Category Archives: Calcutta Kids Blog

Welcome To Our New Trustees

On the top of the agenda for Calcutta Kids during the year 2013 is sustainability. Too often in development the word sustainability is meant only to refer to financial sustainability.  But one of the major challenges development workers face in the field is organizational sustainability—how will the organization manage times of uncertainty and change; how will the vision and passion of the founder remain present in the team in such a profound way as to drive them without the physical presence of the founder? Since its inception Calcutta Kids has been focused on ensuring successful implementation of its programs in order to achieve its objectives. As significant changes in health indicators are now visible and attributable to our interventions, the obvious next step is to focus on the sustainability of the organizational systems and then scale up.

In the summer of 2012 following the unexpected death of our co-founding trustee in India, Mrs. Shwasti Chaudhuri, we inducted two dynamic new trustees to help guide the organization. I’m pleased to introduce Mr. Sudipta Sinha Roy and Mr. John Ambat. In the past several months, both of these trustees have spent a considerable amount of time at Calcutta Kids getting to know the staff and observing and participating in our activities. Aware of the organization’s desire to scale up, both John and Sudipta are carefully analyzing the existing systems and policies with regard to accounts, investments and human resources to ensure that we are ready.

Both Sudipta and John run their own companies and are able to provide 360 degree visions of how to run an organization in India. Given their rich professional experiences and backgrounds, they are able to guide Calcutta Kids to improve organizational sustainability.

A major challenge faced by organizations in the non-profit-sector in India is that of striking the right balance between policies guided by standards versus emotions. Individuals who choose to work in the non-profit-sector usually do so because of an emotional desire to serve the poor. A common purpose among a group of devoted employees often creates a feeling of family which certainly improves service delivery. But it also makes it difficult to standardize systems and ensure smooth functioning of the organization. In order to ensure healthy sustainability and growth, it is crucial for us to create an environment with a balance—one where we maintain an environment in which the staff feel like family, and is also able to function in a manner in which standardized policies and guidelines are followed. As we prepare to grow and move forward, we are confident in the guidance and support of the newest additions to our Board.

John and Sudipta have already proven to be wise additions to the governing body of Calcutta Kids. As do all of our trustees, they believe deeply in the work of Calcutta Kids and are committed to the organization’s sustainability and growth.–Noah Levinson and Evangeline Ambat

US Consul General visits Calcutta Kids

On Wednesday 28th November, the United States Consul General Dean Thompson and his wife Jane paid a call on Calcutta Kids. They arrived at our office in full pomp and circumstance with an escort of 3 police jeeps. The Thompsons have been stationed in Kolkata since August 2011; have heard about the Calcutta Kids and its US connection; and have been anxious to see our growth monitoring and promotion (GMP) program in action. The visit was a great success and a major coup for Calcutta Kids.

Chandan leads the US Consul General, Dean Thompson to Ma O Shishu Shiksha Kendra

We began the visit by having tea around our lunch table while the senior management and CK Trustee, John Ambat, spoke with the Thompsons about the history; the objectives; the successes; and challenges of the organization. The Thompsons asked good questions and made several suggestions of potential collaborations we might pursue especially surrounding alternative mediums for behavioral change communication which they have seen work in various places, i.e. puppet shows and theater.

Gopal, welcomes Dean Thompson to Fakir Bagan

The next stop was Ma O Shishu Shiksha Kendra—our community center in the heart of Fakir Bagan. Wednesday was the second day of GMP—indeed the busiest of the three day program which takes place each month in which more than 550 children are weighed and measured. When the Thompsons entered the 1200 square foot center there were no less than 90 mothers and children. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson observed the weighing of the children and spent time with families waiting in line.

Danya and Sumana explain to the Thompsons about how data is collected at GMP

The Thompsons meet with beneficiaries waiting to be weighed and measured

We then organized a series of conversations so that our guests could interact personally with two of our health workers, Munni and Sima, and a few mother/child pairs. It was during these conversations that the Thompsons were really able to understand the power of the work Calcutta Kids does from the people who do it and from the people who benefit from it. After this series of conversations, Dean spoke to our health workers, about the importance of their work–that it is one thing to gain the knowledge, but the most impressive and most important thing is the transferring of that knowledge to lift up the other women in this community. Jane then mentioned that it was very evident from the way Munni and Sima spoke, how passionate and committed they were to their job—that it was good to see such empowered women in the community.

Some of the staff posing for a photo with the Thompsons in front of our office before they wrap up their visit

We are most grateful to Dean and Jane Thompson for their visit and we hope to welcome them back to Calcutta Kids again sometime soon. We are also most grateful to Danya Sarkar who encouraged and organized the visit. –Noah Levinson

SWOT Weakness–>Monthly Meetings

In the spring of 2012, our 2011-2012 AIF Fellow Margy Elliott conducted a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis for Calcutta Kids. Margy carried out long interviews with representatives of all of our stakeholders including all of the staff; beneficiaries; donors; former interns; current interns and volunteers. The management team along with the board of trustees has carefully gone over this detailed document and is implementing changes so as to promote and further reinforce our strengths, fix the weaknesses, take advantage of the opportunities, and close the holes on the potential threats. Over the coming months, we will share ways in which we have used the SWOT analysis to strengthen and protect Calcutta Kids.

One of the discovered internal weaknesses was a lack of communication between the field staff and management. Many staff members commented on the need for regular communication and regular staff meetings. So we started such monthly meetings in July and we’ve been having such fun with them.

