Kai-Li and Suman’s lives couldn’t be more different or more similar. Both girls are pre-teen, precocious, curious, beautiful, innocent, lively and intelligent. They both love to work with their hands to create trinkets, make doll clothes and paint and draw. They both have parents who work hard and want their daughter to grow up in a secure, safe, engaging environment with a future full of possibilities.
Suman lives in Saki Naka, Mumbai, with her parents and her two younger brothers in a slum community, in a hut with walls of torn blue tarp tied with twine to scavenged bamboo poles. (see here) The hut sits on the scar of a previous home on a bed of rubble left over from the recent demolition of all the homes in her section of the slum. She attends Nandchhaya school near her community and is learning English. Her father is an on-call labourer on Bollywood film sets and her mother cleans homes for three families. Kai-Li lives in Vancouver, Canada with her parents Nancy and Keeping and her impish, adorable, round-faced baby brother. Like most Canadian families their life is comfortable and stable, their kids will be educated, and they enjoy the bounty and privileges that we all assume is a right in a democratic country. What makes them standout is their empathy and their desire to educate their children about how the world outside of Vancouver doesn’t always look and feel the same.
On an outing to Lost + Found Cafe in Vancouver, Keeping and Kai-Li noticed a wall of items for sale made by some of the women in Saki Naka. While looking through the trinkets, Keeping told Kai-Li what a slum community was, that the women in a photo above the trinkets lived there and made the items to support their families. Kai-Li wondered aloud why people don’t help them if they are poor. Her dad said that they could help by purchasing a few items. When they arrived home and showed Kai-Li’s mom Nancy what they had bought and why, she checked out the DWP blog and noticed the story about Suman and the demolition of her home in the slum community. Although Suman’s plight bears little resemblance to Kai-Li’s life in Canada, Kai-Li realized that despite the poverty, despite the hard, unimaginable life that Suman lives, she is smiling in the accompanying photos and is really, at heart just like Kai-Li. With the encouragement and help of Kai-Li’s parents we held a Skype chat with Kai-Li and Suman while Suman was at school. The two girls asked each other questions and talked about their mutual love of creating beautiful things, shared giggles, and got a brief but powerful glimpse into each other’s life. After the Skype chat, Suman and I talked about Kai-Li and what she thought about the conversation she just had. She was energized, amazed and excited and couldn’t wait to get back to her class where her classmates eagerly awaited her, telling her she must be special or famous! When Kai-Li hung up the phone, she had already made a plan to help Suman.
With the encouragement of her parents and her teacher, Kai-Li gave a show-and-tell session to her classmates, giving information and insight into Suman’s living conditions and the slum community. Then she went home and put her plan to help Suman into action. She made 10 types of charms as samples, created order forms and printed out an information sheet describing the work of the Dirty Wall Project. Back at school she took orders for the charms from her classmates, teachers, friends and family members. Selling the charms at $2 each made them affordable for her classmates and they responded to her target of raising $100 by purchasing 50 charms. She soon received more orders than she expected and over the next two months she worked hard making charms to fill the orders. She had surpassed her $100 goal. With charm sales and generous donations she raised over $200.
After the Skype chat, on the other side of the world, Suman was busy drawing a series of pictures as a gift for me to take back to Kai-Li. Sitting cross-legged on the plastic floor of Suman’s tarped home, the sun beating down on the plastic tarp creating a sweltering sauna, I sipped the chai her mother, Nirmala, made for us as Suman rummaged through worn plastic buckets and found a shiny piece of paper and some tape. She gently piled the drawings on top of each other and wrapped her artwork in the paper, taped it shut and placed a piece of paper on top with Kai-Li’s name on it. As promised in the Skype chat, Kai-Li got busy, setting aside time to create a few special bracelets for Suman and mailed the present to Suman via her school address.
A few months later, while back in Vancouver, I met Kai-Li and her parents in person at Lost + Found Cafe and handed over the carefully wrapped package from Suman to Kai-Li. On my laptop I showed Kai-Li the photos of Suman with her just-received present of the bracelets. Kai-Li proudly and shyly presented us with an envelope with the donated money. When asked what she would like us to do with the donation she quietly but boldly reminded us to please give the money to Suman’s parents for shoes, food, and some nice things for Suman.
Nancy and Keeping have layered their lives with empathy and a desire to contribute to their community and the larger world by ensuring Kai-Li and her brother have a greater understanding of the world around her and the need to walk in someone else’s shoes even if they pinch. Kai-Li and Suman will continue to have a dialogue and a friendship from afar with the help of Kai-Li’s parents and the Dirty Wall Project and the magic of computers and face-time chats. Two girls and two gifts of caring despite the world of difference they inhabit is a priceless reminder of how small things make big impacts.