Recently Jeff and I went to see the movie Lion, about a young boy in a village in India who is separated from his family when he accidently gets on a train bound for a distant city. It’s a wonderful, triumphant film. When you see it (you should most definitely see it), be sure to have plenty of Kleenex on hand.
At the end of the film, a caption onscreen informs us that more than 80,000 children go missing each year in India. Wait—80,000 a year? This elicited the hoped-for response: I immediately began wondering what could be done about it. But instead of donating to the charity recommended by the movie, I started thinking about a young woman I’d once met who was making a difference in the lives of street children in Delhi.
Jessie Leigh Hodges grew up on the Outer Banks not far from us. When we met one day for lunch in 2011 she was in her late 20s, with long, dark hair. She wore a leather jacket with wide lapels, feather earrings, and a short skirt with knee socks and loafers. The effect was fashionable and a bit quirky.
In 2006 Jessie and her brother had spent four weeks volunteering with street children in India and Thailand, through an organization that places foreign travelers with service agencies. Jessie came home from the experience unsatisfied. She didn’t feel she’d contributed much of substance. So she went back to Delhi for six months to volunteer for the Salaam Baalak Trust, an organization that works intensively with street children. On her first trip she and her brother had befriended a 16-year-old street boy named Vijay, and when she returned he embraced her as his sister. “That was in no way a casual thing,” she said. Vijay helped her find a place to live and showed her around the city.
Even this second prolonged stint wasn’t enough for her. She returned to the States briefly and went back to volunteer with Salaam Baalak for another six months, each time learning as much Hindi as she could.
“I’ve always been interested in people living on the margins of society, whatever that means,” she said. “Delhi grabbed me, because it’s so crazy. You can’t hide there. It’s a huge city teeming, with colors, smells, noises.”
The Salaam Baalak Trust’s approach was remarkably casual, and no one seemed surprised when she showed up again and again unannounced. Finally she convinced the trust to hire her as a volunteer coordinator.
From Jessie’s description of Delhi, it’s easy to see how a child could go missing. “The streets are a milieu. Everyone’s pressed together without a single space between them. Vijay got separated from his parents near the main railway station and was never found. His brother too.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Of course, it’s quite possible that their parents abandoned them. It happens. And there’s no system in the country for finding lost kids.” This is astounding, given that Delhi has 400,000 homeless children. Some of those have been intentionally sent to the city alone from outlying villages.
What do those kids most need? Food, certainly, and schooling, if you can lure them inside long enough and hold their interest. But Jessie found that the trust’s volunteers were given little instruction on how to engage the children. “The kids are free to come and go, so you want to do things that will make them stick around.” She helped develop a curriculum for classes—there was much coloring and painting involved, which the younger children loved—and a protocol for matching volunteers with tasks suited to their talents. Under this more organized system, the classes began to cover more complex material, even teaching some computer skills.
Most of all, though, Jessie focused on developing relationships with the street kids. Life on the street can be boring and largely directionless. Giving them some stimulation, and hope, may be life-altering—over the long haul. Substantial change does not come quickly. “Mostly I felt like I was just making friends with them. I wasn’t trying to make a difference every single day.” Jessie shrugged. “I was just doing what I did—learning about their lives. They taught me heaps, and I did the same with them.”
By the time we met she was working with another nonprofit, the Kid Powered Media Project, which gives street children the chance to write, act in, and direct short, Bollywood-style movies and other media productions. The movies were shown in slums—500 kids came to one—and are still posted online. Some of the films are about social issues like environmental problems or treating women fairly, while others incorporate important messages—wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating. All are woven into simple but entertaining plots. The movies gave the children a chance to do something that, perhaps for the first time in their lives, made them feel important and valued.
I loved talking with Jessie, because her experiences reinforced everything I’ve learned about effectively helping others: Work to bring good ideas to life, but also be flexible and fluid. Share both the work and the credit with the people you’re trying to help. Also, be yourself. Share yourself. You can learn as much from them as they learn from you.
Still living in Delhi and now married, Jessie is taking a break from working with street kids to care for her 18-month-old son. She has another child on the way and plans to continue living in the city, immersing herself in the lives of the people she meets there.
I will always remember her as someone who decided she wanted to make a difference, and then dedicated herself to doing so. I hope I’ll find ways to sink myself into service as she has, at least in fits and starts.
If you’d like to see some of the children Jessie’s worked with, here’s a link to one of the Kid Powered Media films, Mad About Khan. Take a look—It’s really fun.