In her own words: Katy French in Calcutta

In her own words: Katy French in Calcutta

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When Katy French’s friends heard she was going to Calcutta with Irish charity Goal, she was shocked when they said ‘Why bother?’ The Irish model had doubts herself when she saw all the beggars, lepers and starving children. But, in this riveting account written two months before she died, she reveals how five days in India made her completely re-evaluate her own life and career.

What could an unloved, starving, tiny dark-skinned Indian child and a blonde, fair-skinned extrovert, 5’9” Irish Model have in common?

Quite frankly, when Goal asked me to join its team on a trip to Calcutta I was more than a little concerned about the role I could possibly play. One newspaper article before my trip even reported that I was "terrified" at the mere thought of experiencing a world of poverty and destitution. Well, was I anxious? Yes. Apprehensive? Yes. But terrified? Not quite.

Nevertheless, it made me wonder whether the use of such an extreme word might be indicative of what most people in Western societies feel about the Third World. And if they are terrified, why is that so?

In an advanced culture like ours, most of us are concerned with material wealth and status. Our main fears rotate around insecurities of having a big-enough house, having an expensive-enough car, wearing trendy-enough clothes. We seem to be obsessed with being good enough and even with being better. So much so, that when I told my friends I was going to Calcutta with Goal I was shocked to hear their responses of "Why bother?" I couldn’t quite comprehend why so many people were reluctant to experience what was going on in our world.

Could it be that looking at Third World poverty magnifies our own fears? Or is it that most people feel the problem is so enormous that they can never really make a difference anyway? Though I didn’t know the answers, I somehow, naively if you like, felt honoured to be asked to be part of something good. Some part of me knew I wanted to help.

During the eight-hour journey from Heathrow to Calcutta, I wondered what to expect. All I knew were some facts. Goal has been supporting programmes in India since 1977 and, 30 years on, Calcutta is still the spiritual home of Goal. Along with 14 local partnership organisations, it is currently implementing 29 projects across a range of sectors and locations. The charity has always maintained a very special place in its heart for street children and in no place more so than Calcutta, where it has reached out to more than 70,000 children living on and off the streets in the most disadvantaged and vulnerable situations.

These children have no homes, no water, no food, no health service, and no education. They are alone. Often children as young as four are thrown on to the streets by their own mother and father, simply because they cannot provide for them. They are seen more as a burden than a blessing. Many are maimed; others are handicapped, yet they are nonetheless discarded because they cannot contribute.

All are just little children left wondering what to do and where to go. They are at the mercy of those who would use and abuse them, rather than help them.

Nothing could have prepared me for the scenes I witnessed travelling from Calcutta airport to the city centre. It was an assault on the senses. The overpowering stench of garbage, the fumes from the congested traffic, the constant noise of beeping horns and broken exhausts overwhelmed me into nausea. But the biggest shock of all, and what no-one can really anticipate, was the volume of men, women, children, lepers, pigs, cows and dogs that flooded the streets as we made our way to the Goal base.

These people have no facilities, no amenities. They sleep, eat and squat for their daily ablutions in the same confined spaces. They are simply existing and somehow eking out their little piece of life.

Let me put this in perspective for you: Calcutta is the size of Dublin, yet it has 15 million people living there; 300,000 of them are street children. Imagine those 300,000 kids living on Grafton Street, O’Connell Street, Dawson Street and surrounds without a penny to their name!

It’s almost impossible to imagine this level of need among human beings. We in the Western world take for granted that our physiological needs for food, water and shelter will always be met.

We also take for granted that our need for safety, health, protection and stability will be more or less satisfied. But what we are more obsessed with in our society is a need to love and belong, but more importantly to have status. It seems that status has become our only way of gaining self-esteem, so much so, that we are becoming obsessed with material wealth, with what we own, with branded goods. We are even beginning to believe that these are the only ways to demonstrate our self-worth.

It makes sense when you think about it really. The eminent psychologist, Abraham Maslow, articulated this human predicament in his "hierarchy of needs" theory. Maslow’s theory describes our personal experiences of life and the consequent needs. Our ultimate goal in life is to achieve some form of self actualisation — in other words, somehow, somewhere to make the most of our abilities, to strive to be the best we can be and, if possible, to really make a difference.

Goal’s activities in Calcutta show a real understanding of this progression of needs of all human beings, but perhaps we in the West, in our quest for self-esteem through superficial wealth and "status", have lost the way to our final goal of self-actualisation.

