David Leskowitz is passionate about Hope Charity, a charity that works to help children recover from polio in India. Polio is still a rampant disease in India that the Rotary End Polio Campaign is working to eradicate. Hope Charity is an organization that is able to help children walk after their recovery from the disease for very low overhead costs. It is also another example of how a small organization can make enormous progress toward change for those who would otherwise be forced to go without.
Love and Water- How did you become involved with Hope Charity?
David Leskowitz- I met Sanjay, the leader of Hope Charity, in 2006. I work for a non-profit in Berkeley that helps Tibetan monks that have been exiled in India. The village we work with is very close to Sanjay’s village. I was so moved by what Sanjay was doing that I wanted to help in any way I could. At that time I was able to raise funds just amongst my family and close friends, and we sent them enough to operate on for a few months. The operating budget for a year is about a $3,000, so it’s not very much. In 2007 my friends and I had one benefit and raised enough to help them again. After that we were only able to give sporadically so without it being a steady stream of income we couldn’t keep the momentum going, and in the last year they haven’t had any funding at all. I was busy volunteering for another organization, and was able to check in with Sanjay because I lived in the same town as him for the last six months. We brainstormed about how to get the charity back up and running.
L&W- Can you talk about the premise of the organization and how it works?
DL- The basic premise is that there is a polio clinic, which is a physio-therapy clinic that works with children who have already had and recovered from polio. The clinic works with the paralysis that has set in to straighten out their legs. They use only one method, which is plaster casts, so it is very low cost. It is usually about a three month procedure and the children come in every week or two to have their plaster stretched a little bit. I witnessed two children at the end of their treatments who were able to walk- it was incredible, and the whole treatment costs only $30.00. The staff is all volunteers, because they want to help, so that’s another reason the cost is so low. They come in from other villages on motor bikes, so another cost is their fuel. It is a 100 kilometer drive there and back. So the only two costs we need to raise money for are the plaster casts and petrol fuel.
L&W- I think it’s important to talk about the fact that polio is still a problematic disease in places like India, because so many people here in the U.S. are not aware of that.
DL- Polio is still quite a rampant disease in India. In the past eight years, India began its End Polio campaign through the Rotary, so they are working to eradicate it, but it’s a very difficult country to be thorough in because everything is so incredibly spread out. People often live in very small clusters throughout giant spreads of land. Hope Charity doesn’t carry out the inoculation process- they just work with children who are past the disease and need to learn to walk again.
L&W- There is a more in-depth interview about this very topic with Mary McManus on the Love and Water blog, who ironically knows you as well. Mary is a polio survivor who works closely with the Rotary’s End Polio Campaign.
DL- Yes, Mary is wonderful and knows all the details about the campaign. Fundraising for Hope Charity is quite simple at this point, as we just send a small amount each month. If anyone wants to donate they can send any amount to Mary McManus, and she will get it to them. Any amount is extremely helpful, as it doesn’t take much to keep this charity going. $100.00 can find three children entirely. We also have larger goals, which is to make a permanent clinic, because as of now we borrow space. It would keep children well beyond the three months of their treatment, which many of them need. So once we’re stable with this, we can plan on making that happen. For now we just want to make sure that we can resume the plaster treatments, which is the most important part of the treatment. For $50.00 a month they could also reinstate the women’s health center they once had that focuses on educating women of the villages about health care so they can take care of themselves and their families better.
L&W- What is the most moving moment you’ve had while observing and learning what Hope Charity does?
DL- Very simply when Deepak, a five year old boy, had his cast removed and he took his first steps, and as he stepped into the dust where the cast had been sawed off his leg he left a footprint of plaster dust. It was extremely moving on many levels. It was kind of sad and indicative of the conditions as well, because he had to have another procedure because there was no follow-up care. Some of the children who are older often have to walk with canes because their bodies can’t manage without the follow-up care. But since Deepak was so young, he has a good prognosis.
