Resilience of children

What is one word made of two letters that you want to hear in the morning? Didi! “Good morning, didi.” “Good morning, didi.” “Good morning, didi!” I arrive to a chorus of this greeting each morning that I walk into the school yard of the Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation. The yard overlooks a stunning view of the Himalayas on a clear day, which is enough to make one stop and smile, but my grin creeps up on my face before I even cross the muddy path that connects the main trail with the foundation’s property. I grin because of what I know is about to greet me: the smiling faces of children in the midst of play or exercise before their school day begins.

The Edith Wilkins Street Children Foundation is an organization here in Darjeeling that provides care and protective support to street children, victims of abuse and sex trafficking, child labourers and other at risk minors. The organization houses, teaches, and generally cares for around 300 children. For those children too behind to attend school, they provide “return to education programming.” They also offer vocational training for older children, regular access to counseling and medical care, and whenever possible, work with the families of these children to create a stable, safe situation for them to return to. Each child here has their own story. Laxmi*, for example, ended up here after running away from her adopted parents in a nearby village. Both she and her brother were adopted by a couple, though they had wildly different experiences after this event.  Her brother was sent to school whereas Laxmi was made to do household work. They were served different food and in all manners treated as unequal. Recognizing the abuse, neighbors confronted the family only to be verbally abused by the parents. One day, these neighbors came across Laxmi in the market as she shopped for the family. They told her to run to the police to escape her abuse. She did and ultimately the police connected her with Edith Wilkins. Although each of their stories differs, what’s common is their resilience that I see as their smiles brighten my morning.

While I have my Masters in Public Health in Maternal and Child Health, before coming to India, the majority of my work focused on addressing the needs of women’s health. Here, I’m being challenged to widen my scope to consider the comprehensive health needs of children. I’ll admit that not having worked with children before left me feeling intimidated by this shift. How would I interact with them, especially without speaking their language? How would I manage the complex needs of children who’ve experienced situations more challenging than I could ever imagine? How would I address their mental health needs resulting from their circumstances? The latter is a topic I’m currently considering as I work to refine a mental health intervention that can be implemented by community health workers throughout the Darjeeling Hills. Even here in Darjeeling, a town that draws throngs tourists every year and supports a population of over 100,000 people, has only one practicing psychiatrist and limited counselors. More on that later. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with photos of some the girls practicing their English in the skills training center and of the children practicing for a circus performance in town that was part of a Darjeeling cultural event. Their joy at sharing their talent was truly infectious.

English class at the training center
English class at the training center
Kids practicing their circus routine in the Edith Wilkins yard

*Name changed to protect the confidentiality of the child.

Miriam started her global health career eight years ago when she moved from North Carolina to Washington D.C. to pursue her dreams of working in international development. Her first job landed her in the world of public health. She pursued a Masters in Public Health in Maternal and Child Health with a focus on global health and health communications. Since that time she's worked for several large international NGOs, from Save the Children to FHI 360, conducting research, program evaluations, and translating research evidence into action. In her current position as a public health analyst and a global gender center affiliate in the Women's Global Health Imperative (WGHI) of RTI International, she develops and manages several research projects aimed at improving the reproductive health of vulnerable populations across sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. While her technical background spans topics such as violence against women, HIV/AIDS prevention and care, family planning, malaria elimination, and maternal and child nutrition, her work exhibits a cross-cutting commitment and interest in identifying and addressing gender inequalities. Most recently, she's worked with RTI's Reinvent the Toilet team to consider gender-related aspects of new toilet design and deployment in India.

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