Our first port of call was Siliguri, a new area of operation for Goal about 100 miles north of Calcutta. It’s a transit point for access to Darjeeling and lies on the Nepalese and Bangladeshi borders. It is a prime location for child traffickers who target young children travelling alone to the larger cities, such as Calcutta, in the hope of finding some quality of life. Goal has set up meeting points at the bus and train station in Siliguri.

Here, a charity representative from the community seeks out these children, offers them help in the form of shelter and food, and notes down what seem to be the most basic yet important of details — their name, age, where they come from and their income. It’s hard to think that there were children as young as five telling Goal their weekly income from begging: some of them don’t even make 50 cent a week. They are immediately given a night shelter to sleep in, which is particularly important to protect them from the hundreds of paedophiles, pimps and beggar-ringleaders lurking around the station walls, waiting to lure them into a life of hell.

These kids are also given access to day centres where their basic needs for food and water are met. They are also prepared for the education system at one of the many schools Goal helps fund in the area.

These kids are tough. As I played with the railway children, I sensed their lack of tenderness and felt the barrier they had put up between us. Although I heard many cries of "Aunty, Aunty", their pushing, shoving and general aggression revealed their doubt about the possibility that they could ever be loved and belong. It takes time before the shelter, refuge and education helps to increase their self-awareness and awareness of the world arou
nd them, paving the way for them to feel like part of a community. I noticed how children such as Shandar, who had spent some time at the coaching centres, had become softer in nature. She was happy in her simple uniform; she was with others and somehow the innocence of childhood was returning to her.

Goal realises that education and health are critical in satisfying every human being’s second level of need — after food, water and shelter. I saw the importance of this when I visited schools in the Water Sanitation Programme. Goal has already identified some of the most run-down and neediest

schools in Calcutta and has put proper water and sanitation facilities in them. I was appalled to see some of the facilities these children had before Goal funding. It made me wonder how they had the will to go to school at all. To date, almost 300 schools have received a new toilet block and clean running water. There are plans to provide the same to a further 400 schools by 2008.

While undertaking the project, Goal saw that many school buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. This prompted the introduction of a new element of the project which aims to fully upgrade 50 schools in 2008. It is hoped that the improved surroundings will encourage kids to come to school and, most importantly, stay there.

The WIF childcare home for children of sex workers, situated just outside Calcutta, is a great example of Goal’s understanding of people’s need for love and belonging (our third level of need, according to Maslow). Here, I met around 80 children who received food, shelter, education, healthcare and, above all, love and support.

It was a refuge — somewhere these children could feel they belonged. Some of them had seen and lived through many of life’s worst nightmares. They were forced to witness the exploitation, abuse and rape of their own mother, or had been raped themselves.

One young girl, Manisha, aged 11, tried to communicate to me the pain and torture she had been through. She didn’t need good English; her eyes told more than her lips could ever say. She said she had wanted a gun so she did not have to live her life any more remembering the horrendous experiences she had been put through. Another girl, aged eight, had a slight disfigurement in her nose. Physical abuse, maybe? A slight genetic deformity? No, she had recovered from serious wounds after being thrown in the fire by her own mother when she was a toddler and left to burn to death.

Every child had his or her own heart-wrenching story of pain and suffering. Before WIF, they had no feeling of belonging or acceptance. To see them smile and laugh was like witnessing a miracle.

They needed to be loved and cared for. All they wanted was to interact, play and have my undivided attention for those few short hours. When I hugged them, they didn’t let go; each one clamouring for a seat on my lap, giggling when they saw a picture of themselves on my digital camera. They shouted, their arms outstretched, to have their turn sitting on my shoulders or be thrown up in the air. They were children.

They focused intently on me as I taught about 50 of them to Irish dance. They were laughing as they danced a jig around the yard and they pulled at my hands to show me proudly how they had mastered their 1-2-3 step. We played games that they found amusing and a little mysterious in their inquisitive, child-like way. I loved every single one of them. They reached to the depths of the child in me and all I could do was smile and laugh along with them.

I laughed at the real happiness I had found among these children. It made me realise that the hunger for love can be much more intense than the hunger for food. Mother Teresa once said: "The biggest disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted." She also said: "We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do".

I thank God Goal gave me the chance that day to appreciate that. I not only learnt what a smile can do, I also came to realise that it’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving that matters. A smile, a touch, a hug, though small gestures, create endless echoes of belonging throughout these children’s lives.

Not only is Goal focusing on providing the basics of food, shelter and sanitation, on satisfying the need for safety, security and health, on fulfilling the need for love and belonging, it also recognises that every human being in this world, whether impoverished Indian or wealthy Westerner, seeks and deserves the right to self-esteem.

