A MONTH SPENT WITH PEOPLE FIRST
People First is the incredible organization in Bodhgaya that is running Rescue Junction and who I have been following around now for about a month They have been great these past month in showing me some of their other programs which I had heard about but seen very little of. Every day we have been loading hats, scarves, quilts and medicine into the packed jeep and heading out into outlying areas. They have been generous with their time and I feel like a privileged guest. When I brought the quilts last year I was impressed with their programs, and this year my respect for this difficult and important work has only deepened.
We began by visiting their Rescue Junction project, which is a school and shelter for children who live in the railway stations. It's hard to find a place to start working in a city as rough and impoverished as Gaya, but these kids are certainly a worthy cause. It's really incredible to see them compared to children in other parts of India living on the platforms, a testament to child rehabilitation. Upon arriving at the center I began an art class with the excited children, some of whom I recognized from last year. I took out the pieces of cloth I had cut this morning and handed out pens for them to draw elephants, self portraits, Bodhi trees, birds, etc. Back in the states we have found some willing participants to sell pillowcases made from this fabric to generate revenue for the center. The children were joyous, smiling and sharing their pens and coloring furiously, I have to say my heart was full. These kids could be out in the rain and mud, collecting torn plastic bags, but they are learning and living healthy lives with adult protection. When they were finished with their masterpieces, we went upstairs for the main event. When I arrived I had two gigantic bags in tow, full to the brim with the goods, and I was anxious to give them to those for whom they were made. Among hushed whispers and irrepressible smiles (they tried to feign seriousness!) the children were bursting with happiness as I handed each new child a quilt. Many had their own from last year, which lined their beds in the sleeping hall, so we only gave 10 quilts to the new children. The rest will go to surrounding villages where People First runs schools and health clinics. It is really an incredible program, and the children gain so much self-worth by having their very own piece of art in the form of a beautiful quilt. Plus, they love seeing the self portraits of the foreign children who somehow, though so far away, have touched their lives.
After visiting Rescue Junction People First's founders, Nick and Deepak, offered me an opportunity to visit the "Remand Home," what we call Juvenile Hall. Because Rescue Junction deals with railway children, it was only a matter of time before Nick and Deepak had to visit this facility. Many children who are merely lost on the railway platforms are brought here because the police don't know what to do with them. People First has found several children who were being kept in prison who had only been separated from their families on the overly crowded trains. Many families were beside themselves not knowing where their lost children had gone, so you can imagine their indescribable joy when they were reunited with their lost children. When Nick first visited the juvenile hall there were seventy kids being kept in three rooms with no outside light. They all had lung infections from the cold, wet floors and coal fires that burned in the small, dark quarters. He has worked in Bihar for a long time but said he had never seen anything like it. He and Deepak quickly brought the district judge, a woman, to assess the facility. She cried when she saw the kids and angrily demanded, "who allowed this to happen?!" Needless to say, because of PF's efforts, the children have been relocated to a much better location with natural light, space, and outdoor time each day. We went that day to provide sweaters for the now 144 boys living in the prison because the state had not provided them with any warmth. You can imagine, a state whose apparatus has failed to the extent that NGO's are providing their prisoners with sweaters, when it's the state that should be supporting the work that NGO's like PF are doing in rural Bihar! We arrived to eager faces, many of whom have been charged with serious crimes; murder, rape, and/or kidnapping. Which children are guilty and which are innocent is hard to tell, some are younger than ten and were arrested with their whole families when the father committed an offense, and others are guilty. As we left I understood why Nick and Deepak had taken it upon themselves to intervene.
All in all, People First is amazing and they are providing resources to some of the most needy communities in Bihar.