The children under HEAL's care, whether at the HEAL Children's Village, Paradise Village, or one of our Poverty Trap projects, always love to receive visitors. Here, some of our visitors talk about their stay with HEAL, the benefits to the children and the impact their visit had on their own lives.
William and Carolynne Smethurst sponsor three children with HEAL. Carolynne is a retired primary school teacher, who was Head of Year 3 at the Croft Preparatory School, Stratford-upon-Avon. William has worked as a BBC journalist, television drama producer, and was for many years the editor of Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’.
This is William’s account of their visit to India early in 2015 and how they got to meet their three sponsored children – Daya Rani, Asritha Grace and Govardhan – under HEAL’s care…
“TO travel rather more than 5,000 miles to see three children for around three hours might be called extreme, or at least eccentric, behaviour. We knew it was odd, and tried to make excuses for ourselves. My great-great grandfather went to India as a 12-year-old drummer boy at the end of the Eighteenth century. Why, we said, don’t we go to see the place where he came crashing through the wicked surf of the Coromandel Coast on that January day in 1797, and was terribly bitten by mosquitoes on his first night on the Indian sub-continent?
We would go to Fort St George, Madras, his old stamping ground! Perhaps we would find ‘Wm Smethurst, 12th Reg of Foot’ carved on an ancient coconut tree.
But we knew really that we wouldn’t find any echoes of the distant drummer boy – or, indeed, come across any distant cousins (though he was in India for 13-years, and drummer-boys were a roguish lot, so there probably are some cousins about, though not listed in the Chennai telephone directory because I’ve checked). No, we were quite genuinely going to India to see three children who had, through the kind offices of HEAL, somehow become a part of our lives, part of our greatly extended family.
We started sponsoring through HEAL in 2010. Two little girls, Daya Rani and Asritha Grace, and little boy, Govardhan. They came from poor, rural villages, and their parents could not afford to send them to school, so we sponsored them under HEAL’s ‘poverty trap’ scheme. Last year Govardhan’s mother died, and he moved away from Guntur, to live with his grandparents. In his place we began to sponsor Narendra, a boy who was also from a poor rural village.
Over the years emails and cards have been exchanged. The difference between sponsoring children through HEAL or through one of the major charities (as we had previously done) was, for us, summed up by the personal contact we had with Marudwathi, the Guntur Children’s Village organiser. From the very start she encouraged us to write to the children and send them photographs about life in the UK. On our behalf she has bought them clothes, and organised parties on their birthdays. Through her efforts we have felt involved in the children growing up, and seen them visibly grow more confident and happy. Daya Rani, we discovered, was reserved and shy. Asritha was the bubbly one. Narendra had an older brother who was (Narendra himself proudly told us) the school’s top pupil! Narendra himself, it was clear from his letter, was as clever as anything. In return for their photographs, we sent back pictures of our granddaughter Milly, their “little sister”, and at some point we began to talk about going to India to visit them.
Five thousand miles, just to say hello?
At the end of last year we decided to go for it.
We flew in and out of Delhi (the flight being the best timed and least arduous from the UK) then by Air India down to Andhra Pradesh. We were greatly looking forward to meeting Marudwathi, after the exchange of so many emails. She was going to a family wedding on the day of our visit, but the evening before she came all the way to Vijayawada to meet us at our hotel. We now regard her very much as a personal friend. The next morning Dr Prasad and the HEAL sponsorship secretary from the UK, Steve, met us and drove us to Guntur, to the Children’s Village.
We were here at last! And to a welcome beyond all possible expectations – the most wonderful moment being when we heard a voice (it was Narendra) call out “How is Milly?” and turned to see him – together with Asritha Grace and Daya Rani – smiling at us out of a sea of blue-uniformed children.
The ‘college girls’ – senior girls who go to college each day in Guntur – showed us the house where they live together with their house mother, then Daya Rani, Asritha, and Narendra showed us over the school. Was it what we expected? To some extent yes, because we had seen photographs and videos. But it was more beautiful that we anticipated, with its flowers and fragrant shrubs, and its trees in which monkeys looked down at the playground and children below. What really overwhelmed us was the children themselves – the singing, the dancing, the cheerfulness and eager curiosity. They have so little in the way of material possessions, but so much in the way of happiness and good humour.
I put a short video together when we were back in the UK, and you can get some impression of our day at Guntur if you go to https://youtu.be/6AeKfu0b0mE
In the afternoon we were taken by Dr Prasad to Paradise Village, where we met Anjena, a primary school teacher from the UK, who had been working with the children, and helping to train the staff, over several weeks, and Colin, a volunteer from the UK not only astonishingly skilled in computer and internet technology but also highly knowledgeable about football.
I felt very envious of Colin. He knew things that were so useful to HEAL and to Paradise Village. Why had I never learned anything that was actually useful in the world? I wouldn’t understand internet microwave technology if I studied it for a hundred years and I never could play football, even as a boy, and anyway I wouldn’t have the puff to run about these days. Colin and Anjena, we felt, were really doing their bit, while we were here as just one-day tourists.
“But you must come again,” we were told. Carolynne, they said with genuine enthusiasm, would be hugely valued (she’s a retired primary school teacher), and I would be able to … well, something no doubt.
Paradise Village is an enchanting place. We sat on a balcony with Dr Prasad and others of the staff, and they told us of their hugely ambitious plans – not just to create a safe haven where a thousand orphaned and seriously deprived children can find security and a home, but for a school and home for blind children, and a teacher training college, and a home for the elderly. The sun went down and the stars came out. Birds were calling out in the nearby hills, otherwise there was a vast silence. This, we reflected, was the true, eternal India, the India that my great-great grandfather, the drummer boy, would have known.
It was an amazing day; an amazing visit. And we are, indeed, going back – in January 2016. Taking advantage of the British Airways spring sale we have even bought our tickets.”
We were quite genuinely going to India to see three children who had, through the kind offices of HEAL, somehow become a part of our lives, part of our greatly extended family