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Chester County Press

Making a difference in the lives of girls

08/13/2014 12:12PM ● By Lev

Village girls began attending school for the first time in 2010.

Image titleBy John Chambless

Staff Writer

As she sits on the sofa in her large, comfortable home in Kennett Square, Mary Cairns feels the anguish of people she loves, calling to her from half a world away.

As the U.S. development director for The Pardada Pardadi Educational Society in India, she has lived among families who are among the poorest on earth. And the lowest members of those desperate families are girls.

In her blog, Cairns writes of the tangle of sensations that engulf her during her visits to rural villages where she is the only white woman who has ever visited:

There is a vast scale of conditions for living in dire poverty. The narrow roads, too small for a vehicle, the intense heat of the sun, the animals living in the homes (some just one room, with a buffalo or two), while the children and adults roam barefoot, the dust and smoke in the air, the stench of garbage piles, and the condition of the children – malnourished, in rags or nothing at all, so very dirty – are all witnessed on these visits.”

Every time she returns from India, Cairns feels more distant from her longtime career as an interior decorator. “To see so many people who have nothing, and then come home to hang window treatments in someone's house, and then they call to complain ...” she said, her voice trailing off.

As her children grew up and moved into lives of their own, Cairns felt a calling to help others. There was a 2003 mission trip to Jamaica, then some research into child trafficking. Eventually, she decided that education had to be the key to turning around the lives of endangered children.

She and her then-boyfriend, Mike Mays, Googled “volunteer opportunities for girls schools in India” and got 1.4 million hits.

“I've always been an adventurer,” Cairns said. “Most people would look at me and think I'm crazy. But I've always taken the road less traveled, and have learned a lot about life as a result. Mike said, 'Let's go to India,' and my answer was, 'Sure, I'd love to.'”

She had found out about Pardada Pardadi, which was founded by Sam Singh, a Dupont executive who retired from the company and spent much of his life savings to start a school for girls in one of the poorest places in the world, where he had grown up. Today, the school is an oasis for 1,300 girls from the ages of 4 to 19, regardless of religion or caste. In India, caste determines the course of lives, but since the Hindu and Muslim girls at Pardada Pardadi are all the poorest of the poor, caste has come to mean very little.

For her first five-month trip, Cairns took 150 pounds of school supplies in her luggage, and Mike went over to teach computer skills to the students. They didn't know much of the local languages.

“My father, who was a children's dentist, had just died. I took over all of the leftover toothbrushes from his practice,” Cairns said. For the girls, it was the first toothbrush they had ever seen. Later, combs were given to the youngest students, and for the first time, they were taught to comb their hair. Cairns introduced the idea of daily hygiene, and washing with soap became a mandatory daily activity at the school.

Cairns can cite statistics that make her task seem insurmountable. In the Annupshar region, in Uttar Pradesh, which is three hours from Delhi, there is no medical care. Girls never attended school before 2010. Average family income, for those who are doing well, is about $14 per month. Most homes are one room, most without even a door. Discrimination and violence against girls and women is rampant, with most girls married between the ages of 12 and 16. Girls are not even given a last name at birth, Cairns said, because their families know they will eventually just take their husband's name. Children have no birth dates, so they are assigned one for the sake of record keeping at the school.

Girls are commonly killed because they are seen as a drain on a family's meager finances. If they survive, they eat only after boys are fed. Chronic malnourishment leads to stunted growth and vision problems. Girls are often “married” to brokers, who sell them into prostitution after paying $15 or $20 to the parents.

But in the midst of conditions that seem almost otherworldly in their deprivation, Cairns has clung to the moments of hope.

“Sam is a visionary,” she said of Singh, who spent his life savings and donated 100 acres so the school could be built and funded. He guaranteed every girl a job after graduation. The program has grown to include a rural development program and four separate schools.

“In 2010, Sam was talking to Mike and I about a dairy project. We thought he was crazy,” Cairns said. “We went back in 2012 and there were 1,300 women who are part of village self-help groups where they are receiving health and hygiene education, and doing microbanking, so they're contributing a few rupees a week into a bank. That money can then be borrowed by the women. Today, the organization has $50,000 in U.S. dollars The women are able to borrow, interest-free, instead of going to a money lender who's going to ask for about 100 percent interest that they'd never be able to repay.”

Girls are taught job skills as a means of supporting themselves after they leave the school. But academics – not just a trade – are the key at Pardada Pardadi. The girls can go on to jobs or higher education, but they also learn about self-respect and human rights.

“They all love to show me their clean hands and white teeth,” Cairns said. “I will say, 'Your smile is beautiful' in English, which is what they want to learn. They know that I love them and care about them, and that may be the first compliment they have ever received.”

