, India — Blinded in one eye by the so-called “beggar mafia” so she'd be a better earner, 6-year-old Reena was used to wearing sunglasses.
But when American Paul Wilkes and his wife, Tracy, came to visit Reena in the Home of Hope orphanage in Kerala, India, she took off her shades and smiled up at them beatifically.
Wilkes, a contemplative Catholic and author of several books on religious faith, knew then and there that it was time to stop writing about faith and start doing something about it.
He had his work cut out for him.
Across the country, as many as 400,000 Indian children live on the streets. Some of them have no families. Others are the victims of traffickers who buy and sell them for sex or slavery. Some ran away from drunk and abusive fathers. Others were cast out or fled because their families had nothing for them to eat.
They all have one thing in common: They are grave and imminent danger living on the streets, as Reena's missing eye attests.
The local chapter of the Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco — a Catholic order of nuns that has been offering refuge to street children since the 19th Century — took Reena in off the streets and provided refuge at the Home of Hope orphanage.
“If they are left on the street, by the age of 10 they are already raped,” said Sister Annakutty, mother superior at the Maria Ausilatrice orphanage in Hyderabad's Mahendra Hills. “They will be misused by someone. At that early stage itself they'll have one or two babies. ... And those children will go on to the same life.”
Since 2006, Wilkes, who used to regularly contribute to the New Yorker magazine, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the orphanages and schools run by the Salesian Sisters in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.
At a cost of around $300,000 apiece, his charity “Homes of Hope” has built two orphanages from the ground up in Kochi and Maradiyur (in Karnataka) — and laid the foundation stone for a third one in Hyderabad.
By supplementing the Salesian Sisters' dedication with new ideas and added funds, they've dug wells, bought jeeps, and provided books, computers and other educational materials for 20,000 students — as well as provided safe, caring homes for more than 400 orphans and neglected girls.
On a recent afternoon at the Navajeevana Home for Street Girl Children in Hyderabad, some 50 girls, ranging from 5 to 15 years old, crowded the driveway to greet Wilkes when his jeep arrived from a neighboring school.
“Good afternoon, Papa!” “Hi, Papa!” “Good afternoon, Uncle!” their piping voices called out. Joy, and a kind of heartbreaking desperation, was plain to see on their faces.
“The children really care for him,” said Sister Crocetta Thomas, mother superior at the Navajeevana orphanage. “Since they have no parents, they call him Papa.”
Wilkes has done his best to play father to hundreds.
“We don't run anything,” said Wilkes, walking through the Auxilium school in Hyderabad. “We're the add-on. We're the pure water. We're the generator that's going to go right there.”
Tapping funds from local US Rotary clubs, for instance, Homes of Hope has supplied 15 schools and orphanages with solar-powered water purification systems — addressing one of the leading causes of disease in India. The charity has provided 18 library-deprived schools with more than 250,000 books.
“We don't open the doors every day,” Wilkes added. “But I can come and see what's going on and see what they need.”
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When a dentist from Wilkes' native North Carolina announced that he was retiring, they packed up the entire office and shipped it to India, where it now operates as a free clinic in Bangalore. When a group of North Carolina surfers offered to pitch in, the charity pioneered “surfing safaris” on the Indian Ocean as a confidence builder for orphan girls — and nuns (how's that for a mental image?)
And in the charity's latest venture, Wilkes is working with Dr. David Paige, an assistant professor of education at Louisville, Ky.-based Bellarmine University, to design a training program for teachers to help transform India's rote learning oriented schools to encourage creative and analytical thinking.
“I consider our little organization very entrepreneurial,” Wilkes said. “It isn't just buying a bag of rice. You really want to push the envelope.”
Before and after pictures attest to the impact the Salesian Sisters and Homes of Hope has had on the children rescued from the streets. "Graduates" are constantly calling the mother superior at one of the orphanages to report that their marriages are going well — perhaps a new baby was born, or their family has moved into a larger home.
The success stories never get old. Take Pinky, who came to the Homes of Hope after she was cast out by her family. The oldest of three daughters, she was taught early how well India values women, when her mother suffocated her fourth daughter shortly after birth and forced Pinky to help her bury the body.
This May, Pinky will graduate with a degree in nursing, ensuring that she'll never face poverty, or question how much she's worth, ever again.