When I was in India last month, I met the boy I sponsor, Sarath. I had been hoping and praying to meet him, and I just happened to be taking a work trip to India.
I was a bit nervous. Don’t tell, but I’m not great with kids. I know I work at Compassion, but I’m a writer–more natural with a keyboard than with real, live people, let alone children who can smell fear. So I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.
The day I visited his village outside Chennai was Pongal, a festival in the state of Tamil Nadu. Along the way, we saw bright sand drawings outside every doorway and cows adorned with flower garlands for the holiday. I had put on my nicest salwar kameez, vainly worrying he would think I was some weird-looking old white lady.
We arrived in Sarath’s neighbhorhood, and I was so happy to see that it was a relatively nice, pleasant place. There was space between the homes, his family had their own bathroom and even a little courtyard to play in and wash dishes.
Sarath was waiting outside. I’d like to say we rushed toward each other and hugged and cried. We didn’t. (I learned on my trip that Indian children don’t seem to be as into hugging as other cultures are.)
We shook hands and he whispered something in my ear. He was very sweet. He was so shy that during the entirety of my visit, he only whispered a couple of short phrases in my ear, so quietly I couldn’t tell if they were in English or Tamil.
We stepped inside and I met his mother, two lovely sisters, aunt, and cousin, who all share the same little room for their home.
On their shelf was a picture of my husband and I. His mother told me that he likes to call us “Mommy” and “Daddy,” even though the project taught him to call us Auntie and Uncle. Sarath tells his mom that even if she dies, he knows he’ll be OK because there’s someone else who cares about him.
Sarath’s mom and aunt inherited their parents’ home, and they proudly showed me their home, the floor all six of them sleep on, where they cook in a tiny side room, and the wall they built to keep out the rain with a family gift we had sent. (Who knew a small family gift could build a wall?)
We asked all the kids what they wanted to do when they were older. Sarath’s adorable little cousin said she wanted to be a doctor, and the family all laughed at her pluck. She’s sponsored too, but her sponsors have never written. She feels bad each time Sarath gets a letter or gift from us. Sarath’s sisters stole my heart. Their eyes were eager and bright, even though they were so shy and quiet.
I gave Sarath his backpack with candy, a shirt, a soccer ball, and frisbee in it, and we began to speak the international language of sports, playing frisbee in the courtyard. We couldn’t share any words, but we’d laugh as one of us would miss it, or as I’d get accidentaly tangled in my Indian shawl.
After several hours of asking questions, playing frisbee, and taking pictures, it was time to go. We walked back through the alleys and gathered a crew of curious young boys and a cow on our way. Before getting on the van, I gave Sarath an awkward little side hug (that I hoped was appropriate for India). He asked me through whispered translation to pray for him every day. He repeated his request several times. Sarath promised he would be praying for us.
Seeing Sarath and hugging him (kind of) and listening to his whispered sentences showed me how real our relationship is. The letters and pictures I send off to a faraway land end up in a real home, propped on a real shelf. The words are read and believed by a young boy who knows that someone cares about him and is secure in that. And that’s what I learned in India.