Connected Across the Miles
By Naomi and Natalie Boonstra, with Jean Boonstra
In June of this year Naomi and Natalie Boonstra, ages 11 and 13, traveled with their mother, Jean, to the province of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. It was the sisters’ first overseas trip, and their plan was to meet the girl their family has been sponsoring through Asian Aid (see sidebar). Jean Boonstra and her husband, Shawn, have served as volunteer ambassadors for the organization, and this was the family’s opportunity to see the work firsthand. Here is their story, told by Naomi and Natalie.
Naomi: The First Meeting
I sit close to the air-conditioning unit, trying to keep cool and focus on reading my book. But I can’t read—I’m too nervous! Will she like me? I wonder. What will we talk about?
A sharp knock on the wooden door makes me jump. “Mum! Natalie! She’s here!” My mother welcomes a man and a woman and invites them inside. I look past them to see three girls, about my sister’s age, behind them. They’re wearing colorful dresses with glittery gold trim. Their smooth, shiny hair is pulled neatly back from their nervous, smiling faces.
I recognize her right away. I can’t believe that I am actually looking at the girl I’ve heard so much about and seen so many pictures of.
“Hi, Sheela,” I manage to whisper. “I’m Naomi.” Finally I am meeting my sponsor “sister.”
We gather in our little room, and at first it seems as if everyone feels as awkward as I do. I’ve been waiting to meet Sheela for months, and now I’m not sure what I should talk to her about. I sip the juice my mother serves and watch Sheela curiously. She licks her lips and looks at her feet a lot. She seems as nervous as I am. Her friends do most of the talking.
I listen to my sister, Natalie, ask questions as she tries to break the awkward silence, and I think about our trip so far. I’ll let Natalie tell you about it.
Natalie: Rescued Girls
My first thought as I step outside of the airport in Bangalore, India, is one of surprise. I expect it to be hot and humid—even more so than at home in Maryland in the United States—but the air is perfectly cool and refreshing. Driving through Bangalore, I feel as if I’m in a dream.
Through the van window I look at the quiet shops, closed up for the night. I admire the lettering on the shop signs and am amazed by the number of motorcycles on the road, especially in the middle of the night!
I think of Sheela, who is in the same grade as I am—ninth—although I soon learn that in India grades are called standards. We are close to the same age, and I wonder how her life here is different from mine. I am soon shocked to learn what life is like for some girls in India.
We later meet Anita Kanaiya, who has been partnering with Asian Aid, and she tells us about her work rescuing girls. She describes how some girls are forced to work as prostitutes. A few years ago it was mostly girls ages 16-18 who were forced into prostitution or to work. I’m astonished to hear that today the most common age is 12-15. Girls my age. Girls Sheela’s age. Anita describes breaking up prostitution rings and saving the girls. I can’t help admiring her passion and commitment. I aspire to be as brave as she is.
Naomi: The Blind School
We all finish our juice, but the conversation in the room is still awkward. Mr. Jim Rennie, who heads Asian Aid in the United States, and the woman and man—who I have learned are Lalitha and Raj Varma, who run Sunrise Home—suggest Natalie and I take the girls for a walk.
Sheela lives at Sunrise Home, an orphanage about 30 minutes from where we’re staying at the Asian Aid School for the Blind in Bobbili. Natalie and I walk around campus with Sheela and the other girls. The students here are still in class.
About 150 kids live at the school. When we first arrived, they each greeted us the same way: “Hello; how are you? I am fine. What is your name?” They ran the sentences together, practicing their English. I noticed that some of the kids could see a little, and they helped the completely blind ones by nudging them when I was close, even helping them lift their hand to shake mine. The youngest student gave my mother, Natalie, and me some flowers.
Walking around the campus, I talk to Sheela a little. “What do you want to do when you finish school?” I ask.
“Study,” she answers. “I want to be a nurse.” We talk some more, and Sheela’s friends ask us lots of questions about what it is like to live and go to school in the U.S.
Walking back to our room, everyone is a little more comfortable. Maybe tomorrow at church we can talk more.
Natalie: Sabbath in India
We arrive at the church before Sheela does. We’re in the center of Bobbili at the Adventist school—Sheela’s school. Each Sabbath a group worships in the chapel on the top floor. At the door of the chapel I notice a pile of shoes. My mother explains that out of respect we do not wear shoes in church. Naomi kicks hers off quickly and, smiling, walks into church; she doesn’t like wearing shoes, so she is thrilled!
I hear a loud honk and look over the wall. A big yellow bus with the words “Sunrise Home” on the side is parked below. Leaning over, I wave, and about 80 smiling, happy kids wave back.
Sheela finds us, and we sit together in the tiny chapel. It’s hot, and the fans spinning air around the ceiling make little difference. Sheela leads out in the Sabbath school program. Young girls in matching yellow dresses sing, the boys have a skit, and Sheela and several other girls—all in matching dresses—sing two songs. During church Sheela sits between Naomi and me, listening to my mother speak. Even though we aren’t able to say much during the service, it’s an amazing bonding experience. I can hardly believe it’s real!
Naomi: Visiting Sunrise Home
I wake up on Sunday morning with a splitting headache. I can’t eat and don’t want to drink. The heat on Sabbath was too much for me, and all I want to do is go back to bed. But I can’t miss today. We’re spending the whole day at Sunrise Home with Sheela.
