Reaching India's Forgotten Children

December 22, 2017

UNICEF USA New York board member Purvi Padia has made it her mission to help the 1.5 million children in India growing up without a family.

Raised in the United States, UNICEF USA New York board member Purvi Padia made many childhood trips to visit family in India. The poverty she saw there made a deep and lasting impression on her. Even when she was small, she was determined to find ways to help. Now a mother herself, she's working with UNICEF to improve the lives of children growing up in residential care institutions in India, and teaching her own children the importance of giving back to those less fortunate. 

How did your childhood visits to India inspire your interest in humanitarian relief work?

PURVI PADIA: I often wonder if I hadn't had the experience of going to India as a child, would I feel so connected? Would I feel this hunger for humanitarian work? We see these images and hear the news and go to benefits, and people do their best to understand, but it is such a different situation when you experience it firsthand, meeting people who have names and faces, who are fighting for their lives and for their children every single day. 

My parents, for a while, were saying, 'I don't think we can take her to India anymore. She's not able to manage.' And I'd say, 'No, I'm going. I'm helping.'

The divide between the poor and the wealthy is so much more apparent there than it is in other parts of the world that I've seen. So starting as young as 4 or 5 years old, these images were really ingrained in my head. It's funny, because I have a horrible memory, to be honest. I can't remember the name of my third grade teacher, but I can't get these images out of my head. As a child, it was really impactful. My parents, for a while, were saying, "I don't think we can take her to India anymore. She's not able to manage." And I'd say, "No, I'm going. I'm helping."

Like anything else, many people become desensitized when they are continually exposed. I guess I just never got desensitized. 

As a child, Purvi Padia (above left in 1989, with her mother and brother) traveled often to India with her family. She remembers being shocked by the poverty she saw there, and sneaking food out of the kitchen to give to homeless people outside while her parents were sleeping. Photo courtesy of Purvi Padia.

Do you remember your earliest experiences of helping others?

PURVI PADIA: We'd be coming home from dinner, for example, and I'd be carrying a bag of leftovers. I would see a group of children or a homeless family sitting on the side of the street, and I would approach them and give them the food.

I simply felt like I couldn't just sit there while there were people right outside my door who were hungry. It was really hard for me, so I did what I could, even when I was little.

I simply felt like I couldn't just sit there while there were people right outside my door who were hungry. It was really hard for me, so I did what I could, even when I was little.

How did you become involved with UNICEF?

PURVI PADIA: Improving the lives of children has always been my biggest motivator. As soon as I was in a position to really invest myself within an organization, I spent countless hours becoming familiar with many of the organizations in that space. UNICEF quickly stood out as my first choice, because of its reputation and its impact. It was really important to me to be involved in an organization where the majority of the funding goes directly to the cause, rather than the logistics of running it. To me, UNICEF is the benchmark of all humanitarian work. I have been consistently impressed with the dedication, the expertise, the breadth, the international relations and the programmatic diversity at UNICEF. 

Children and adults sit on a wall in a village in Chhattisgarh, India. UNICEF is implementing Project Lion to help children growing up in institutions in Chhattisgarh and seven other states in India. © UNICEF/UNI172866/Singh

How did you decide to focus your efforts on children growing up in residential care facilities in India?

PURVI PADIA: India's such a huge country with so many intricacies, so it's always been really challenging for me to find out how I can be impactful there. It was unacceptable to me that children whose origins are the same as mine were living such a different life than my own children. It's something that I thought about for a long time and tried to figure out where to help and how to focus. 

After I saw "Lion" last year, it just suddenly became so very clear to me. "This is it. This is what I am meant to do. I can help children in India who are growing up without a family. This is how I can make a difference in a country that is so precious to me." UNICEF identified child protection programming in India that addressed a lot of the themes in the film and a way I can help those efforts by supporting India's forgotten children. 

UNICEF is implementing Project Lion, a holistic three-year program to protect children living in institutions and give them a better chance to grow up in loving, stable and nurturing environments. How will the program work?

PURVI PADIA: There are an estimated 1.5 million displaced children in India, and we're focusing on 200,000 of those children across eight states of India. UNICEF chose those eight states because they felt like they had strong local connections in those regions and we could make a big difference there.

The program is designed to ensure that residential institutions provide acceptable living conditions and that all of the children staying there have basic human rights so they can thrive: clean water, food, access to education and healthcare. Then even more importantly, the program supports training for child protection workers in India who will help place these children into long-term family care situations so that they are not growing up in institutionalized care.

 

Left: UNICEF USA New York board member Purvi Padia with her husband Harsh Padia at the 2017 UNICEF Snowflake Ball. Right: Their son, Rehan proudly wears his UNICEF Kid Power Band every day. "My kids always wear their Kid Power Bands," says Purvi. "The bands measure their activity so they can earn points that 'unlock' packets of therapeutic food to feed children in the developing world." 

