|t was my first visit to Asian Aid’s Kollegal School for Speech and Hearing Impaired Children. For the past hour we had bumped and juddered our way deeper into the dry countryside surrounding Bangalore, India’s third-most-populous city. At one point, a large cow with painted horns stood firmly in the center of the road, unfazed by our car’s insistent honking or the dirty bus pressing in from the opposite direction. Even the small boy prodding its hindquarters with a large stick was having difficulty in budging the stubborn animal, which seemed uninterested in Bangalore’s status as a new Silicon Valley and booming metropolis.
“That cow isn’t exactly in a hurry,” I said impatiently. “It thinks it owns the road.”
“Cows are sacred here,” Helen Eager replied with the wisdom of one who had visited India many times. “Did you know,” she said, deftly changing the subject, “Kollegal is the only boarding school for hearing- and speech-impaired children run by Adventists here? Her statement was factual, without boasting.
As we parked the car, dozens of children crowded onto the front veranda of their newly built classrooms. Several girls ran into the courtyard to greet Helen, faces beaming.
“Mummy, Mummy!” they cried. “Mummy Eager has come!”
Helen bent down and hugged them with delight. They were dressed neatly in school uniforms while she was draped in traditional Indian dress, a traveling habit she had adopted. Two of the girls were proudly wearing their “new” hearing aids, donated recently by Australian volunteers who had fitted the “recycled” technology on a recent trip. Over their shoulder I could see two boys peering out of the corn patch.
Although Helen herself had visited many times and had guided Asian Aid’s sponsorship program for the best part of 25 years, it was as if she were greeting her very own children. To my amazement she addressed each child by name before sending them back to class.
Outside one of the classrooms the school principal introduced himself. He was proud of his new buildings, and he urged us enthusiastically inside. I noticed a picture of Jesus hanging on one wall, and then the teacher quickly organized the students into two rows.
“Our children will sing for you,” the principal said, suddenly looking worried. “They have prepared something special.”
Helen grinned knowingly at me. The playful smile on her lips made her look many years younger than her early 60s, and her eyes twinkled. This could be interesting, I thought. I’ve never heard deaf children sing.
The classroom teacher nodded and lifted her arms to conduct. A foot scuffed the floor, and then a moment of complete silence followed. With beautiful smiles and absolute concentration, the 20 or so children started to sing.
The instant they began a bird screeched with surprise outside the window, flapping away from the strange blend of out-of-tune sounds that filled the room. The enthusiastic jumble of noise overwhelmed the teacher’s efforts to impose melody. Determined to lead by example, the principal joined the fray, singing in English the tune I was struggling to identify. Finally I was able to understand the words he was almost shouting in my ear. “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”
It was terrible, and I fought to maintain my composure. Yet something strange happened as they sang on. The faces of the children shone with an infectious happiness and pride. The beauty of their enthusiasm seemed to create a deeper music, one with a different harmony. Deaf Hindu and Christian children lifted their voices in praise of God, and I knew then that this was the most beautiful song I had ever heard. I could imagine angels in heaven nodding with approval at the magnificence of their effort.
They finished. We applauded. And I deftly wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. The children, all sponsored by Asian Aid, returned to their wooden desks as we visitors were ushered out.
Within the space of 30 minutes we had completed a tour of the well-tended school gardens where each child was learning basics in food production. We paused by buildings still awaiting funds to finance their completion, and then examined the clean but simple dormitories.
And so it was that I first saw Asian Aid’s Kollegal School for Speech and Hearing Impaired Children.
From Humble Beginnings
Although my first visit to the Kollegal School took place in 2003, Asian Aid has been quietly sponsoring children for more than 40 years. Early in 1963, Maisie Fook, a diminutive Australian Seventh-day Adventist, responded to an advertisement to sponsor Korean children. Although she lived comfortably in Sydney, she was touched by the plight of the children she now supported, and three years later she determined to adopt her two orphans. Maisie’s visit to Korea moved her so profoundly that she and her husband, Denis, with family and friends, organized and registered a tiny Australian charity to gain shipping concessions for warm clothes, patchwork quilts, and rugs. War-torn Korea needed their help, and this, they decided, would come through Asian Aid. With donations totaling only $2,000, no paid staff, no training, and little support, Maisie and friends began the laborious task of packing hand-knitted quilts into shipping containers. Then they raised funds to pay for shipping them. But longing to assist orphans directly, Maisie determined to help children in another war-torn country—Vietnam.
Although Asian Aid sponsored children in South Vietnam for several years, the fall of Saigon in 1975 resulted in the demoralizing loss of contact with 850 children supported in Adventist schools. Discouraged but not losing all hope, Maisie and her staff prayerfully wrote to each sponsor asking if they would continue to support a new program in India or Bangladesh. Amazingly, almost all recommitted, and a new program followed. In 1979 Asian Aid support enabled Monosapara School in Bangladesh to continue operating, and in 1980 Pollywog was also established in Bangladesh. Pollywog continues today in Dhaka, training poor women in embroidery and income-generating skills.
Asian Aid’s work grew steadily. By 1981 Helen Eager had begun work as a volunteer with Maisie and established the Hunter Valley Branch of Asian Aid in Cooranbong, Australia, identified to Ellen White in a dream as the site for Avondale College. Much to her surprise, when Maisie retired in 1989, 3,000 children were being sponsored in Adventist schools throughout Korea, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Asian Aid’s 4,000 financial supporters were contributing $850,000 annually. But while other child-sponsorship organizations professionalized, advertised, conducted media campaigns, and employed development specialists, Asian Aid’s small team operated from their own homes with the equivalent of just two paid staff and a band of volunteers who promoted the work in their local churches.
