Touching moments with children, hopeful view of AIDS impact as BVU's India trip draws to close

Friday, January 27, 2012

A small band of Buena Vista University students and professors set out to do something for the world in their own small way during their Interim break, so they ambitiously named their journey "Change the World."

It might be more accurate to say that the world is changing them, or at least their outlook and level of understanding. The students traveled to India to work in schools for the disabled and to visit locations including a hospital for victims of AIDS.

On Friday, their last full day in Viskahapatnam, teachers at the school where the students have been working traveled with some of the local teachers to a rural area to tour another school for children with disabilities. "The road trip was quite the adventure and we can all officially say 'we have gotten lost in India.' We stopped a few times to ask directions but it was hard to understand what was happending as most all were talking in Telegu, the local language. We finally arrived on the school grounds after following a couple of guys on a motorcycle," reported student Rochelle Niehues in a blog back to Storm Lake.

"Once we got to the school we were welcomed by the staff and Sister Beatrice, and all of the group were given flowers. The school serves children up to the 9th class basic skills and provides other therapies. One hundred and forty children live at the school full time and sixty come just for the school day.

"The school serves children from village and tribal areas and has unique challenges due to the population. Emmanuel means 'God with us' and the school was founded by a Christian organization originating from Germany," she wrote. "The school is on approximately 11 acres and being in a rural area it was very quiet. The view out there is hills and palm trees which is very different from the city. The school has a large garden area where they grow many of their own vegetables."

The students were provided with an "amazing" Indian meal, served with ever-present rice. They were invited to visit a nursing hospital for women and children affected by HIV/AIDS. "They have outreach workers that go to the tribal areas, do testing, and work to prevent parent to child transmission. So far, 495 babies have been delivered that are not HIV positive. They are making great strides in this area, along with prevention work including education and assistance from a social worker and counselor. Visiting these facilities and hearing about their successful work was very encouraging," Rochelle said.

Kate Stange noted that the students relished the opportunities they were given to participate in several holiday festivities, and while they worked hard to help the children, the leaders of the school were equally kind to them, "including us in several rituals and treating us as guests of honor."

Pongal is a very large, three day festival that consists of various activities all celebrating the harvest.

"Of the four big events that we experienced the first event was most colorful. The members of the school drew elaborate patterns on the ground with chalk, and each student or professor split up and helped fill them in with water and several colored salts. Everyone was in high spririts and we enjoyed the extra time with the teachers and other staff members. These designs commonly appear in homes throughout the festival, and we saw them all over the city," she said.

The next event was the inauguration of a meditation room in the school. The professors lit a special lamp during the ceremony complete with the cutting of a garland. BVU trip leader Professor Ludy broke open a coconut on a rock on the first try and offered it in thanksgiving to one of the Hindu Gods. "We were all very honored that we were asked to participate," Kate wrote in her blog.

The third event was a ceremony that consisted of each member of the group blessing children. "We were each given a handful of flowers and then placed these on the heads of the children. It was amazing that the parents felt honored to have us bless their children when they had just met us. After this we participated in a dance with several girls wearing beautiful sarees. They twirled around and many of them shimmered in the night. It was truly breathtaking."

The final event was a series of traditional Indian folk dances performed by the staff of the school. The BVU group knew they couldn't match such an intricate performance, but wanted to participate with the cultural exchange, so they offered up what they could on the spur of the moment, performing an American Square Dance, singing the BVU School Song, and then singing the Indian National Anthem, which they had learned and practiced on the roof of the school in the evenings.

"The entire crowd stood and joined in on the anthem and it was a wonderful shared experience," Kate said. "We have definitely been fortunate to have the wonderful experiences at Lebenshilfe School, and we will miss all of our new friends!"

Reluctantly leaving the school where they have worked, and the disabled students who have amazed the BVU group with what they have been able to achieve through joy and self-discipline, the group has embarked on the final stage of their trip, touring to various areas to gain a wider understanding of mystical India and her history and culture.

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