children of my heart

By Michele Singleton as told to Shelly Sanders Greer

As I stand in line at Wal-Mart in Oakville , Ontario , I watch as a lost child is reunited with his mother. The woman’s face betrays a mix of terror, relief and frustration.

“Why did you wander away?” she asks her son in a gruff voice.

The young boy looks frightened and a little nervous at his mother’s reaction.

I don’t even know this woman and her child yet I find tears streaming down my face. I am still raw, still sensitive from my trip to India , during which I helped immunize young children against polio. Amid the poverty and a myriad of social problems, my spirits were buoyed by the incredible sense of family. In India , if a child was missing, the mother would be reassured knowing that somebody in the village would help him.

I look around the store in my comfortable suburban neighbourhood and see all the  things we consume and later often carelessly toss aside. At a government-funded school in India that I visited, sheets of paper were erased after being written on, so they could be used again.

There is so much that we take for granted here in Canada, and yet beyond the material abundance, we still search for meaning and fulfillment in our lives—filling our shelves with self-help books and seeking safety for our kids with laws and locks. Our world is so different from the one I just left. Neither is an ideal place. The flood of emotion catches me totally off guard again and I am relieved to pay for my items and leave the store.

My trip to India  as a volunteer to help prevent polio was just 10 days long. But the people I met, who had nothing yet offered me food, and the incredible sense of purpose I felt there have changed me forever. Material possessions are less important than I once thought: I realize people and relationships are what matter to me.

My journey actually began on Thanksgiving Sunday in 2003. As I sat in choir at Maple Grove United Church in Oakville , Ont., where I live, one of the members of our church, Mary Jane Howie, gave a short talk to the congregation about PolioPlus—an ambitious program aimed at ridding the world of polio by 2005– and an upcoming trip to India arranged by Rotary International. Mary Jane had already been on three trips to Third Worldcountries. “You see thousands of people on the ground who are polio victims,” said Howie. “They scrabble in the dirt, can’t go to school or work. They’re a great hardship for a family.”

What moved me the most was when Mary Jane held up a photo of a child and explained that the oral polio vaccine  meant that “this one will walk.” I thought it would be incredible to have that kind of impact on someone else’s life. I turned to a choir member who was sitting beside me, and said, “I’m going.” My decision was made just like that. As a public health nurse this would be a chance to take my expertise to a Third World country, and it was a short expedition, which meant I didn’t have to give up my job.

The next night, my son Andrew, and daughter Cori, now in their early 20’s, and I gathered in my comfortable bungalow for a Thanksgiving feast with my parents, sisters and their families. “I’m going to India in the spring to immunize children,” I announced over turkey. Everyone looked at me like I had six heads. I’m known for being adventurous (I took up skiing and in-line skating when I was 40),  but this was extreme. My parents expressed their concern about my safety, while my son asked why I would volunteer my own money and vacation time to do this. I talked to him about the privileged lives our family has and the opportunities we take for granted. “It’s really easy for me to look at volunteering this way because I have received so much support along  my own life journey,” I explained.

Ten years ago, when I was in my early 40s,  I went through a painful divorce, and needed a lot of support from family and friends. When I emerged from my self-pity, I realized that for a long time I had tried to be someone I wasn’t. It was time for me to choose how to live my life. I realized I have a need to give back to the world.

In my job I’ve had the opportunity to work with people who are dealing with substance abuse, mental health issues, poverty, family violence and great personal loss. Hearing their experiences really changed my outlook on the world and my relationships. And now, I was making the decision to go to India because it felt right and I could do it.

My family, including my son, who was still a bit skeptical, was supportive. But I had just five months to be properly immunized for the trip and figure out where I was going to come up with the $4,500 it would cost to go overseas. As it turned out, I had to drastically change my spending habits. After months of scrimping, I was able to raise the money to be part of the 10-person group from our church which left in February 2004. We were part of an 85-person team that included 70 Canadians. In turn, our team joined  100,000 volunteers made up mostly of people from India as well as teams from other parts of the world like ours.

