I noticed the picture of the boy on Jorge's fridge one morning after sleeping over at his house. Jorge is an old friend—we met many years ago at Stanford Business School—but I'd never heard him mention this boy. Over breakfast he told me that he sponsors a Puerto Rican child through the Christian Children's Fund.
I said, "Is that for real?" thinking of Sally Struthers's pleas on late-night TV.
He said, "Yeah, it's real!" And so I decided at that moment that I would become a sponsor too...
I chose to sponsor Indian children, Bhaskara and later Harharaj, because I've had a special affinity for India ever since my experience living and working on an ashram there. That Hindu monastery was a beautiful, multicultural, and multigenerational place with a cooperative community and immaculate gardens. It's in the town of Ganeshpuri, which is named for the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles.
I'd left the United States because I was disturbed by the lack of community in our inner cities. I lived on Russian Hill in San Francisco and volunteered in the Tenderloin. After seeing how people live, just barely surviving, I thought, "Why don't they get fifty people together and march up the hill and break into houses?" The worse thing that would happen is that they would go to jail, which would at least give them three square meals a day and a roof over their heads.
So I left on an introspective round-the-world trip, beginning at a kibbutz in Israel and ending at the ashram in India, all in search of a community where people from all around the world collaborate creatively and fairly (like Red Room in a way). I thought of this when I decided to sponsor the boys.
The Christian Children's Fund is awesome in what they do. (I was born and bred Jewish, by the way, and don't feel that this is a missionary organization.) I've been able to really help these boys pursue more in their lives than just subsistence.
Bhaskara and I have written each other letters every month for over ten years. He sent me warm thanks and stories about his studies and his love of cricket. Eventually I also started sponsoring Harsharaj. He'd write to me about the food and sweets his mother was able to buy for his birthday thanks to my support, his progress in school, the mango trees at his grandmother's house. I've sent stories and photographs of my family in the United States and feel proud that we are friends.
But I never thought that I would get the chance to meet the boys face to face. Then, in an amazing coincidence, I joined a company with an office in Bangalore, India, not too far from Mangalore where the children live. Since I was planning a business trip anyways, I contacted CCF and asked, "Hey, can you help me arrange this?" I wanted to meet them after all these years.
We all met in Bangalore—Bhaskara, his brother Krishna, Harsharaj, their mothers, Juliet, a woman from CCF who translates our letters, and myself. CCF also hired a driver named Kenny who spoke excellent English and was a lot of fun; he helped us translate and was a kind-uncle figure for the day.
After exchanging gifts at my hotel—they brought me colorful sandalwood necklaces and I gave them American footballs, volleyballs, and soccer balls, which we kicked around on the lawn-we drove for an hour to Wonder La, an oasis of an amusement park outside the city. None of the children or mothers had ever been to Bangalore before, so they asked to keep the radio off so they could soak in the sights without distraction. We happily devoured pastries in the car until we saw a twenty-story tower with a Ferris wheel on top, way up in the sky.
We had a lot of fun that day playing in the water park area of Wonder La. I loved the water slides, and the kids splashed around like crazy.
The boys were all very charming and well behaved. Bhaskara, the youngest and the one I've sponsored the longest, was such a gracious, sweet boy. Harsharaj was very good looking: athletic and strong-featured. Krishna, Bhaskara's brother, was very attentive to his mother, always checking to make sure she was OK and giving her hugs. I was sad to learn that Krishna had been home ill and would not be returning to school; he had to go to work because his father was also sick and unable to provide for his family. I hoped that my support would help Bhaskara stay in school, and maybe even get the chance to work at a good job in Bangalore.
We all napped a bit on the ride home, and at the hotel we sat down and said our farewells. I gave the boys big good-bye hugs, and then they were off on their long way home.
I wrote about our visit on the plane flight back to the United States, tears pouring down my cheeks, and emailed it to everyone: friends, family, coworkers. If every American reached out, if waves and waves of people helped out kids by spending a couple of hours to write a letter and twenty-five to fifty dollars a month, the world would be a very different place.
I can envision this happening. The world changes with a combination of communication and action. At the end of the day, what motivates people is the Word or the Image. In my case it was the image on the refrigerator and the words of my friend. I wanted to share this story with the Red Room community because this is a place for authors from all over the world to collaborate, to share words and images. I want you to know that this changes the world, that it inspires action, which removes obstacles and can lead to more people living better lives.