(Hope is the) Mother of Kindness: How KHEL Began
by Saumya Arya Haas, daughter of KHEL’s Founders and a lifetime KHEL Volunteer
(Copyright Saumya Arya Haas 2003)
My father was originally from India and my mother of Indian descent. She grew up on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest in Guyana, South America. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Although we called our mother ‘Ammaji’ (Hindi for mother) I had little direct experience of India until 1981, when we relocated to my father’s hometown in the Himalayan foothills. Dehradun was not the industrious city it is today; rather a sleepy settlement sprawled in the lush shadow of the mountains. Cows napped in the streets, grandly indifferent to passing cars. The nearest international long-distance phone was a six-hour drive. Everything was an adventure.
In the early morning, a milkman would come to our gate, appearing out of the mist with his clanking bucket. Having only seen milk come out of cartons, I was delighted by this, and liked to run out after Ammaji to watch him transfer the milk into our kitchen jug. One day, when he was pouring the milk, a neighborhood urchin was passing by and stopped, watching us with a puzzled look. By this point, we had gotten used to seeing street children scraping for food, stealing what they could, begging for spare change. They were huddled at every corner, clad in torn and dirty clothes, tiny hands held out in entreaty. We would give them a little money and go about our day. They were just another part of our new life in India.
(Girl with milk/Photo: ©Stomya Arya Persaud)
This scrawny little boy paused and asked, “What’s that white stuff?” I was shocked that he had never seen, much less tasted, milk. Wasn’t it one of the basics of childhood? My mother sent me to get a cup from the house, silently poured the fresh, frothy milk and held it out. After a first cautious taste, he downed it in one ravenous gulp, and solemnly handed the tin cup back. We stood in silence, uncertain. Suddenly his grimy face lit with a huge grin, thrilled at having had a simple glass of milk, offered with kindness. After he ran off, my mother took the milk jug inside and cried. I will never forget that child’s smile. The smile that broke our hearts and changed our lives.
(Lalita Arya in front of original school building/Photo: ©Stomya Arya Persaud)
She began with a pint of milk a day. Word of the free milk spread rapidly and soon a horde of hungry children were turning up every morning, looking for something to put in their empty bellies before going off to beg in the streets. Many of them were the children of leprosy patients, people too handicapped to work, shunned by society. All the children were illiterate, filthy and malnourished. Ammaji couldn’t bring herself to turn them away. As our household budget strained under escalating gallons of milk, friends sent money to help. We began to see a difference; the children put on healthy weight and became more alert and active.
My mother realized that feeding kids helped, but it didn’t fix the problem. Hungry children need more than charity, they need change. They need faith that one day they will provide their own meals. They need education.
(Lalita Arya KEHL’s Founder/Photo: ©Stomya Arya Persaud)
Under a shade tree in a slum, she taught children to read. My brother and I would go with and play with them. Sometimes we would have to beg parents to send their kids; but what do you do when you are crippled by leprosy and the income from your child’s begging is all you have? Ammaji began to raise money to support basic needs so the children had ‘free time’ to attend classes. My mother begged from our friends so that the children need not beg from strangers. As need for support grew and donations began to come from around the world, we attained non-profit status, built a school, and KHEL was born.
Nearly thirty years later, KHEL is run by three generations of women in my family, and by the community we serve. When people say you can’t make a difference, it’s because they haven’t tried. We started with a battered tin cup of milk held out in kindness. We started with hope.
(Lalita Arya with early years school staff and kids/Photo: ©Stomya Arya Persaud)
Saumya Arya Haas is the Digital Outreach Manager for Agape Editions, a literary press with a focus on fostering and amplifying marginalized voices, and was an early adopter of social media for interfaith and social justice outreach. She advises KHEL Charities on small grant disbursement in the United States. Saumya lives with some disability due to a Traumatic Brain Injury. Prior to this life-altering injury, she engaged in interfaith/intergroup dialogue and social justice work as Director of Headwaters/Delta Interfaith, advising organizations including The New Orleans Healing Center and Hindu American Seva Communities; this work has taken her everywhere from West Africa to the White House. She writes for diverse publications online and in print media. Saumya has a degree in Religion from Harvard University, and is a priestess of both Hinduism and Vodou.