Spotlight on Sponsors
Vinoth Seetharaman is a tall, sturdy teenager from a small village on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai, in South India. He has completed primary and secondary school and is now enrolled in the Shanthimalai Skill Development Program (formerly known as the Professional Training Program).
We first became involved in the school sponsorship program in Tamil Nadu, South India, in 2003. When I discovered there were children awaiting sponsors, my family and I were happy to help. A few weeks after expressing interest, we received a photo in the mail of a small, serious seven-year-old boy named Mohan. "This is your child," the accompanying note said.
This beautiful little boy was not Vinoth, but Vinoth's older brother, Mohan. We began corresponding with him once a year, and through the overly formal letters embellished with sweet, colorful drawings of birds, trees, flowers, and meticulously drawn houses with pointy, triangular roofs, we got to know him a little.
We learned that Mohan lived in the village of Aswanagasuranai, in a house with a thatched roof, with his mother, younger brother, and grandparents. His father, a laborer, "does not care for us," he wrote. They owned no land and no livestock. Theirs was a life of daily subsistence, with no security and little promise for change.
We became endeared of this sweet little boy. With each letter, his handwriting improved, he grew more confident of his English, and he relaxed enough to comment from his own unique perspective on the letters and photos we sent him. Our lives could not have been more different. From our home in Maine, we shared with him photos of snowy fields, the Atlantic Ocean, and all of us. He wrote to us about wild boars that sometimes destroyed the crops, the extreme heat that made him want to bathe three times a day and sleep under the sky, and his love of cricket. We also learned that he was being treated for a neurological problem, and that there was some concern about his health.
In 2007, when Mohan was 11, I received a phone call from Anne Janeway, the program coordinator at that time. She shared the tragic news that Mohan had drowned while swimming in a pond near his house. His family was devastated; we were shocked and heartbroken.
Soon after, Anne reached out again to ask us if we would consider sponsoring Mohan's younger brother, Vinoth. We said yes without hesitation. It felt like a sacred gift to be able to help the family in some small way as they grieved.
Vinoth was just a little boy who, with his family, was suffering. His first letters were polite and formal, but he always said something about Mohan. "Sometimes I would think of my brother and weep," he wrote. "I am trying to fill up the blankness of Mohan. My mother and grandparents are everything to me."
Over time, his letters became fuller, and he shared his thoughts, interests, and gratitude with us. He fit right in with my three sons, and every year they all wrote to him (and still do), and he wrote back. He drew beautiful pictures, and embellished his letters with ornate borders. From a wide distance, we shared little stories of our lives with him, sending photos, drawings, and postcards. We encouraged him in his studies, and he kept us up to date on his classes, his family, his struggles, and his hopes. We were amazed, through the photos sent annually through the sponsorship program, to watch him grow from a scrawny boy to a robust, strong young man.
Vinoth, now 18, has graduated from secondary school, and is studying programming in the Skills Development Program.
In January of 2018, I had the great joy of being able to meet Vinoth in person. A small group of sponsors went by rickshaw from Shanthimalai to visit the school and spend time with the children. We westerners stood together in the dry, sandy schoolyard while the students were introduced one by one to their visitors.
I scanned the clump of students, the girls giggling in their braids, pinafores and plaid shirts, the boys upright and serious in their belted khakis and button-downs. Standing in the back, taller than most, was a young man I immediately recognized. My heart swelled with gratitude, joy, and amazement.
When we finally were able to take some time to walk around the school grounds, I found that Vinoth was the kindest, gentlest soul. With great care he showed me his classrooms, introduced me to his friends and teachers, and shared in careful English that his mother and grandparents were well, and that he was thriving in school. We were both a bit shy with one another, and the English was challenging, but the joy of the time together, this remarkable meeting of cultures, was the guiding spirit of our visit.
I cannot say enough about the unique, hope-filled opportunity to sponsor a child in rural South India. Giving just a small annual gift allows a child to come out of a life of poverty that we can barely imagine. It gives children the opportunity to go to school, to eat nourishing meals, to receive medical care, to have the necessary books and clothing, and to dream of and actualize a future of self-sufficiency and security.
The relationships we build along the way show them that they are not forgotten, that they do not have to be subsistence laborers, but can expand their hopes and possibilities with consistent support and with the benefit of having their basic needs met. What a small effort from us for such a huge, life-changing gift, one that ripples out into the entire community. My family and I are all grateful to the Shanthimalai Trust and Aruna Partnership for bringing this program into existence and sustaining it, and with love and dignity elevating a population to reach its great potential.
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