In lieu of presents, a Rotary member celebrated by helping to build a learning center and day care in India.
Sixty cents and two drops on the tongue.
That’s how much Lynn Freshman learned it takes to save a child from getting polio. In developed nations, the disease is long gone. In mountainous northern India, kids in remote communities like Ghaseda have little access to immunizations, regular health care or, in many cases, the pocket change needed to buy a dose.
“It’s just very mind boggling, when we think of 60 cents being nothing to us. It’s a candy bar,” says Lynn, “to think that that same 60 cents could save a person’s life.”
Lynn was recently in Ghaseda, personally giving more than 200 children the vaccine as a Rotary International volunteer for National Polio Immunization Day in India. She envisioned an orderly line of villagers, shuffling into a medical center or rented office. Instead, in crowded streets, she gave the drops to kids from vials she kept in a cooler.
“It was definitely on-the-job training,” says Lynn, of Perinton.
Together, her Rotary team immunized thousands of kids in a few hours. One child her fellow volunteers met was thought to have polio and had been confined to a household chair for most of his 14 years. His family carried him to the street to go to the bathroom. The Rotary team arranged for a doctor’s exam.
He did not have polio, but likely muscular dystrophy. The team was so moved, they pitched in to buy the boy a wheelchair and commode so he could have mobility and privacy. When they delivered them, the boy got in the chair and was immediately rolled away by his friends to see his village for the very first time.
Lynn keeps a photo of the boy’s empty chair — a symbol of how such simple actions can be life-changing. She experienced it often in India as a volunteer, providing the vaccines and helping to open community centers, and seeing what the Indians generously gave back.
Lynn spent two weeks in February with a 54-person-strong group of Rotarians and their friends and families from seven countries. The mission was to take part in the immunization day and then spend a week turning two abandoned buildings into a day-care center and a technology training center in the small village of Chahalka. Volunteers paid their own way to India, about $3,000. She chose it as her birthday and Christmas presents.
“Now that I’m in my fifties, I don’t need more material things. I’d rather do something for my birthday that’s a little more meaningful,” says Lynn, who belongs to the Rotary Club of Pittsford. She’s a past president of the club and is an incoming assistant governor for the Rotary District 7120.
Transforming the buildings and opening and running the technology center in Chahalka cost about $50,000, says Lynn. Pittsford Rotary donated $1,000. One other person from the region was on the trip — Linda Werts, of Newark.
The team’s polio mission is fitting. One of Rotary International’s top goals is to eradicate polio. The volunteers kicked off the event with a rally with students from a nearby Rotary school. Together they paraded through the streets carrying banners and shouting reminders to get vaccinated. Lynn knows someone else would have helped the kids if she was not there, but knowing she made a difference was amazing.
“Without those two little drops, this child may get this terrible, crippling disease, and now they won’t,” she says, looking through her photographs of her smiling, surrounded by a handful of kids hamming it up for the camera.
In Chahalka, the 500 Muslim families live just far enough away from the big city of Delhi that residents receive few government services. Many homes are made of straw and families often rely on water buffalo, and dried dung for heating fuel and building material. Women carry water, food and other supplies on their heads in large earthern pots, with a little cushion called an indi to comfort the load. Village men often don’t have skills to get better-paying technology jobs outside town. Many of the men have had some education so they feel labor jobs are menial, but don’t have enough education to get better-paying jobs.
The buildings Lynn’s team rehabilitated were empty shells that looked a bit like concrete garages. “Barren,” says Lynn.
Volunteers painted a mural with fish, giraffes, whales and turtles to fancy up the day-care walls and prepped the areas for new use. Outside, they set up a human assembly line to pass bricks from stack to entrance to make a brick wall and courtyard.
They will greet mothers bringing children and vocational students and make the building “look important,” says Lynn, “and so people could feel proud to go there.”
The mission of the day care is to provide women with a place to care for their children so they can learn money-making skills.
At first, the villagers seemed shy, Lynn said, but they always drew a small of crowd, who watched them work. In time, some villagers joined in the brick line.
With bricks left over, the Rotary team built a watering trough outside the village in the hopes that fewer water buffalo will wander into close quarters with people while searching for a drink. They also built steps at the well and a trench from the well so waste water is carried off and doesn’t stagnate. It should be cleaner and deter mosquitoes.
Chahalka residents and the Rotary team celebrated their handiwork and the new centers in a ceremony on the last day. Village elders gave the volunteer men turbans.
“It’s a big honor,” says Lynn of the gift.
She and the other women were presented with colorful dyed scarves, crafted by the Chahalka women. As Muslim women, the females always keep their heads covered.
After Lynn’s team left, the Delhi West Rotary club took over the day care and tech center, providing generators, instructors and equipment. It’s now open. There are already 60 students.
Most of the time was spent working, but Lynn, a music teacher, was able to teach school children to sing “You are My Sunshine” using her portable, rolled-up keyboard.
“It was a neat little experience for me to use my occupational skills over there,” she says. It’s a highlight she wants to repeat if she returns to India. “I’d like to have more interaction” with villagers and get to know them, she said.
Lynn felt overwhelmed at times in a land known for it’s overcrowding, desperate poverty and chaos. But Chahalka was small enough to get to know the villagers, she says, and makes her inspired to return.
“They might have been poor but everyone had their routine,” she says. People seemed to have the basics and to be happy even without the frills.
During one work day, a woman invited a group of the volunteers to her house for hot milk and sugar, using a good portion of her family’s supplies. And, when a volunteer said she wanted to buy an indi as a souvenir, a woman gave her her own yellow cushion, with ornate red tassels — her best — and refused money.
“It showed me that the material things must not be that important to them,” says Lynn. It means more to us. “It’s hard when you’re brought up with material things and wanting material things. It’s hard to break that cycle ... It does get you thinking. Do you really need all that stuff?”
Kris Dreessen can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or at email@example.com.