It was in 1987, the first time I visited India, that I heard about KHEL. Dr. Arya, my meditation teacher, and his wife, Lalita Arya, known to many as Ammaji, introduced me to Mr. Chatterjee, who was the manager of a charity that served children of disadvantaged lepers in the area around Dehradun, India. Here’s the heart touching story of how the charity got started, in the words of Saumya Arya Haas, one of Dr. and Mrs. Arya’s daughters:
My father was originally from India and my mother of Indian descent. She grew up on the edge of the Amazonian Rainforest in Guyana, South America. I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Although we called our mom “Ammaji” (Hindi for mother), I had little direct experience with India until 1981, when we relocated to my father’s hometown in the Himalayan foothills. Dehradun was not the industrious city it is today; rather a sleepy settlement sprawled in the lush shadow of the mountains. Cows napped in the streets, grandly indifferent to passing cars, and the electricity was surprising only when it worked. The nearest international long-distance phone was a six-hour drive. Everything was an adventure.
In the early morning, a milkman would come to our gate, appearing out of the mist with his clanking bucket. Having only seen milk come out of cartons, I was delighted by this, and liked to run out after Ammaji to watch him transfer the milk into our kitchen jug. One day, when he was pouring the milk, a neighborhood urchin was passing by and stopped, watching us with a puzzled look. By this point, we had gotten used to seeing street children, scraping for food, stealing what they could, begging for spare change. They were huddled at every corner, clad in torn and dirty clothes, tiny hands held out in entreaty. We would give them a little money and go about our day. They were just another part of our new life in India.
This scrawny little boy paused and asked, “What’s that white stuff?” I was shocked that he had never seen, much less tasted, milk. Wasn’t it one of the basics of childhood? My mother sent me to get a cup from the house, silently poured the fresh, frothy milk and held it out. After a first cautious taste, he downed it in one ravenous gulp, and solemnly handed the tin cup back. We stood in silence, uncertain. Suddenly his grimy face lit with a huge grin, bright as a kid at Christmas, thrilled at having had a simple glass of milk, offered with kindness. After he ran off, my mother took the milk jug inside and cried. I will never forget that child’s smile. The smile that broke our hearts and changed our lives.
She began with a pint of milk a day. Word of the free milk spread rapidly and soon a horde of hungry children were turning up every morning, looking for something to put in their empty bellies before going off to beg in the streets. Many of them were the children of leprosy patients, people too handicapped to work, shunned by society. All the children were illiterate, filthy and malnourished. Ammaji couldn’t bring herself to turn them away. As our household budget strained under escalating gallons of milk, friends sent money to help. We began to see a difference; the children put on healthy weight and became more alert and active.
My mother realized that feeding kids helped, but it didn’t fix the problem. Charity can only postpone a bleak future. Hungry children need more than charity, they need change. They need faith that one day they will provide their own meals. They need education.
Under a shade tree in a slum, she started teaching children to read. My brother and I would go with her and play with them. Sometimes we would have to beg parents to send their kids; but what do you do when you are crippled by leprosy and the income from your child’s begging is all you have? Ammaji began to raise money to support basic needs so the children had “free time” to attend classes. My mother begged from our friends so that the children need not beg from strangers. As need for support grew, and donations began to come from around the world, we attained non-profit status, began building a school, and KHEL was born.
At first, the letters KHEL stood for two things, to convey the diversity of needs we served: Kindness, Health and Education for Lepers, and Kids Health, Education and Laughter. In recent years, we have streamlined the organization, and refined the name to express the essentials of our mission: Kindness, Health, Education and Laughter.
Today, the organization my mother began by giving milk to one child supports a government-recognized school with 290 students and offers scholarships for those continuing their education. We provide basic needs such as bulk food rations, medical assistance and development to Leprosy communities. KHEL hosts medical camps and contributes to adult education. We have 20 employees who receive on-the-job training and assistance for expanding their skills with computer courses and management seminars. We assist local business ventures with financial help, business advice and networking. KHEL builds homes, community centers and medical dispensaries, as well as implementing clean water, drainage and sanitary facilities. The community in which we began is no longer a slum.
Under my mother’s continued guidance and the invaluable support of donors, friends and family, my sister Stomya Persaud and I act as administrators to KHEL on a purely voluntary basis. KHEL has defined our family. Running it continues to be a mixture of pride, humility, exasperation and joy. When people say you can’t make a difference, it’s because they haven’t tried. We started with a battered tin cup of milk held out in kindness. We started with hope.
Over the years since my first introduction to KHEL, I’ve watched KHEL grow and transform. Recently, it was my great pleasure to visit Lakshmi Devi Academy (LDA), the school KHEL built. This was a special day because all of the students were receiving vaccinations to protect them from an insidious illness that has been making the rounds.
My journey began from Swami Veda Bharati’s ashram in Rishikesh, where I was staying. A taxi picked me up at 9:30 in the morning and we drove through slow traffic in Rishikesh, and then through the jungle to get to Dehradun. In years since my first visit, Dehradun has become the capital of the state of Uttarakhand, and grown considerably. It took us a while to find our way to LDA. You see, in India, streets are often not well marked and taxis from one town don't generally know their way around another town. So once we got to Dehradun, my taxi driver stopped time and time again to ask other taxi drivers, street merchants, and just about anyone on the street for directions to our destination.
The plan was to visit with Stomya Persaud, who is KHEL’s Executive Director and is actively administering the charity at this time. Many families in the area surrounding the school send their children there. There are free public schools, but it is an unfortunate fact of India that often public institutions don’t function properly. Often the teachers don’t even show up to teach their public school classes.
LDA provides a good education at little or no cost for the disadvantaged families who send their children to it. Many of the families earn less than rs2000 a month, about $32.00. Some of the families earn enough that they are required to pay a small amount of tuition for their children to attend.
KHEL provides education, support, and employment regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Kindness, service and non-violence are some of KHEL’s basic operating principles.
In addition, promotion of health is one of KHEL’s basic aims and this is why the vaccination drive was happening on the day I visited.
My experience at LDA couldn’t have been better. The children were so beautiful and sweet. At one point, I was given the task of handing out candy bars to the children just after they received their shots. Seeing the looks of the children as they suffered the stick of the needle, and their individual reactions was an experience. It was truly delightful to give them a sweet after they were so brave.
After the vaccinations, the children had a play time outside, and their merriment was infectious.
In addition to the LDA, KHEL continues to serve two, and occasionally three leprosy colonies, providing such things as food, medical supplies, medicines and financial assistance with repairing buildings.
All of KHEL’s services are paid for out of donations. Over the last several years, since the 2008 world financial crises, raising funds has become more challenging. KHEL needs more funds to help the children at LDA. There is thought of hiring a counselor to give the children a way to talk with someone about the emotional issues they can’t talk about in their homes, and there are more health related projects waiting for funds.
If you would like to help KHEL continue to provide Kindness, Health, Education and Laughter to disadvantaged children, you can make a donation by visiting their website at , and clicking on the Donate tab.
Finally, here are some additional photographs from my recent visit to KHEL. Enjoy.