Nowhere is this recognition more obvious than in Sevac, the home for the mentally ill. This is a new building, a little out in the countryside, built by Goal to house about 60 patients suffering from mental illness. By far the most vulnerable group in Calcutta, all their needs are met in this centre with the ultimate aim of reintegrating them into society.

These people are considered the lowest of the low on the streets of Calcutta. Not only are they a burden because of their disabilities, they are considered useless in their society. Some of them have clinical illnesses from birth, but many mental breakdowns are caused by the hardship and exploitation they have had to endure.

One 15-year-old girl, Kimaya, was thrown out into the street by her parents at the age of four because she was born deaf and dumb and they couldn’t cope with her condition. This girl, with her limited means of communication, showed me around her haven and proudly produced the arts and crafts she had created. She may have been born without hearing or speech, but she has an incredible gift for embroidery and artwork. This was her pride, her self-value and her contribution to the world.

All human beings need to be respected and to respect others. This was apparent to me when I met Shareem. She had been a scientist, a well-educated woman whom I had learned about a few days before my visit. She had had a mental breakdown after a miscarriage and subsequent physical abuse by her husband, who finally threw her out into the streets. Her mind was no longer her own yet, despite her mental wanderings, she still grasped at the last straws of her pride — her profession.

When I heard about her, I decided to bring her a gift, a favourite book of mine on the science of life. When I gave her the book and explained what it was, she was overwhelmed with gratefulness that I had recognised her talent and her worth and, because I did so, she valued herself that little bit more. She sang for me and presented me with a gift in return — a handkerchief she had embroidered herself, her only real means of saying thank you. Shareem’s gift to me made me realise how everyone wants to contribute in order to gain some feeling of self-worth. And Goal was giving them the opportunity to do just that, enabling people to demonstrate their confidence, competence and achievements.

The funny thing about life — and old Maslow was a clever one for really recognising it — is that you can’t satisfy your need for self esteem if you can’t satisfy your need for love and belonging, your need for safety and security or your need for food, water and shelter. And what we need as human beings, if we are ever to count ourselves as human beings, is to satisfy at least these four levels of needs.

Goal realises this only too well. Take for example the Sunderbands, a mangrove forest area about 120 miles south of Calcutta, consisting of 24 islands. Over the past five years Goal has implemented its Model Village Development Programme in eight of these islands and is looking to replicate it in others. The idea behi
nd the development is to give the communities a sustainable life, to prevent the locals from migrating to Calcutta in the search for something "better".

The Sunderbands project is an incredible feat — 25 schools, a massive health centre, hundreds of latrines, 50 tube wells, a boat ambulance and a number of multi-purpose buildings where the community can meet to discuss and plan cultivation programmes, medical needs and income-generation projects.

Here, I met people who experience life as it should be. Not only are their basic needs satisfied, but Goal is giving them the chance to belong to a community working together, helping each other and experiencing a greater sense of self-worth.

The people took charge; they took responsibility gladly; they found happiness with each other and in caring for each other. These people love learning and were grateful for the chance to improve their situation. They were learning to love and appreciate life. Ask these children what they want Santa to bring them and they will answer: "A blackboard for my teacher", or "Lights so we can study after dark". Their eyes light up when Goal gives them little red school bags with their own pencils and copybook. Here, they belong; here, they have a chance to achieve; here, they are on the road to self-esteem and here, they have a chance of being human.

On that first day when I drove towards Calcutta it seemed that I was looking upon hordes of animals — animals scavenging, looking for anything to help them exist. Yet they were people leading far worse lives than our pets, our cats and dogs, our bunnies and our budgies. It took only five days of working with Goal to get me to appreciate the deep sense of humankind within all of them. Every one of those homeless victims had a heart and a soul and a yearning to experience the essentials of being human, of living and loving life in some way.

It is not terrifying to see or experience these sights; it is terrifying to realise that the smallest amount each one of us can give can make such a difference.

Just like us, they want a chance to live and they will rally to every opportunity we can give them.

It took just five days for me to truly understand that anyone who is worthy to live his days and his nights is worthy of all we can do to help him.

And I came to the realisation that every thing we can do to assist the fallen, the destitute and the needy, no matter how big or small, could give us an inner peace in not forgetting that we all belong to each other.

Importantly, my journey to Calcutta helped me build on my own sense of self-worth. I realised that we are all here under the eyes of God to help each other and that He doesn’t require us to succeed, only to try. In so doing, little by little, bit by bit, perhaps each one of us will reach our Goal.

By Katy French, October 07 2007

Katy French died on December 6 2007. She was 24. Her family asked that donations be made to the Irish charity GOAL, instead of flowers. Goal, PO Box 19, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. (01) 280-9779 or see


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