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One Day at Vatsalya’s Udayan – Delta Donohue, January 2008

I entered the gates and was driven slowly up the path. Children began running by the car, waving and saying “Namaste, Didi, Namaste.” This was my first exposure to this wonderful place called Udayan. The name means rising and moving ahead. A perfect description for what occurs in this children’s village. Udayan was formed to provide a home and loving environment for orphaned and abandoned children. This village is one of the many projects of Vatsalya, an NGO run with extraordinary vision and leadership by Jaimala and Hitesh Gupta.

There are currently 51 children living in Udayan. They range in age from 4 – 16. The open-air campus consists of multiple residential units, a kitchen/dining hall, staff quarters, school buildings for Nursery through 8th grade, a library, sports and recreation areas, a meditation hall, and several vocational areas providing training in carpentry, tailoring, baking, dairy farming while meeting many of the Udayan’s daily needs. Crops are grown on-site providing vegetables for the village and fodder for the animals. Thousands of plants and trees have been planted over the 25 hectares providing splashes of flowers and color in the arid land.

The village is forward thinking and ecologically conscious. Recent grants have provided solar lighting for the pathways and a solar cooker to assist with meal preparation. Plastic products are actively avoided and children are taught from the very beginning to care for their environment and utilize the small dustbins that are located throughout the campus.

Udayan’s children have difficult life stories. Some ran away from home when they were as young as four years old. Some were orphaned. Some have parents that can’t afford to care for them. Many were abused. Many have histories that include interactions with drugs and alcohol.

What is a typical day at Udayan? The thought makes me smile because there are no typical days at Udayan. Each brings its own surprises and delights. On the whole, however, the days are quite full. The children rise early to bathe and dress for school. The campus has a deliberate design separating the residences from the school buildings. Udayan’s founders wanted the children to know and understand the importance of ‘going’ to school. After breakfast and brief exercise, they head for a school day from 9-1:30.

I have spent much of my volunteer school time working with the Nursery. These are children of Pre-Kindergarten age and/or skill level. Under certain circumstances, Udayan also welcomes local village children into their school. In the Nursery, we concentrate on language acquisition, both Hindi and English, shapes, colors, and numbers. We utilize song and story at every opportunity to enhance the learning opportunities.

After the school day, the children return to the residences to change and wash. The lunch bell typically sounds around 2:00 and everyone heads to the dining hall for a hearty lunch. The Udayan menu is completely vegetarian and prepared by two very gifted chefs. Food is plentiful and never wasted. After lunch there is a rest period for the younger children and a study period for the older children.

Sports bell rings at 4:00 and games of basketball, volleyball, cricket, kabbaddi and other sports rotate on various days. A quiet time of prayer and meditation occurs before dinner within Aradhana, the meditation hall. Udayan is a place where all faiths are welcome and honored. Dinner concludes by about 7:30 and then the evening can be filled with study, reading and preparing for the next day. Udayan has recently gained access to satellite TV and some evenings now include excited viewing of The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Of course, children being children, they would always vote to watch a movie. Bollywood does indeed reign! After a very full day the children return to their beds for a good night’s rest.

While the campus and facilities are extraordinary, it is the staff that truly makes Udayan and its children thrive. Everyone, from the Aunties and Uncles, the Teachers, and the Administrator, demonstrates a deep commitment to the underlying mission of Udayan and displays their love and care for the children on a daily basis. I watched Karan, the wonderful Cook of Udayan observe a young girl struggle to tie her shoes. He stopped his kitchen work and sat down patiently beside her and demonstrated three times, with a gentle voice and a huge smile, how to tie a bow. When she succeeded he gently patted her on the shoulder in affirmation, sent her on her way to school and returned to his kitchen.

I watched Narendra, the Sports Instructor, notice a young boy sitting on one side with his head and shoulders hunched up. Narendra walked over, sat next to the boy, placed his arm around him and spent time just talking with him. The next time I saw the boy he was smiling and playing with the others.

Imagine a small queue of children waiting to have splinters removed, not because they all have splinters but because they want the band-aid and the enormous hug that goes with it! Or try to hear the Hindi singing – Bollywood and Folk, from both teachers and children, which floats beautifully in the background of daily life at Udayan. Watch the staff, volunteers and children clearing a field to plant vegetables or see all 51 children sitting silently during prayer time – at least attempting to sit silently as the inevitable fidgeting and dramatic coughing seems to occur in the smallest ones.

Volunteers from around the world come to Udayan. During my stay, we had volunteers from Taiwan, Germany, the United States, Norway, Ireland, Australia and Wales. Stays range from 3 days to 6 months or more! These volunteers offer meaningful opportunities for the children to learn about different countries and cultures. The volunteers work with the kids on different types of activities. Recently, Lisa from Germany finished a film project where the kids wrote, acted and filmed an original story – ably assisted by the teaching staff. Also during my stay, 3 volunteers from the US put together 2 different rock bands with the children. They performed at the Vatsalya Fair. It is amazing to see what can be accomplished in a short period of time!

I would love to sit across a cup of coffee and tell you stories about each of the 51 children. You would meet Aayush and Apoorv, 4-year-old identical twins. They both love singing and dancing and recently have become quite enamored with headstands. Or I could tell you about Nausheen, 15 going on 30 going on 3 going on 15. Sounds like a typical teenager, eh? She comes across as a tough girl and yet she is one of the children who had tears in her eyes as we hugged goodbye. Or you could learn about Karan. He is 12 and loves to practice English. We said the same things over and over each day. He was patient with my Hindi progress and I was patient with his English progress.

These simple examples fail to even begin to capture the magic of Udayan, the staff, and children. I wish that each of you could personally experience this wonderful place. It was a life changing experience! I came to Udayan for a 3 month stay. Because I knew the histories of many of the children, I expected Udayan to be a place where I saw and worked with traumatized children. Instead, I found a home, in the deepest sense of the word, a place where healthy children experience the normal rigors, challenges and joys of childhood. Certainly they have experienced more trauma than any child ever should but, with the abundance of love and care shown for them by the dedicated staff, they are flourishing. They are truly “rising and moving ahead.”

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