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Ten years ago Brian Mullaney decided to help some children in need of plastic surgery with the resources he had available to him. Suddenly, he had created a new model for helping children with cleft lips and palates around the world, called Smile Train, which has now operated successfully on over 500,000 children. His organization now saves lives on a daily basis by offering free surgeries to children who need it. Last year, Megan Mylan shot a documentary about Smile Train’s incredible work in India, called “Smile Pinki,” which won the Academy Award. I spoke with Alexis Thomas, head of Public Relations for Smile Train, to learn more about this truly moving organization.
Love and Water- Tell us how Smile Train came into existence.
Smile Train- Our president, Brian Mullaney, was riding the subway about ten years ago and saw a child with a huge mole on his face. He was working for an ad agency at the time that represented a number of plastic surgeons. He had the idea that maybe he could have one of the plastic surgeons he knew help this child by removing the mole. He knew a number of them donated their time pro bono, so he began facilitating help to some children that way. He eventually partnered with other organizations that helped children who needed surgeries on cleft lips and palates, and went on a Missionary trip to Vietnam as a result. He met a child there- they called him “soccer boy”- who had a cleft lip. Brian got to be good friends with the boy while he was there, but by the time he was getting ready to leave the little boy still had not received his surgery. The Mission could only perform 150 surgeries out of the 600 children who needed them, and the little boy did not make the list. Brian then decided he wanted to create a new model that was able to train local surgeons to perform this kind of surgery, and that’s how Smile Train came about.
L&W- Can you talk about how the process of Smile Train works?
AT- A lot of countries have doctors who aren’t able to perform surgery on a cleft lip or palate because they have either not been educated as part of their medical program, or the country lacks funding to teach them. So Smile Train identifies surgeons worldwide and funds them to give them the training they need to learn this procedure. We do the same for surgeons who aren’t trained in plastic surgery, because the surgery is such a simple procedure that they can learn in no time how to do it, and then we have a bigger team of surgeons to work with. This way, we have doctors working every day of the year performing surgeries for free to children whose families can’t afford to have their cleft lip or palate fixed.
L&W- Can you explain what a cleft lip or palate is?
AT- It’s a medical problem that occurs in pregnancy between the sixth and twelfth weeks of carrying the child. We’re not entirely sure what causes it, and there is a lot of research going on right now to find out more about it, but we believe it is a combination of genetics and malnutrition, among other things, that causes the top lip and/or palate to not fuse together. It’s so problematic for kids in developing countries because they can’t get the nutrition they need- especially when they have a cleft palate- because they can’t form a suction with their mouths. A lot of people think it’s just a cosmetic problem, but it goes much deeper than that. Also, the cosmetic aspect is a problem as well, because kids are ostracized by others, including family members, and many can’t go to school because they can’t function properly.
L&W- You were telling me about the Academy Award-Winning documentary made about Smile Train called “Smile Pinki,” directed by Megan Mylan. I’ve watched it and it’s INCREDIBLY moving! How can others see it?
AT- We give the DVD out for free for educational purposes, so if anyone wants it they can contact me and I’ll send them one.
L&W- That’s fantastic. I’m sure you’ve had many, but what is one of the most moving experiences you’ve had so far with Smile Train?
AT- We recently found out that a soldier in Iraq, LT. Chuck Duggan, was patrolling his area right before Christmas and saw a young child with a cleft lip named Abdullah. He contacted a number of organizations to try to get him help and ended up finding Smile Train. Here is the original email he sent us:
Hello. My name is 2LT CHARLES DUGGAN. I am currently deployed to Baghdad Iraq. I am in command of a line unit here, and I deal with the local Populous on a daily basis. I feel very strongly about what it is that my men and I do here. I really want to make this area stable, and I do my part. In my area of operations there is a child that has a cleft palate. I see many small children that are being raised in poverty, however this one in particular has a problem in addition to living in these austere conditions. If I could improve this one child’s situation, I will feel as though I am succeeding at doing what I came here to do. I was wondering if you can help. I have pictures of the living conditions. He is about 3 years old. I know his father, and can go visit him later on this week. Thank you for your time: LT CHUCK DUGGAN.
