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From Ragpicker to Restored Dignity

ragpicker The colony of Odisha in east India was built 12 years ago by the government to rehabilitate homeless people, beggars and lepers living in the town, some of whom migrated from rural areas to this slum in search of employment.

Life has not been easy here because of the discrimination and exclusion the tribal and Dalit people faced from the mainstream community. They were not invited to any community events, and because they were unable to find work, they resorted to begging and ragpicking for their livelihood.

Alcoholism, family fights and quarrels in the neighborhood are common problems that stem from unemployment. Parents beg and send their children to work as domestic helpers, ragpickers and waiters at roadside tea stalls and hotels, because begging alone does not bring in enough income to support the family.

Hiralal is a sponsored child living in Odisha.

His father picked iron scraps and plastic from the garbage dump. Hiralal’s mother was a beggar. Together they made about 25 rupees a day (about 46 cents in U.S. dollars), not enough to feed everyone in the family.

They ate mandia pej (water rice) for breakfast, and the little left over was eaten during dinner. Some days each family member had to go to bed on an empty stomach. Hiralal’s mother shares,

“I thought of doing something to support my husband, but with no work available, and my children frequently falling sick, I had to resort to begging.”

After Hiralal’s father died of a liver infection, the family’s financial condition worsened. His mother found it difficult to fend for her children and was troubled by not having money to enroll them in school.

Hiralal and his older brother used to go ragpicking three days a week, and on other days they accompanied their mother begging.

A local church partner reached out to enroll 22 children from this beggar colony in the Child Sponsorship [3] Program to save them from ragpicking and give them a better future.

These children did not have any social life, and they suffered from low self-esteem because of the work they had been involved in.

It wasn’t easy for the staff at the child development center to minister to these children. Initially, these children used to go ragpicking and begging after center hours. They even missed school to go pick rags from the garbage dump. The school principal often complained to our staff about the children’s irregular attendance.

It was also difficult to motivate the families to give up begging, because they had been in that type of work for many years. Choosing a new vocation meant taking a risk that many were reluctant to take. So we organized a parents’ meeting to inspire and motivate the parents to leave begging.

We conduct monthly meetings for parents to address various issues like caste feelings, proper parenting, good health practices, hygiene, and maintaining peace at home. We also educate parents about the need to encourage their children because it fosters their development.

Through these meetings, we have been gradually able to instill belief in the parents that God has a plan for their children’s future. Apart from this, we provided special counseling to parents during home visits.

We have conducted an income-generation program teaching these parents skills for weaving leaf plates, making spices, making pickles, tailoring, vegetable vending and starting small-scale businesses to motivate them to abandon begging and ragpicking and choose a profession that will allow them to live with respect and dignity.

Many parents have stopped begging and have started new vocations.

Hiralal’s mother tells us,

“At the income-generation training, I learned how to manage a minor business. A few months later, when my son got a small gift from his sponsor, I consulted the center staff and used that money to start a small business of selling ginger, garlic, onion and chili in the weekly market, which fetches me 800 rupees [approximately $15] a month.

Now I am able to take care of my children better than before, so I have stopped begging.”

Hiralal is also grateful for his sponsor’s support, which has allowed him to study in a quality school with children from well-off families. He is able to enjoy free health check-ups, good nutritious food, new clothes, new shoes and free school supplies.

He is learning about God and other things, and he now has a dream for himself.

He takes an active part in all the center activities, is regular in Sunday school and Saturday fellowship, and loves to create artwork.

“I want to become a doctor when I grow up because I want to help the poor who cannot afford treatment.”

Hiralal has significantly improved in his studies because of the special nurturing and guidance he gets from tutors in the program. He is the first-generation learner in his family, and it makes his mother proud today.

“When my husband died, a world of problems seemed to tumble down on me like a mountain, but I am truly grateful to the Compassion project and the staff because I have found hope for my children and I am living with that hope till the day they grow up.”