What have I done?

I laughed and shook my head as I asked myself that question aloud. It was my first night in India and I was eating dinner by candlelight, not by choice but because the electricity was out – my first of many power cuts which are part of daily life here.

It wasn’t a regretful utterance, nor was I second guessing my decision to come; simply a little self-depreciating humour, wondering if maybe I’m as crazy as some people think for quitting my job to move to a place I’ve never been and work for free. But I was surer than ever that I was in the right place, and I was happy to be there, even without the creature comforts. I was so sure because I’d just met the children.

“… they gave me the warmest welcome I’d ever experienced.”

Having survived my first car ride on the chaotic roads of India (yes, it’s as terrifying as you’ve heard), I arrived at the Russ Foundation campus during pelting rain and sprinted through ankle-deep mud to the Home for Children Without Parents. Arriving at night and during a power outage, the kids couldn’t really see me but they gave me the warmest welcome I’d ever experienced. My fears of not being accepted by them immediately dissolved as smiling children surrounded me, tiny hands thrust into
mine as they gave their names and asked for mine.

We moved into the dining room for a more formal introduction, and everyone went silent when Berlin, the Russ Foundation Founder, started to speak. He has that effect, quietly commanding respect wherever he goes, whether those in his audience are 5 or 50. He spoke to the children in Tamil (the local language) and pointed to a framed photo of a woman on the wall, gesturing between us, and I fought back the tears that sprung to my eyes. It may be my first time at Russ, but I am definitely not the first.

Unpacking… in candle light!

After our introduction, I went to what would be my home for the next few months to settle in and unpack. I patted myself on the back for thinking to bring a flashlight and batteries; what felt like overpacking a few days earlier suddenly felt like a stroke of genius. Hopefully my instincts will prove to be wrong about some of the other items I’d packed (anti-diarrhoeals, I’m looking at you). Without WiFi or a working phone, I turned to my India book, fittingly reading by candlelight that only 25% of the world’s population have electricity, telephones and running water* as a given. We westerners really don’t realise how much we take for granted.

So, what made me do it? What made me trade my comfortable flat near London for a house with creepy crawlies and sporadic electricity? Why did I give up the mild UK weather (trust me, it’s nice there compared to Chicago where I grew up) for the unforgiving heat of a summer in India? Why did I walk away from my promising career path to volunteer for an organisation that could never pay me a fraction of what I could be making elsewhere?

Three words: gratitude, service, faith.

Gratitude for the life I’ve been blessed with, that I was born into by chance – with loving parents who constantly told me I could do and be anything I want to, who provided shelter and food and support – even when I was a surly teenager. Gratitude for the fact that not once, not for a single day, have I worried about missing a meal, or having a safe and dry place to sleep.

Service, because many people don’t grow up with parents who tell them they can be anything and give them the tools to do so; millions don’t even have parents, including the kids at the Russ Foundation’s Home for Children Without Parents. Something started feeling wrong about spending literally every spare penny and every spare moment on some nice holiday, when there were people struggling to meet their basic needs. Not that we can’t enjoy nice things, but I believe we need to live for others a bit as well – whether that means volunteering our time, working in service professions, or donating some of our earnings.

Last, but surely not least, is faith: Faith the woman, and faith the concept. Faith Ressmeyer, a woman known to many involved with Russ, the woman in the photo in the dining hall, was my dear aunt. She spent most of her life as a teacher in the UK, and visited India nearly every year for the last 20 years of her life, so I only saw her every few years…but wow, was she an inspiration! Whenever I saw Faith, I’d hang on every word of her stories about Russ, the kids, India; I’d ooh and aah at her amazing photos, marvelling at her life of adventure and service. At her memorial service, hundreds of attendees shared their memories of her, and so many of them were the same: “Faith changed my life when she took me to Russ.” I wanted that. And when I sat with her on her deathbed, I promised her that soon, I would visit this place she held so dear. It’s been nearly two years since she passed, but her face smiling down at me from the wall tells me I’ve come at just the right time.  

Photo of Faith Ressmeyer in the Girls’ Home

“… why do I have so much?”

The other kind of faith that brought me to Russ is the kind that gives us the courage to take a path less travelled, to walk away from comfort and security, to do something bold. It’s hard to explain – I’ll save that attempt for another day – but I just knew that if I did this, everything would be ok. That’s how it works when we live for others; we share our food, and somehow, we’re fed as well. It’s why the Russ Foundation motto speaks to me: Serving the deserving. I am no more deserving than a child born with HIV to parents about to leave or die, so why do I have so much? It only feels fitting to share my time and resources with those who surely need it more.

So, what have I done? I’ve taken the first step to my new, more purposeful life. Only time will tell what this journey will hold, but here I am, ready and open and full of faith.

Emma x

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