She has seen the giddy delight when students got a pair of new panties for the first time in their lives. In a photo, one of the few boys at the school beamed as he held up a pair of pink girls' panties that were his very own. In India, pink does not carry the “girls only” stigma.

Followed through the village when she visits the homes of the students, Cairns sees the difference between girls who do not attend school and those who do. In her blog, she laments over Manisha, a girl whose sole purpose in life is caring for her blind, 95-year-old grandmother. They live in one room that is infested with rats at night. “I am left to wonder what will happen to Manisha when her grandmother dies?” Cairns writes. “Will she be 'married' off, sold into the brothel life?”

She describes the place where 8-year-old Pooja was bitten by a venomous snake while sweeping the home, and died. The snake remains at large, because Hindu beliefs prevent killing anything. And Cairns is haunted by the sight of a naked toddler who stumbled into the open sewer that runs through village streets, wailing and covered in sewage. Her instinct was to pick him up, but although she had been inoculated against a wide range of diseases, she could not risk exposing herself to whatever germs coated the child. His mother did eventually come and scoop him out of the muck, Cairns said.

She sees people who have been crippled by polio, although the government believes the disease has been eredicated in India. Typhoid still kills, as do cholera, malaria, and other diseases that are long gone in the developed world.

The other people in the village see the difference that Pardada Pardadi makes in the lives of the girls and their mothers. One of the factors that makes the school welcome is that no one tries to preach. Cairns is a Christian, but the school does not espouse any religious point of view. “They tell me about their gods – there are about 330,000 of them,” Cairns said. “When they ask me, I say, 'My God is Jesus.' And that's usually as far as I go. They don't know what Christianity is, because there are no Christians in the region.”

At the school, the girls get three meals a day. They wear uniforms that are kept clean, and their toothbrushes and hygiene supplies are kept at the school. If a toothbrush was taken home, Cairns said, it could be sold, or used by someone else in the family, or turned into a tool to scrub an engine.

In a region where spitting is commonplace and there are not even rudimentary toilets, keeping clean is impossible. Cairns is working with the students to keep the schoolyard swept free of litter. Although there are very few toilets in the village, other than the ones the school has built, there are toilets and sinks at the school for the students to use.

In 2012, Cairns and Mays raised funds in the United States to build a health center at the school and hired a school nurse. Padada Pardadi is now the only school in the region to provide for the heath needs of their children. Cairns has accompanied several trips to India with doctors, who set up operations in the village, but they have to close the gates when the crowd becomes too large. In June 2013, doctors and nurses saw more than 2,500 patients in six days. Doctors returned in June 2014.

In October, Cairns is going back with a team of eight. She dreams of establishing a medical clinic for women and girls in the village, and she is constantly searching for funds, donations or cooperative ventures with other organizations. She needs $4,000 to inoculate all the students against typhoid, for instance. “We've had girls die from typhoid. It's a $3 vaccine over there,” she said.

The fact that saving a girl's life is so cheap – eight girls can be fed three meals a day for the equivalent of $1 – makes the struggle for funding especially heartbreaking.

Despite rampant corruption, Singh and his small staff refuse to pay the bribes that are a cost of doing business in India. “Last year we went to the health department and asked for vaccinations for our girls,” Cairns said. “They denied us because they wanted a bribe that Sam wasn't willing to pay. So we don't get the vaccinations that the Gates Foundation is actually providing the funding for. It's extremely frustrating.”

Singh also demands that girls not wear veils or head coverings while at school. “He tells them, 'You have nothing to hide,'” Cairns said.

“This is an extremely remote, rural pocket of India,” Cairns said. “There's no reason for anybody to go there. From our perspective, people would say it's just a God-forsaken place. But we have been able to implement huge changes at the school. People there have been extremely warm and hospitable to us, and I feel like I've got 1,300 Indian daughters.”

The success of the school is reflected in recent statistics that 100 percent of the 10th and 12th graders passed the State Board Exam in India. Academic success is wrapped up in pride, nutrition, health care, and a sense that someone cares. Cairns said that students delighted in using her laptop computer during her last visit, but were unable to comprehend how live video could be streaming through the device.

Back at home, Cairns sad, “It's getting harder to be here. In comparison to my Indian friends in the village, I live like a billionaire. It's changed everything I do. I never go to malls anymore. My whole way of living has dramatically shifted. All the stuff we have here – it's pretty appalling.”

Flipping through photos she has taken of beaming girls in their crisp uniforms, Cairns said, “What you see in their eyes is a light. There's a joy that the non-schooled girls don't have. These are the girls who have hope. They're beautiful.”

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