We put him in touch with one of our partner doctors in Iraq named Dr. Ahmed Nawres, and the child got surgery two days later. Here is what Lt. Duggan wrote after Abduallah’s surgery:
This is why I came to Iraq….
Abdullah’s father called me just yesterday, and said that there were not enough words in any language to express how happy he is feeling right now. He says that Abdullah gets very excited and jumps up and down when he sees an American Convoy drive by. I’m very happy to do such a simple act, on my part. I plan on visiting Abdullah, and his family in the near future in order to check on his progress, and ensure all is well. I have to thank all of you who strive so hard to do this type of work, including Dr. Nawres. This is a success story that I will cherish for my entire life.
-LT. CHUCK DUGGAN.
It’s such a sweet story coming out of Iraq that touched me. It’s one of my favorites so far.
L&W- That’s one of the most touching stories I’ve heard so far. On that note, is there anything else we should know about Smile Train?
AT- I think the beauty of what Smile Train does is that for such a small amount of money we’re able to help so many children lead better lives. On average, each surgery costs around $250.00. So for that amount of money you know exactly what’s happening. It’s a very tangible reward, because it changes children’s lives.
Jeremiah Caleb went to Northern India for the first time to visit his father’s homeland and came back with the need to make a change. He started the Caleb Hope Foundation with some friends, and in a very short time has made a HUGE impact in the lives of some of the most underprivileged children and young people in this area. I had a chance to talk with Jeremiah about his vision for his incredibly humble and extremely powerful organization.
Love and Water- Tell us how you started the Caleb Hope Foundation.
Jeremiah Caleb- I’m an actor- had no intention of doing this. I had never actually been to India in my life. I’m from Singapore and then England, but my dad was from India. He was from the slums. I was writing a novel based on the life of my dad and I was trying to document it so I went to India for 40 days wearing my father’s clothes.
JC- Yes, literally. I wore a saffron cloth, which is called a Kadi. So I wore that into the slums, and I came in contact with poverty for the first time, to that extreme. And the question I couldn’t get away from was how can a child possibly live like this, in conditions like this? I was literally looking at a skeletal body with skin, living on top of each other. The second question that I had to ask myself was why not me? How come, these are my people, how did I get the life in America, you know, when I could have been here? And the only answer I could come up with is because I have to do something about it. I have a chance to do something about it. So during that trip I visited an orphanage in the slums that was started by my grand-uncle about 30 years ago for the Dalits (pronounced Dahleets). The Dalits are the lowest cast; more than the lowest cast. They’re the people who work in the sewers, in the garbage dumps. And my uncle started pulling these children out of the brothels and the slums and bringing them to this orphanage. So when I met the children who are there now I immediately grew attached to them, and I got to know them a bit. When I came back, you know it takes a long time to process a trip like that, so I sat down with a bunch of actor friends and we decided to go back. So we all went back to visit the kids, and from there we started fundraising and building our organization. Now we’ve come to a place where we’re almost a 501C3, we’re waiting for our last approval, we have 30 children who we’re completely responsible for. They all have sponsors, we write to them, send them updates, and I take the money over and directly interact with the kids. So people know that the money they give to sponsor their child goes directly to that child.
L&W- What is the long-term mission of the foundation?
JC- Our mission is twofold. First, it is really to empower the slum people. Not to take them away but work with them there to educate and train them so they can have the tools to rise up and create better lives for themselves. And secondly, to bring together artists from here to create work in New York and LA inspired by these kids in order to raise more money for them. We have cabarets, we do Rock India, and other shows.
L&W- Where do most of your donations come from?
