Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not so quick update

Happy holidays everyone! I am going to try to do a quick update to shed some light on my experience here at Anandwan Forest of Joy.  I am here with a group of people doing a seva retreat, which combines meditation with service or volunteer work. Anandwan is a community that houses people that have or have lived with and been disabled by leprosy, are orphaned, or have other disabilities such as being blind, deaf, or other physical disablements. It was started by a man named Baba Amte who was a strong supporter of Gandhi and believed that people deserve a chance not charity. All folks that live in the community are provided housing, food and basic staples plus a stipend for the work that they complete. Nobody is turned away. They just have to agree to non violence, no drugs and alcohol, and having a maximum of one child each unless they already had more children when they arrived (otherwise they would not be able to manage the growth in the community). In the 70's they were 100% self sustainable except for salt and oil but they have grown so big that they are now able to maintain being over 50% sustainable.

People are trained and work in agriculture, electricity, water maintenance, woodworking, bike shops, shoe shops, the hospital, kitchens, schools for deaf and blind children, day care, craft shops such as weaving, card and paper making, printing, to name a few. They even have an orchestra with people with multiple disabilities that play instruments, dance and sing. It was amazing to watch a man dance beautifully only to learn that he is deaf and mute and uses a four count rhythm to perform, or to see a man scoot himself on stage without any legs and sing a beautiful ballad.

The work ethic is so strong here that it is not uncommon to see a massive wound dressed and covered in the AM and within a hour see this same person working in the fields barefooted. Younger elderly woman missing digits and toes are taking care of older elderly women. A women bent over unable to fully straighten can be seen sweeping the street.  

While we were here there was an eye camp going on where volunteer doctors came and screened 15,000 clients and then performed 1,800 cataract surgeries on the most needy within a week. Volunteers that came over 10 years ago noted a need for tendon release surgeries for a common disfigurement of patients with leprosy so they fund and provide volunteers once a year to come and perform the surgeries and complete the hand rehabilitation for 2 weeks after.

Because of the social stigma leprosy has, Baba Amte was unable to get a doctor that would be willing to work with the patients here so his family members trained as physicians to be able to provide the care. Their family is now in the 4th generation of building the Anandwan community. Although less common, leprosy still exists and people with leprosy are still socially out casted, but here, what we witness is a lot of love and pride within their community and a growing acceptance from the surrounding communities.

It is really easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of suffering observed here, people missing arms, legs, fingers, having gaping chronic wounds, seeing elderly men and women unable to fully care for themselves some of which smell of urine, spending most of their time in bed with ants and flies surrounding them. Their menial belongings such as a comb, empty containers, a small amount of hair cream, a plate and cup, and a few items of clothing kept in a single cardboard box by their beds, a young woman of 22 severely disabled by arthritis dependent in her care lying in bed in the nursing home because there is no place else that is able to care for her better, a young 16 year old boy that is in the hospital because he needed an additional amputation because his leprosy was very advanced by the time he reached Anandwan and has been living in the main hospital building for several months… etc etc…

It is also really easy to feel inept at making a meaningful impact in a small amount of time of being here which really challenges one to think about what is being helpful…. Is it funding a surgical program, returning every year for 8 years with a group of willing people to provide temporary service, working 15+hour days completing 1,800 eye surgeries in a week?  Can it be massaging an elderly persons arms and legs and putting coconut oil in their hair, taking someone out in a wheelchair that hasn't gotten out of bed in over 5 months, or the simple act of smiling and bowing with respect with love and acceptance as you pass a new acquaintance in the street? The answer really lies within us. I am finding comfort in the poem adapted by mother Teresa that states;
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

So I do what calls me, recognize that I am receiving way more gifts than I am giving, and stay present with the joy and love and aversion and discomforts of being here.

After an extensive tour, we chose the volunteer work that we wanted to do. People are encouraged to reach out wherever they feel drawn. So some people are helping to dress wounds, some people are volunteering in the tailoring or woodworking shop, others work with elders or with the deaf and blind youth after school hours. I have decided to provide massage and care in the nursing home in the AM and then to visit with Sandeep (the young boy in the hospital), Jyoti (the young women in the nursing home), and Neesha, a young girl with severe developmental and physical delays in the afternoons.

A funny lesson in pity…. My friend Dave is assisting with wound care and he is witnessing feet turned over on themselves, gruesome wounds, missing limbs and digits and while he was working with one person with multiple disfigurements they asked him if he was married (a VERY commonly asked question here), when Dave indicated no, he said the person acquired a look of pure sorrow and indicated how sorry they were for him! So who is feeling sorry for who here!!!!! Good to have a little perspective!

This is already 2 pages long and I feel like I have not done this place justice. But I did want to follow up on what I mentioned about donations to say that I do believe that the place is run incredibly efficiently and that well needed donations would be used efficiently for direct services.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season! I miss you all and am sending so much love your way!!!!!! Big hugs! Jen


  1. This is an amazing post, Jen. You are an inspiration to us all.


  2. What a beautiful soul and inspiration you are to me. Thank you, Thank you for inviting me to witness your journey from afar! It helps me to slow down, reflect and appreciate people like you that give so selflessly. You keep shining brightly and lite the way!
    Safe travels Jen.

    Melissa Shanahan

  3. I am so proud of you! keep up the good work!

  4. Hard to know what to say except what a wonderful gift you are both giving and receiving. And as someone else said, you shine brightly and light the way; thank you. Larry