We reached Lucknow, a city of three million people in the state of Uttar Pradesh, after hours of travelling. The roads leading from the airport were paved, but I could hardly see them for all the traffic, people and animals. There were no stop signs, painted lines, or traffic lights. And it incredibly noisy because horns blared every time a driver raced past another car. I fully expected to see my life pass before my eyes.

The Taj Residency, an elegant hotel, protected us from the many mosquitoes and thieves, and provided food that was safe to eat. We would need this security and nourishment to work all day in the heat.  Right beside the hotel was a field with wild pigs and people living in tents and huts. I would continue to see this striking contrast of rich and poor living side by side throughout my stay.

Uttar Pradesh is the largest state in India and one of the poorest.  It was our destination because of the rise in polio cases here, due, we’re told, to the pervasive myth among some groups that the vaccine causes sterility, a major concern in a culture that relies on children to provide for their elders. In 2003 Uttar Pradesh accounted for almost 70 percent of polio cases worldwide. An outbreak in 2002 had infected 1,600 children, up from 268 the year before, putting millions more at risk of paralysis. Over the next week, there would be 94,588 polio booths or clinics set up in Uttar Pradesh to help reach the goal of immunizing 32 million children over six days.

Our destination was a private school in a slum area that had been converted into a polio clinic. Our driver got lost so I had a tour along narrow dirt roads where I saw tiny children as young as 18 months old standing alone and barefoot. They wore faded clothing that still hinted of the bright colour it once was. There were ditches where sewage collected, piles of garbage and old rickshaws. Hawkers and beggars of all ages swarmed traffic. Goats, pigs and dogs were wandering the narrow, crowded streets, and cows were roaming and eating out of garbage cans. I had expected to enjoy the smell of curry, but instead I found the odour of animals overwhelming.

The begging children were quite persistent and had an unforgettable look of despair in their eyes. I could see several who were victims of polio, with their paralysed limbs. I knew there would be clinics in this area, too, and I hoped these desperate children would have access to them. It was dry, dusty and hot. I already felt grimy and thirsty, but I didn’t want to drink too much water because there were few toilets outside of our hotel.

When we finally arrived at the school, we sat in a courtyard with three female  health-care workers from India , putting drops of the polio vaccine into the children’s mouths, marking baby fingers to show they had been immunized and handing out stickers to thank them for coming. We took turns, working as a team, but since white people are rarely seen, we were the main attraction.  I felt uncomfortable at first, with people staring at us, but soon got used to it.

The children, who came in groups with older siblings or a parent, were petite and beautiful, dressed in their best outfits. Their clothes were old, with broken zippers and missing buttons, but they were spotless. I was moved by how proud parents were of their children and how patient older siblings were with their younger brothers and sisters. As I held tiny babies after giving out drops, I felt the wonder of life and love in my arms; the vulnerability of these children but at the same time their incredible resilience. I wanted to talk to some of the older children, to know their names, but language was a barrier.

One little boy in particular really stole my heart. He was about nine, with straight black hair that flopped into his eyes. He was wearing a man’s white dress shirt buttoned right up to his neck and long pants. There was a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. One  Indian women told him to bring back five kids to be immunized. He ran away and brought back many kids, including babies. Children such as him were instrumental in getting others immunized as they had not heard of the sterilization myth. “This brings me back to an era we grew up in–one of trust,” remarked Mary Jane.  Indeed, siblings at age six are responsible for babies. They’ll go into a house, grab a baby and say “polio,” and take the baby to a clinic such as ours.

As we drove back to the hotel in the late afternoon, I listened to the music of India—the endless crescendo of car horns—and thought about all I had seen in just that one day. I was tired, thirsty and overwhelmed by the contrast between the beauty of the country, with its clear blue sky and lush green land, and the poverty of the tent city I saw, which lay under a dark haze of pollution.   I thought about the contentment of the children who were warm and accepting, and the horrible conditions in which many of them lived.