How are you teaching your own children to help others?

PURVI PADIA: The idea of helping others is something that we always talk about in our home. Not necessarily in the philanthropical sense, but just, if you see a friend struggling, what can you do? I think over the years, my children have seen how important humanitarian work is to me and how I've partnered with UNICEF. When my son was only 3, he said, "Mom, is there something that I can do to show my friends at school what UNICEF is all about and what you do with them?" So we worked with his nursery school to create a weeklong program to introduce School-in-a-Box. We set up a display in the lobby and all the kids got to see the materials inside the box and hear where the box would be used, to educate children who might be in the middle of a crisis of some sort. We raised a good deal of money. The response was incredible.

Last year was my daughter's fifth birthday. She said, "Mom, I don't need presents. I'll ask for donations to UNICEF instead." So we started a CrowdRise page to raise money. She had a really fun dance party for her friends. In the middle of dancing, kids would come up to her and say, "Reven, I didn't bring you a present because your mom said that you were donating to UNICEF. I don't really know what UNICEF is. Can you tell me about it?" And it was very moving to hear my 5-year-old explain why she felt it was more important for children to have food and water than it was for her to have another American Girl doll. She was in the middle of the dance floor saying, "Well, there are kids around the world who don't have the things that we have, and I feel that we should help them." 

All kids like to help. When you give them an opportunity to feel like they can make a difference, they want to do it.

What are some other ways your kids have found to give back?

PURVI PADIA: They're both huge fans of Kid Power, because that's such a simple way to feel like they're helping. They always wear their Kid Power Bands. The bands measure their activity so they can earn points that "unlock" packets of therapeutic food to feed children in the developing world. My son was in second grade when Kid Power launched. He had his Kid Power Band, and by the end of the week, 10 other boys in his class had a band. I asked him, "Rehan, did you tell all these kids about it?" and he said, "I did, Mom. They asked me about it, so I told them." 

All kids like to help. When you give them an opportunity to feel like they can make a difference, they want to do it.

Reading books about acts of kindness and social responsibility is one way UNICEF USA New York board member Purvi Padia is introducing her children Rehan, 9, and Reven, 5, to some of the many ways that kids can help others. "All kids like to help," she says. "When you give them an opportunity to feel like they can make a difference, they want to do it." Photo by Leshem Loft.

Do you have any favorite books you like to read with your children, to teach them about caring for others?

PURVI PADIA: My son recently read a book called "One Hen," based on true events about a boy growing up in a struggling village in Ghana. He gets a little loan, and he uses it to buy a hen for the farm. The hen turns out to bring the farm back to life. He builds a flock of 25 hens, and then he's able to return to school and provide for his family. The idea is that he could have used that money for anything, and instead he used it for his family and to give back to his community when he had nothing himself.

There's this other cute book called "The Spiffiest Giant in Town," which teaches about being generous and selfless and understanding that sometimes you don't expect anything in return, you just give. 

Do you have any words of advice on how to teach children about social responsibility?

PURVI PADIA: I think you have to start with the message that there are children who don't have a place to live or food to eat. And it's your human obligation to understand your role and to figure out how you can help. That's where you start the conversation: "You can make a difference. You can put good into this world. Even your little body that's only 5 or 6 years old. You can do something. You can do good things." You give them that feeling of making a change, and they're going to want to do it." 

If you are human, you are going to feel compassion. There's no other option. It's our obligation. It's our chemical makeup as humans, to give and to help. 

I always say that I think it's funny that we honor people for being compassionate. I feel if you ever have the opportunity to see the kinds of things that your fellow humans are having to endure on a daily basis, there's no way to not be compassionate. If you are human, you are going to feel compassion. There's no other option. It's our obligation. It's our chemical makeup as humans, to give and to help. And I feel that given the right outlet and the right information, pretty much anybody would agree with that.

When Rehan was a baby, putting him to bed was such a sweet, wonderful experience. But at the same time, I couldn't get these thoughts out of my head of infants across the world who were being neglected. Here I was having such a beautiful moment with my child, and yet there were so many children who could never have that experience, not even one night of their lives.

I think when you become a parent, knowing how vulnerable babies are at that stage, it's impossible not to see the gravity of that. The displaced children of India are so impressionable and so delicate. I think about how much my children need me and need a community of love and strength and guidance and support to have a shot at life. And these kids don't even have one-millionth of that. They're never been given a hug. It's heartbreaking. 

 

This critical program will ensure that thousands of children in India who have been left without family care can be given a second chance to grow in loving, stable, nurturing and protective environments

You can help UNICEF protect the forgotten children of India and other vulnerable children around the world. 

 

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Top photo: Children in the state of Jharkhand, India watch a street play on the evils of child marriage. Jharkhand is one of eight states where UNICEF is implementing Project Lion, a holistic three-year program to improve the lives of children growing up in residential institutions. © UNICEF/UN062011/Vishwanathan