JHS Grads Filling Gap Year With Selfless Service
It is 5:30 a.m. in Ahmedabad, India.
A young girl opens her eyes to instant responsibility. She has five younger siblings to care for and feed. Her name is Sonal. She thinks she is 11 years old, but because she was born in a remote village, she isn’t sure. Today is just like every other day. For the past two years, Sonal has lived with her family on a construction site. Her parents, both unskilled laborers on the site, earn 400 rupees or $5.50 per day. Their home is a 100-square foot shanty held together by loose bricks, a tin roof, and a muddy tarp.
In the midst of the seemingly endless monotony of cooking, cleaning, and fetching water, there is a reprieve. Inside a makeshift classroom at the construction site, Sonal meets two teenage girls. They look alike, but they also look like her. They are warm and kind. They speak her language.
They are Hridaya and Hridika Shah, twin sisters and recent graduates of Jenks High School. After moving to the United States at the age of four, the Shah sisters finished high school a year early and returned to their home country as 17-year olds to volunteer at a hospital and to provide education to children like Sonal. Through an internship with SAATH Charitable Trust, Hridaya and Hridika teach basic reading and writing skills to these impoverished and undernourished kids.
“In India, the children of construction workers don’t go to school,” said Hridaya. “They are part of migratory families so they can’t enroll in municipal schools. The lack of hygiene causes rampant illnesses and healthy food is hard to find. We are working on a project called Child Friendly Spaces which seeks to address these problems by putting a classroom on the construction site. If we can provide better nourishment and educational opportunities for these children, hopefully many of them will be able to break this cycle of poverty.”
Hridika Shah poses with two young students inside a makeshift classroom. Hridika and her sister are teaching basic education skills to children in hopes of helping them break the cycle of poverty.
Social progress in India is complicated. Change occurs slowly in a population desensitized to the plight of the poor. Nearly 30 percent of India’s people live in poverty. Recent estimates put the total number of children living on the street at 18 million. Forced to survive through malnourishment and a variety of illnesses, Indian children are often smaller, skinnier, and more prone to other diseases. Although laws are in place to ensure education for every child, those laws are frequently unenforced. Government support and social programs are limited. In the often deplorable conditions on construction sites, Hridaya and Hridika are learning to celebrate small victories.
“When I was little, I dreamed of changing the world,” Hridika remarked. “For these kids, the construction site is their world. They don’t dream big because despite the work that we do, very few of them manage to make their way out of poverty. Seeing what these kids have to overcome, it breaks my heart. But my sister and I also know that if we can make a difference in the life of one child, the work is worth it.”
“We are trying to change the children’s perceptions of themselves,” explained Hridaya. “When I asked a 12-year old girl what she wanted to be, she had no idea. These children don’t know anything about astronauts, or accountants, or any other job except for laborers. This girl told me if she could have anything in the world, she would get air conditioning in a new house so her family didn’t have to live in a shanty anymore.”
When Hridaya and Hridika are not teaching, playing, and singing songs with children on the construction site, they are volunteering and observing at the Health and Care Foundation – a hospital providing affordable health care to impoverished people. The twins are hoping to gain a better understanding of medicine in an international setting while witnessing solutions to India’s numerous healthcare challenges. According to a Forbes article from 2017, without the support of non-profit hospitals, only one out of every 2,046 Indian citizens would have access to a bed in a government hospital. India spends just 4.7 percent of GDP on healthcare. By comparison, the United States spends 125 times more.
“In theory, Indian citizens who can’t afford private sector health care are supposed to have open access to government hospitals,” Hridaya described. “However, government run hospitals are often small, understaffed, and unsanitary. Corruption also drains what little funds these hospitals receive so they are far too limited in the amount of services they can provide to the public."
The Shah sisters, who started attending Jenks Public Schools halfway through their seventh grade year, became more involved in volunteering during their time as members of Key Club at Jenks High School. After spending time serving with non-profits around the Tulsa area, and returning to India over their summer breaks, both Hridaya and Hridika felt compelled to form a deeper connection to their home country. Being fluent in Gujarati – the predominant language in the state of Gujurat – allows the sisters to form fast relationships with the children on construction sites and with the patients they visit in a cerebral palsy unit at the local hospital.
“While it is important to work hard to better your life, it’s just as important to do your part in bettering your country,” stated Hridika. “I’m a proud Indian-American. Doing this work with these people allows me to experience India like never before.”
It is special to give back. It is even more meaningful for Hridaya and Hridika to serve together.
“We are each other’s best friend,” Hridika said. “We have always been a team.”
When the gap year in India is done, the sisters will stick together for their next adventure. In the fall of 2019, both will enroll at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Hridaya, a National Merit Semifinalist, will study molecular and cellular biology. Hridika wants to pursue a degree in public health studies.
While the big picture is uncertain, Hridaya and Hridika see service, medicine, or a combination of both, somewhere in the future. For now, their focus is on developing a fundraising campaign as part of their internship. The goal is to raise $5,000 to provide nutritional and educational support for the child laborers. Donations as little as ten dollars can provide shelter, three meals a day, and an informal education for children like Sonal. CLICK HERE TO DONATE
For Hridaya and Hridika, empathy means taking action. It’s an attitude instilled in them by their parents. Today in India, small victories are waiting. The Shah sisters, with their perspective now forever changed, will celebrate each and every one of them.