In the late monsoon summer of 2008, my wife at the time and I, and our two sons, ages 8 and 10, decided to travel through India. We spent a few days in Chennai visiting with families that lived in the slums, as well as the soup kitchens that serve the widows, elderly and starving poor. From Chennai we drove 2 hours south to an orphanage called Little Flock. Little Flock is a very rural peaceful and quiet sanctuary very different to the 24/7 hustle and bustle, noise of Chennai. Little Flock is an orphanage with several cottages spread across 5 acres. It is currently home to about 50 children, boys and girls from the ages of 5 through 13, who were either abandoned by their families and/or rescued from violent and neglectful homes. Almost all of them from shanty or slum environments.
Globally, approximately, 1 billion children live in poverty, that’s almost 1 in 2 children in the world. India, with a population of approximately 1.2 billion people, has 160 million homeless people, 13 million homeless children and 2 million orphans. If you think that is bad enough, 1 in 3 malnourished children in the world lives in India. 15 million children are bonded laborers while another 270,000 are in prostitution.
The children of Little Flock are brought up in a loving, hopeful and caring environment. Their days consist of prayer, school, homework, chores, and playing. We slept in a cottage which was the home to 8 boys. It was inspiring to see how these 8 unrelated boys were closer than brothers and how selflessly they helped and supported each other in their daily lives.
While our two boys dug holes and planted trees and plants in the 102-degree heat, my wife and I, both healthcare professionals, organized the dispensary and examined the children. She noticed that many were underweight and had signs and symptoms of anemia. This was puzzling because the children had 3-4 home cooked meals a day in addition to chai (tea time) and snacks. They were also getting vitamins and clean water. I was perplexed because I would expect to see these types of symptoms and objective signs in children living in unhealthy slum conditions - not in such a nourishing, healthy and protective environment as Little Flock.
One evening right before sunset, while watching the children running and playing soccer on the dirt soil and hearing the mooing of the pregnant cow who also happened to live on the premise, it finally dawned on me what these children might be suffering from.
Many of these children were infected with hookworm. A worm whose life begins and ends in the intestines of cows, livestock and children. This worm can lay thousands of eggs which are excreted in the stool of these livestock. In the small intestine, the larvae develop into half-inch-long worms, which attach themselves to the intestinal wall where they suck blood and nutrients from their host victim. You might as well call these vampire worms. Losing vital nutrients and minerals through this process causes detrimental effects on the growth and cognitive development of these children.
Analyzing the situation and trying to think of simple preventative measures, I realized that these children have shoes but they hardly ever wear them. Part of the behavior is cultural. The other is just plain economics. These children go to a government public school that provides education, and more importantly a lunch, for children from four surrounding very poor slum villages. The children of these slum villages lack everything you can imagine, clothes, food, access to clean water, sometimes even shelter etc. so it’s not difficult to understand that they would also lack basic shoes. The children without shoes often steal the shoes from the children who have them.
It’s also critical that children’s vitamins contain iron – a mineral that is required for mitigating and treating the affects of iron deficiency due to hookworms. For children that are actively infected, there is a state hospital and clinic about 4 hours away where the infected children can go to get the deworming medication of choice, albendazole. It’s a one dose medication that is taken by mouth. This medicine has been around for years and interestingly enough, costs about $4.00 / Tablet in the US but only 15 Rupees in India (approximately $0.35 US)! We just recently visited the children of Little Flock and are very happy to say that these Children are now flourishing and vibrant.
My family and I left Little Flock and continued our trip through India. We travelled through Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, and Ladakh. During this journey, the two things that remained constant in a country of incredible uncontrollable growth and change – was the heaps of garbage and litter that mainly comprised of used tire rubber and various forms of plastic (mainly plastic water bottles and plastic bags) that littered every tourist spot, every village, every slum, every temple and every road. Why couldn’t we recycle this litter to make much-needed sandals for these children?
Something needed to be done. I remembered a quote from Mother Teresa: When asked how she, one woman, could really make a difference in what seemed like impossible and insurmountable circumstances. She replied that even though she was just a pebble, once thrown into the pond, the ripples of her actions would go on forever. Maybe I could throw a pebble?
Here was an opportunity to not only educate the poor children and their caretakers in orphanages and villages throughout India on easy ways to prevent and treat hookworm infection, but also an opportunity to be economically and environmentally responsible by developing or partnering with indigenous organizations to recycle tire rubber, plastic water bottles and bags into affordable children’s footwear. Additionally, if a sandal could be made in India for sale in the Western Word, for every pair sold, profits could be used to provide multiple pairs, medicines, health education and medical intervention to those children in need. This was an opportunity to create a self-sustaining enterprise. Why not rid the developing world of this litter while helping children to thrive and develop so they can be given a chance to change the world? Join me. Throw a pebble. Welcome to Soles for Children™.