When we ventured further afield to bring the vaccine door-to-door in rural villages, the smell of human and animal waste hung heavy in the air. We could tell which homes had children in need of the vaccine by the chalk markings on the doors. To be effective, the vaccine needs to be given three times, and these markings showed if this was done, how many more doses were needed, or if the children in the family had never received it.

In a one-room thatched-roof house, an elderly woman held a baby boy. Morar Murray-Hayes, the minister from my church, tried to persuade her to have him immunized. A man stepped forward and in his limited English, said, “90 percent coverage, this village.” It was obvious he did not think this baby needed the vaccine. Morar pulled out a photo of her daughter and made a cradle with her arms to indicate this was her baby. “My baby, vaccine, no polio, big,” Morar said. “ Canada 100 percent coverage.” The man could not be persuaded though, and we left hoping the village leaders would speak to the family. Another health-care team would be by next week to try again.

I felt frustrated by our failure in instances such as that one.  I thought about how mothers here watch their children die of curable diseases, how the health-care centre had no electricity and like a place you’d take your car to. Health records were handwritten on foolscap and the equipment was antiquated. I saw teenaged girls, who already had three kids, dying of anemia. I reminded myself that I couldn’t single handedly overhaul the  system, but I was helping hundreds of children grow up strong, able to walk. I knew this was where I should be.

At a final meeting held for the local community just before we left to come home, the results of our polio blitz were announced. More than 35 million people were immunized against polio over six days–  more than the entire population of Canada . I was thrilled and felt proud to be part of such an initiative. It also made me think about how each one of us was a small yet critical part of this large effort.

I realize now there’s not too much I can’t make happen. And we have so many opportunities to pursue our dreams. This experience has also helped me become more aware of the people I’m with and the surroundings I’m in. I live more in the here and now. I am able to listen better, rather than think about what’s next on my to-do list. And I’ve seen changes in the way I respond to the stresses of everyday living. I often say to co-workers: “Hang on. It will get done. Don’t worry; let’s focus our energy.”

Though India is on track to be rid of polio forever, parts of Africa are on the brink of the largest epidemic in recent history and were the focus of a major PolioPlus campaign in the spring of 2005. I wanted to go but had already booked a work-related trip to a children’s mental health conference in Alberta that overlapped with the Africa campaign dates. It was a hard decision for me to make. I am so fortunate to have choices—to give locally or to give in a developing country—and a balance of the two seems best for me right now. I do hope to be able to go on the next polio mission, but, failing that, I will find a Third World cause that can use my skills and expertise. As I feel myself getting slowly sucked back into my comfortable lifestyle, I want another dose of reality; to be reminded of what really matters to me. I also feel the need and desire to nurture others, as I did when I was a mother of young children. I can’t eradicate diseases such as polio by myself, but I can be part of a larger group that can achieve those greater goals and enrich my own life at the same time.

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PolioPlus: A polio-free world in 2005

Although polio has disappeared from Canada and other First World countries, it is still crippling children in the Third World . While children over age five develop immunity to the polio virus and don’t need vaccination, the world’s infants and toddlers remain painfully vulnerable.

In 1985 Rotary International decided that the elimination of polio should be a priority because the billions spent on vaccines could be put towards other pressing health needs. It raised $247 million US to kick off PolioPlus and, working with the World Health Organization, Unicef and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States , the goal was to get rid of polio by 2005.

By 1996, 150 countries were polio free, including China and Brazil . By the end of 2003, polio had been eliminated from all but six countries, and nearly five million children, who otherwise would have been paralysed, were walking and running.

Strenuous immunization programs are on track to contain polio in the remaining few countries—especially in Nigeria . PolioPlus hopes to celebrate a polio-free world by the end of the year. For more information, check out  www.rotary.org/foundation/polioplus.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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