One girl was found in a garbage can. Another’s eye plunged by a needle so that she would be a “better” beggar. One girl watched her mother get run over by a train as they tried to run from police.
These girls now live together at an orphanage in Kochi, India. Jack Viorel first heard about them three years ago, at a book drive at St. Mary School in Wilmington, NC, where he teaches. The drive was to raise money for Homes of Hope, a Wilmington-based non-profit that helps support this, and other orphanages in India.
When he’s not teaching, Viorel runs Indo Jax, a surf school in Wrightsville Beach, NC. Viorel occasionally does free camps for kids who have disabilities.
“It was sort of a joke,” Viorel says, recalling the quick chat between he and Paul Wilkes, a religious author who founded Homes of Hope five years ago. “I was telling Paul about our charity surf camps and he looks at me and says, ‘I’ve got a bunch of kids who get left behind every year; why don’t you do this in India?’”
It took nine months just to get the boards there. Customs was its own nightmare. “They had never even heard of a surfboard,” Viorel recalls. After sending them a link to a company that makes them, Viorel was able to convince customs to push them through.
One year and 11,000 miles later, Viroel and a small crew of volunteers were on the ground in search of the nearest swell. They found it five hours away at Varkala Beach. The girls called the 2010 trip “Surf Safari I.” It was their way of making sure Viroel made good on his promise to return.
Last month, he did.
April means summer recess for students in India. And while kids around them spend those months with family, these girls, other than each other and the Salesian Sisters who care for them, have no family. The word “vacation” does not exist in their vocabulary.
So with eight longboards strapped to the top of a donated bus, 27 girls, two nuns-in-charge, Viroel and four American volunteers, sang and clapped their way back to Varkala Beach for “Surf Safari II.” For the newer girls, it was the first time they’d ever seen the ocean, much less rode a wave.
With the group, Reena, the little girl whose story still haunts Wilkes. He and his wife, Tracy, were tourists in Kochi when they met her. She had just turned 6.
“We asked our driver what was being done to help the throngs of children we saw begging on the streets,” Wilkes recalls.
“I can tell you; but, if you don’t mind, I will show you,” the driver replied and took them to the orphanage.
“They were desperately poor, barely enough food, so naturally I reached into my pocket for a donation,“ Wilkes said. “This little girl was watching me, standing in the shadow of one of the nuns. She was the only girl wearing sunglasses and I asked why.”
Sister Sophy, her caregiver, took the glasses off. “One of her eyes was perfect, dark bright,” Wilkes remembers. “The other was terribly scarred and dull.”
Sister Sophy told Wilkes that Reena and her mother had been begging when she was abducted. Her mother was mentally ill. They somehow got separated. Reena was swept up by India’s so-called “beggar mafia.” One of the men held her down and plunged a darning needle into her left eye. A maimed girl would bring in more money.
“I looked down in horror,” Wilkes recalls. “Little Reena returned my look with the most beatific, trusting smile I had ever seen.”
“I couldn’t just get back into my air conditioned car and do nothing.”
Each of their stories is equally tragic.
Rajeswari was just 5 when her mother was run over and killed by a train as they ran from the police. They too were begging. She is now 18.
For her, like many of these girls, surfing had a healing affect.
“I feel like a fish when I play in the ocean,” Rajeswari says. “My wounds are washed away. It is something beautiful, something wonderful.”
This is exactly why Viorel is already planning “Surf Safari III.” Next year, he hopes to extend the safari from one to three weeks so that he can include orphans from two other “Homes of Hope” houses the sisters maintain.
“The idea is to build self-esteem,” Viorel says. “If you can try and succeed at this or at least have fun with it, who’s to say what you can or can’t do? That’s what we try to teach the girls.”
For Reena, last month’s safari was especially meaningful.
She turned 12.
To celebrate, the nuns created a necklace out of a vine they found growing near the beach. They placed it around her neck. Everyone sang.
Reena then crawled onto a longboard, paddled into the Indian Ocean, and with the helping hands of Viorel, stood up and rode her first wave …goofyfoot. A smile spread across her thin face. And for the brief ride to shore, at least, the pain of her past seemed to wash away.
—Miles Christian Daniels
Miles Christian Daniels is a writer and filmmaker living in San Francisco. You can reach him at [email protected]