I try to forget about my headache by looking at the scenery. On the road in front of us is a herd of goats, a woman walking with a basket on her head, motorcycles, several boys riding bicycles, and a few dogs wandering freely. Several small vehicles—auto-rickshaws—full of people zip past us.
Sheela’s home is in a quiet area outside of Bobbili. It’s surrounded by rich green rice paddies and a peaceful river. That morning all the kids greet us as we drive through the gate. The buildings look new, and we learn that the home was just dedicated last year. Before it was built the kids lived in a small house with no yard in the heart of Bobbili. Sheela leads us down the sidewalk, past the open playing field, and toward her room. She smiles, and I can tell she’s happy to see us.
Lalitha and Raj are there welcoming us. I ask Sheela about them. She smiles brightly, with not a bit of her usual shyness. “Lalitha is like a real mother. She talks to me and listens to me.” She seems happy in her family and home.
I get to see Sheela’s room. She sleeps in the bottom bunk on the right side of a tidy room with five other girls. She and two other older girls help the younger ones. They do their hair for school and help them wash their clothes. Right away the girls offer to do my hair.
Sheela’s cupboard is full of nicely folded dresses and saris. They look colorful all stacked up together. I overhear Lalitha telling my mother that the first thing she does when a child arrives at Sunrise Home is give them a new outfit. She doesn’t want any child to feel like they are poor. The second thing she does is feed them. Lalitha doesn’t believe they should ever feel hungry. She leads them in worship and they memorize Bible verses. Lalitha does seem like a real mother to Sheela and the other kids.
I notice the picture on the back of Sheela’s door. It’s the same picture that I have in my room, and Natalie has in hers—it’s by Nathan Greene and shows Jesus holding a black sheep. I smile while the girls brush my hair, thinking about how we all fall asleep with the same picture next to us.
Everyone is so friendly at Sunrise Home. We play games, run around outside, and have fun. It’s hot today, and I feel as though I’m going to pass out. Someone suggests we go and play in the river. I gladly follow the group, kick off my shoes, and step into the water. It’s warm, almost hot! So much for cooling off.
Natalie: Sheela’s Story
There are about 80 kids living at Sunrise Home: 30 boys and 50 girls. I know they’re orphans, and I feel sad for them, but I notice that they really seem happy together. I want to know Sheela’s story and how she ended up at Sunrise Home.
Lalitha has a thick pink file for each of the kids. On the front of Sheela’s is a picture of her the first day she arrived. She is about 9 years old and looks very skinny with a big belly. Sheela lived in a village in the hill country. Her family was very poor, and they survived by gathering tamarind fruit and trading it for things they needed. If the weather was bad and they couldn’t gather tamarind fruit one week, then they wouldn’t eat. When Sheela was little, her mother died. Her father soon remarried, but her stepmother didn’t want Sheela. She treated her badly and ignored her. An Adventist pastor learned about the situation and suggested Sunrise Home to Sheela’s father. He must have realized he couldn’t care for Sheela properly, and let her go.
Asian Aid is an independent supporting ministry not legally affiliated with but supportive of the spiritual mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and operates in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Founded more than 40 years ago, Asian Aid’s key ministry is child sponsorship. The organization sponsors more than 6,500 children in Adventist schools in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. It also funds five orphanages, including Sunrise Home; a school for those who are blind; and a deaf school operated by the church in India. Recently Asian Aid started Operation Child Rescue and is working with local organizations to rescue children from beggary, prostitution, and child labor in India and Nepal.
For more information, visitwww.asianaid.org.I try to imagine what Sheela’s life would’ve been like if she hadn’t come to Sunrise Home. She wouldn’t be able to read, do algebra, or dream of being a nurse. What if she had been trapped in a life of prostitution? I feel sad to think of this, but incredibly happy that she has a family now. She has brothers and sisters here who love God, who understand her situation and support her. I’m glad that she has a family and that Naomi and I can be a part of it.
Sheela’s story—and my whole experience in India—let me see God’s love through the work of His people. I understand clearly now the love He has for us, and how not even a million miles can separate us from His love.
Naomi: Saying Goodbye
It’s our last evening at Sunrise Home. The turkeys and chickens squawk during evening worship. It’s cool as the sun sets.
We say goodbye to everyone, and Sheela follows us to our vehicle. We hug her for about the tenth time, and then she squeezes our hands. With a wobbly voice she says, “Say hello to my ‘dad’ Shawn. I hope to meet him one day.” I feel so sad when she says that, and I watch my mother wipe tears away.
Sheela isn’t just a picture of a girl far away. She isn’t just the person we write letters to and go shopping for at Christmas. I realize now more than ever that it’s my job as a Christian to help people in her situation, no matter if it’s convenient for me or not.
Sheela really feels like my sister now. I know why I traveled all those hours to India. And I can’t wait to go back!
Naomi is new to middle school and is enjoying changing classrooms. She loves animals and would like to return to India one day to help the children and the stray dogs. Natalie is a first-year student in high school and likes to sing and talk to her friends. Like her sponsor sister, Sheela, she is considering a career in nursing.