Saturday 19 January 2019

Rescuing street children from abuse and neglect

Mary Conlon needs your help to return to the children of Kolkata

Sorcha Crowley

Mary Conlon was idly googling something on the internet when an ad for the Hope Foundation in India popped up.

It was looking for volunteers to go to Kolkata, (formerly known as Calcutta) to help give the street children a childhood.

"When I saw the ad, I thought, 'this is me. This is what I want to do'," she said. It changed her life.

The mother-of-two got in touch with Hope and found out she needed to raise ¤2,000 to travel to Kolkata for a week's volunteer work.

Herself and a colleague from the store where she works in Sligo town raised double that amount between them and flew out to the West Bengal city of 4.5 million in 2014.

The first thing that hit her was the heat: "I didn't know what to expect. There was chaos, an awful crowd of people and a lot of heat," she told this newspaper.

The Hope Foundation's main objective is the protection of children who live on the streets and in the slums of Kolkata.

They do a night watch in an ambulance with a doctor and social worker each night and rescue children in danger of abuse, neglect or starvation.

It's incredible to think that in 2018 children are starving on the streets but it's the reality in India.

"There's a lot of neglect and poverty. Neglect is a result of poverty, nothing else," said Mary.

"The slums would shock you, they're really bad. There's no way to describe them, just desperate places," she said.

"Kolkata dump is a sad place because some children have been lost on the dump, searching for anything they can find.

"The last time we were out there the dump was closed for two days because there were children who had died on the dump," she added.

Volunteers are accommodated in the Hope apartments ("fairly basic but you're not going for a holiday") and spend their time in the foundation's protection homes or doing whatever work needs to be done that week.

"The homes are where they look after children. They take them off the streets. Every child is entitled to a childhood. It should never hurt to be a child.

"The children in the homes have a childhood but the children on the streets - they don't have a childhood. It's taken off them completely. The saddest thing was seeing children in the red light district," she said.

However tough it may have been, it didn't put Mary off returning. In fact she was so impressed with the transparency of the donated money she decided to return with another friend in 2016 for three weeks.

"Getting overwhelmed by the poverty wouldn't do anything positive. Within that area where we were staying there were four or five protection homes which we visited every day and interacted with the children there. They love to talk in English," she said.

"They're all beautiful children, gorgeous, fantastic. They're very happy kids. Even the people on the street are so happy, you wouldn't believe it," she said.

Hope are always looking for volunteers to go overseas and help the street children. They're also looking for corporate sponsors and volunteers for fundraising activities.

They also run a programme for secondary school students, ie TY and fifth years to go to Kolkata for a week with Hope.

"There's a lot of good things too. You meet other Irish people out doing the same and you meet people through volunteering which is nice, there's great camaraderie. It's hard to raise that kind of money but seeing the money being used well I find the best thing about it. That and helping these children," she said.

The Hope Foundation's annual Day of Hope takes place on Thursday October 11th.

On Saturday 13th October Mary will be selling specially commissioned Butlers chocolates in Johnston court shopping centre.

She's got to raise another €2,000 to return to Kolkata in October 2019. Don't pass her by.


The Hope Foundation 2017-2018 Achievements:

492 - children supported by Hope's 11 Protection Homes

372 - children rescued from the streets by Hope

82 - street children enrolled in school

9 - children freed from child labour

292 - children under 6 enrolled in Hopes four creches

4,000 - children helped by Hope's Holistic Education Programme

12,874 - patients treated in Hope hospital

433 - trainees in Hope Vocational Training Programmes

137 - Homeless people with mental health issues supported by Hope's care programme

Sligo Champion