Shradha Sahani, a 2016 graduate from the University of Maryland was looking to spend her summer volunteering before starting her PhD program. She spent weeks researching different organizations around the world but one name jumped out at her -Vatsalya Gram. The institution’s unique concept of creating families by grouping abandoned children with destitute women, providing housing, food supplies and other necessities to live as a unit piqued her interest. Shradha’s cousin Shaanti accompanied her to Vatsalya Gram where the girls spent two weeks in service or sewa. It was “a life changing experience” for both.
Vatsalya Gram which means a Village of Maternal Love is a sprawling, 50 acre foundation in Vrindavan, two hours from New Delhi. It was started under the Param Shakti Peeth Trust by Sadhvi Ritambhara when she found an abandoned baby on the front steps of the ashram where she was staying. The Gram houses three schools, a hospital for the poor, a prosthetic center and a dairy and vegetable farm. Several families live on its premises. Each family has 5 children, a mother, an aunt and a grandmother all biologically unrelated. The children receive a mother’s love and care while the women find refuge and a purpose in life.
When the Superintendent of Newtown High School, Dr. Eradi learned about Shradha’s experience at Vatsalya Gram and its innovative configuration of families, he was intrigued enough to extend an invitation to Sadhvi Ritambhara or Didi Maa as she is affectionately called, to visit the school. Months later, Reena Sahani, Shradha’s mother picked Didi Maa from the airport and says she was “struck by the love and compassion she radiated.”
Didi Maa met school officials who gave her a tour of the school. When Dr. Eradi asked Didi Maa if she would like the school to raise funds for her foundation, her response was characteristically parental. She told him her countrymen could support her institution financially but she wanted her children to have “what the children here have… exposure, aspirations, confidence and opportunities.” The answer made a powerful impression on school authorities and prompted them to work on a possible collaboration.
Since this wasn’t a regular student program, four teachers from Newtown High School visited Vatsalya Gram in September 2017 to explore the possibility of a long term association. Highly impressed, they decided to institute a program where Newtown High School students would come to Vatsalya Gram and interact with students there.
Several meetings and presentations later, it all fell in place. A remarkable administrator and head of Biology Susan McConnell and Reena accompanied seven children to Vatsalya Gram in April 2018.
The core purpose of the visit was a cultural exchange between Newtown High School and the children of Vatsalyagram, with a targeted project theme – Success is self-defined!
After touching down in New Delhi, a chartered bus took the group to Vatsalya Gram where they were welcomed by the residents with both curiosity and warmth. The seven children were each assigned a family to stay with.
The premises has 3 schools. Samvid is a private English medium CBSE accredited school which was attended by the Vatsalya Gram children, Vishistam – a special needs school and KBRM – a Hindi medium school. The Newtown children attended all three schools, participated in the classes, held discussions, exchanged viewpoints, shared chores, recited mantras, ate vegetarian meals, and bonded like they’d known each other for years.
The impact of this 10 day interface in the Vatsalya Gram children was rewarding: the positive reinforcement and interaction sparked ambition, dreams and goals. Children who were initially hesitant began to verbalize their aspirations and voice their opinions. “Success is self-defined” was clearly being imbibed.
It was an equally transformative experience for the Newtown children. The visit fostered an appreciation of family, nurturing relationships, compassionate love, willingness to do something for others based on non-expectation, and the recognition that one doesn’t have to be born into a family to create a family.
To everyone’s surprise, there was no language barrier and as Didi Maa put it “pyar ki koi bhasha nahi hoti” – love has no language. There was perfect communication even with the resident women who were not all conversant with English.
It was a tearful farewell on both sides when the time came to leave. The children vowed to keep in touch through WhatsApp which they still do.
Three months later, it was a full circle moment for Newtown High School. Didi Maa was welcomed for the second time at the Newtown Municipal Center by school and city officials and members of the community. As a measure of their affection, the seven children and Susan came dressed in saris and salwar suits – her parting gift to them.
In her address, Didi Maa spoke about Vatsalya Gram and her vision for the children. She paralleled the role of a woman to a central pivot, as she is a “lullaby (lorie) for a child and a walking stick for a grandmother.” She urged action instead of fault finding and in a beautiful reference to Shradha and Shaanti, the first two girls to visit Vatsalya Gram: she remarked that “jo cheez Shradha se shuru hui hai, woh shaanti hee layegee” (what is started with faith will always bring peace.)
Highlighting the cross cultural collaboration between Newtown and Vatsalya Gram, she added that this purab aur paschim ka mel (East meeting the West), would be an enriching experience for both sides.
Every one of the 7 children also shared their experiences and it distilled down to one line: “Our lives have changed forever.”