JC- Ironically, most of the donations come from people in New York City who come to our artist events. We’ve teamed up with be.the.change.uganda for a Halloween party this year, and we do a lot of fundraising that way. A big percentage comes from our sponsors through sponsorship donations, and a lot comes from team members who are going to India. They fundraise individually.
L&W- Can anyone sponsor a child through you at this point?
L&W- What does that entail?
JC- We set them up with a child, and they can pay monthly, quarterly or yearly. They get a profile of the child, and pictures, and they keep in touch through writing letters to the child. But the beauty of it is that the child never knows that they have a sponsor. They think the sponsor is just a friend who wants to get to know them, so even if you end up coming with me on one of our trips, you get to meet the child as a friend, so there is no savior complex.
L&W- How much does it cost to sponsor one child?
JC- $30.00 a month, which is $400.00 a year, and that includes food, clothing, education, medical- everything.
L&W- What is the most moving experience you’ve had so far?
JC- I guess two things. Last year in India we went into a school for the physically handicapped, which was completely falling apart- rats and such. And our team gutted the place, painted a huge mural on the wall…
L&W- There’s a video of that on your website…
JC- Yes, and at the end of it you see physically handicapped children giving speeches about how they never thought they mattered. Because here in America we have a school for the blind, a school for the deaf, a school for every kind of handicap. But there, they just lump them all together and throw them into one room. They’re tossed aside, basically, and often disowned by their families. So here we were building something for them and they were so excited. So that was really touching for me. To see that we could really make such a difference in their lives. And the other thing that has been so moving to me is to see the older kids going off to college. They come from generations of slum people with no education. To hear them talk about their dreams- I can be a teacher, I can be a doctor- is really very moving.
L&W- Where do they go to college?
JC- We try to get them to colleges within their area. Some go to vocational studies, some go to better schools.
L&W- And they’re accepted there?
JC- Yes, because we’ve trained them so much at the school to work hard and they end up fitting in because that have acquired those skills.
L&W- You have a school too?
JC- Yes, it’s called St. James, which is part of the orphanage. And apart from the 100 children who live in th orphanage, there are 500 children who come to the school. It’s part of my grand-uncle’s work. He started it. We also plan to build an orphanage in Koraput in Orrissa, which is a very poor area with no running water. So we plan to build over there in about a year or so.
L&W- Those kids must be an inspiration.
JC- There’s this one kid who has polio, and he has no legs. And he dances just like Michael Jackson, in his upper body. His moves are incredible. And in this village they were trying to get people to give their kids the polio vaccine, and he rode his bike, with his hand-pedal, over to this pole in the middle of the town, climbed up the pole and posted this sign that said, “do you want your kids to end up like me? Wise up- get the polio vaccine.” He’s so inspirational.
L&W- What do you think about the Love and Water concept that “every drop counts?”
JC- Well, this work has changed my life. It has put a whole new perspective on my life, and as you are saying, every drop counts- every single penny counts. Because in India one U.S. dollar is 47 rupies. For one dollar I can feed a family for one whole day. A whole family. So we try to encourage that. Every little bit.
L&W- Is there anything else you want people to know about the foundation?
JC- Every single team member at this point, including myself, are all volunteers. No one gets paid, and we’re looking for other volunteers who know how to edit. We’ve made some videos that we can give to the people there that they can use to talk to the government about creating change. So if we can get them edited, they can really help us do a lot of good.
L&W- I think you’re doing an amazing thing.
JC- It’s exactly what I want to be doing. I’m getting married next year, and we’re having the ceremony here and the reception there. The kids are planning the whole reception.
L&W- Wow! That’s incredible!
JC- We just want them to know that we are here to stay. They are our family. That’s what we want them to feel and understand.
L&W- Well that’s just the most touching thing ever.
JC- Yeah, they’re really excited. And so are we.
Visit the Caleb Hope Foundation here: http://calebhopefoundation.org/
Follow them on Twitter: @calebhope
Join their Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/pages/Caleb-Hope-Foundation/97082547485