At the time of my visit to the Kollegal School for Speech and Hearing Impaired Children, Asian Aid had become one of the first organizations recognized by the South Pacific Division as a supporting ministry. Few Adventists or sponsors, however, would have known how frugal Asian Aid was.
The organization had just three staff in Australia, all of whom volunteered a great deal of time. The head office had moved after Maisie’s retirement and was a single room located high in the Great Dividing Range of New South Wales, Australia. From her mountain retreat, surrounded by forest, Helen Eager had overseen a bold move. From early months in a tent to many more in a shed, the workspace evolved into a small office built by volunteers, using electricity from batteries and water from a natural spring. It defied good business logic!
Asian Aid Australia was isolated. The international airport was a six-hour drive away. Church visitations required long hours of travel, crisscrossing Australia’s vast landscape. Volunteer directors could not visit easily. There was no electricity, no piped water, no bitumen road, and the phone line was poor. Yet Helen and her staff each day prayerfully committed the work to God—and Asian Aid grew. Some 3,500 children became 4,000; 4,500 increased to 5,000; 5,000 turned into 6,000. Most recently, Asian Aid, with the help of its many sponsors, supported child development programs for more than 7,000 children and a variety of development activities for poor communities.
In April 2000, just two years before Maisie died, the General Conference associate director of education at that time, C. Garland Dulan, now director of the department, presented Asian Aid with the Global Award for Adventist Education in recognition of their generous and sustained support to Adventist education in southern Asia. In the same year of Maisie’s death, a permanent home was built for the school for the speech- and hearing-impaired in Kollegal. Asian Aid had constructed schools, boarding houses, orphanages, and water supply systems in three countries. Yet amazingly, Helen drove an old
car and shared her home with an office on a church member’s property. An almost nonexistent marketing budget had not been a major obstacle. God had chosen to bless the work of Asian Aid, magnifying the efforts of a humble achiever.
The support of some of Asian Aid’s most disadvantaged children is providential, and Helen Eager continues to oversee the selection of children. She explains with one child’s story:
Jessica (her adoptive name) was sitting at the Ranchi railway station in India on July 2, 2007. The little girl was crying, and perhaps this was what made Rukmani look in her direction.
Rukmani was on her way to Kolkata and eager to catch her train, but she could not ignore the distress of the small child sobbing on the platform. Pausing, she tried in vain to make herself understood in the local language, but nothing worked. She then tried Santhali, and with the barrier bridged, the tiny, helpless child told Rukmani that her father had gone and left her.
Rukmani canceled her train ticket and sat at the station with the child, hoping that the father would return. As nightfall came, she realized that this was less and less likely and so, leaving word of where she was taking the child, she returned home to her village. Not uncommonly in this part of India, Jessica had been abandoned by her father.
One week later, with no sign of the father, Jessica was taken to Khunti Seventh-day Adventist School, where she was cared for until I visited and made arrangements for her to be taken into Sunrise Home for orphans. Jessica is no longer abandoned. She has a new family, is lovingly cared for, and is settling into her new home very nicely.
Sharon Heise, Asian Aid Australia’s current CEO, describes sponsorship as an ongoing relationship. “We recognize that our children often need help after school as well,” Sharon explained, then shared the story of Pydi as an example:
Pydi Raju is from Baljipeta. When he was 8, his mother died and he was sponsored to attend Baljipeta Seventh-day Adventist School. Even though his father was ill and he had no mother, Pydi supported himself by receipting the tuition for small children before and after school, and also working as a low-paid errand boy in the evenings.
Despite confronting so many difficulties, Pydi completed senior high school and was overjoyed to enter an engineering course. His father, however, was still very sick. Pydi had to get up at 4:00 a.m. every day to work before school and would often study late. Overwhelmed, he became ill with typhoid, but eventually he recovered. Asian Aid staff helped him to complete his engineering course. Sadly, Pydi’s father eventually died, but Pydi now has a government job and is so grateful for the help provided to him by Asian Aid. It is wonderful to bless children and youth such as Pydi.
Former U.S. inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin once said: “The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”
While Asian Aid is far from being an empire, it seems clear that it is still part of God’s plan. Australian, American, and New Zealand sponsors, in partnership with the Adventist church in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, currently support more than 7,000 poor children. Asian Aid USA has now been established in North America, and is excited to see the hand of providence at work as it expands its sponsorship program.
Sharon Heise believes that when activities are committed to sharing God’s love, anything is possible. As an example she points to generous support from ASI and Maranatha Volunteers International, who have played a significant role in building the state-of-the-art blind school in Bobbili, India, which educates 180 blind and low-vision children. Schools such as Immanuel Boarding School in Jeypore, India, provide
life-changing opportunities for 700 children.
“We just take a step, and God does the rest,” Sharon says.
But the work is not without challenges. “Working in international partnerships is incredibly important,” Sharon says, “and with our partners, we are trying constantly to improve the service we provide to children and their poor families. As a low-cost charity affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it is a privilege and a challenge to bring about long-term change through programs like our uterine prolapse partnership in Nepal. Helping others is a wonderful thing.”
Ellen G. White once said: “Talk unbelief, and you will have unbelief; but talk faith, and you will have faith. According to the seed sown will be the harvest” (The Signs of the Times, October 20, 1887). Foundational to Asian Aid’s work is the belief that through God all things are possible, and small seeds sown in the lives of young, poor children will result in blessings that are truly amazing. Without fanfare, without access to sophisticated marketing or celebrity support, and entirely through God’s grace, Asian Aid continues to grow and serve the Seventh-day Adventist Church in its global mission. In 2009 sponsorship is expected to reach 8,000 needy children, all of whom will be assisted in partnership with local churches and their institutions.
Brad Watson is a lecturer at Avondale College in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.