October 2012 Monthly Meeting. Staff sitting in front of “jack-o-lanterns” they made.

We follow a simple agenda for these meetings:

  1. Ice-Breaker
    1. At the end of the previous meeting, a staff member is nominated to prepare and conduct the ice-breaking session at the beginning of the next meeting.
  2. Introduction
    1. We start off each meeting with a case study from the field—usually in the form of a PowerPoint presentation with photographs and associated text. The case is often meant to inspire the staff; share a lesson learned; or show how a particular counseling technique worked or didn’t work. As our work is divided into three geographical areas, each area has a chance to present once every three months.
  3. Updates/Announcements
    1. Job openings
    2. Program changes
    3. Data Feedback–we discuss the quantitative accomplishments of the past month
    4. Welcoming of new staff members; bidding farewell to departing staff
    5. Status updates on ongoing projects
    6. General explanation of accomplishments over the last month
    7. General plan for the coming month(s)
  4. Questions & Answers
    1. This is an opportunity for anyone in the organization to ask questions and raise concerns which need to be dealt with as an organization.
  5. Birthday Celebration & Welcomes and Goodbyes
    1. At these meetings we celebrate all the employees who have birthdays that month.
    2. While eating snacks and cake, we toast our departing staff members and welcome our newcomers.
The meetings are events which both management and field-level staff look forward to. They are a time for recommitting to our cause and to celebrate the community that is Calcutta Kids.

Ice-breaking activity

At the October monthly meeting, Noah and Evangeline were in charge of the ice-breaker. The day before the meeting, we told every member of the team to come in to work the following day with a cooking knife (they dubiously obliged) and Halloween and pumpkin carving was introduced. The staff broke up into groups of 2 and made beautiful ‘jack-o-lanterns’. The following day, Area-In-Charge, Barnali took all the pumpkins and cooked them into a delicious pumpkin stew and the whole staff ate it for lunch along with home-made luchis. –Noah Levinson

Chandan and his carved pumpkin

Sumana and her carved pumpkin

Gov’t-assisted immunization training

In September, Calcutta Kids organized an immunization training program, which served as a refresher training for some of our team and a new experience for others.  The training was carried out by a colleague in the government sector, Dr. Swagata Mukherjee, the Assistant Medical Officer for the Howrah Municipal Corporation (HMC).  Despite his busy schedule, he volunteered his services to Calcutta Kids during his personal time.  During the training, participants learned about vaccine-preventable diseases and related vaccines, the proper vaccination schedule, and how to technically administer each type of vaccine.  The training comprised of two days of observation at the Municipal Health Center during immunization camps, and three days of theory, observation, and practice in the Calcutta Kids clinic.

Training with Dr. Swagata Mukherjee

The training is one of many steps in the process towards implementing a community-based health care model at Calcutta Kids.  Until recently, our curative health, nutrition care, and immunization components have been held in our health center, Swastha Kendra, situated outside of Fakir Bagan.  During immunizations, vaccines were primarily administered by our nurse under the supervision of our doctor.  But this month we are merging the health center into our community center Ma o Shishu Shiksha Kendra, so immunizations are also transitioning to the new space in the heart of Fakir Bagan.  This is part of our effort to bring cost-effective healthcare solutions closer to the community.

The immunization camp will now be carried out in the community by the area in charges (senior community health workers) and the health assistant-counselors who are now qualified in immunizations as a result of the excellent training they received in September.  Where we once relied on one person to conduct immunizations every week (with the doctor as a back-up), we now have four trained staff members who are proficient in administering immunizations.  This will help ensure that immunizations are even more accessible for the families in Fakir Bagan, and provides Calcutta Kids the capacity to extend our immunization program to neighboring areas, thereby targeting more children in need of immunization.

Laxmi administering vaccinations after the training

Around the world, routine immunizations have reduced and even eliminated many childhood illnesses that once killed and debilitated many children.  Although many vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) have been controlled, children are still dying from diseases that could be prevented by providing the critical vaccinations during the first few years of life.  The World Health Organization estimated that, every year, 1.5 million children die from diseases that could have been prevented by routine vaccination.  That staggering total represents almost one-fifth of all the children who died worldwide before reaching their fifth birthday. (1)

The Indian National Immunization Schedule includes the following six VPDs: Tuberculosis, Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Measles, and Polio. For a child to be considered fully immunized, he or she must have received one dose each of BCG and Measles and three doses of DPT and Polio in the first year of life. There is still much more work to be done in terms of immunization coverage in India: Nationally, less than half (43.5%) of children 12-23 months are fully immunized. West Bengal is faring better than the national average, with 64.3% of children 12-23 months fully immunized. (2)

Waiting for immunizations at the Calcutta Kids clinic. Photography by Brett Cole, November 2012

Immunization in India must be sustained, not only to prevent VPDs, but also to reduce the incidence of measles and tetanus, and eradicate poliomyelitis. India, known as one of the greatest challenges for the global polio eradication campaign, has now been polio free for 18 months. (3) The last reported polio case was in Shahapur village in Howrah district, the same district where Calcutta Kids operates. Sustained immunization and coverage will ensure that polio does not make a comeback to this country.

Calcutta Kids is committed to help sustain immunization coverage in Fakir Bagan by ensuring that every young child in Fakir Bagan is fully immunized and therefore protected against vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses.–Danya Sarkar

2.NFHS-3, India and West Bengal Factsheets

AIF Fellow impressions 2012-13 (2 of 2)

On our first day working as fellows at Calcutta Kids, about a month back now, Sriya and I found ourselves rolling our pant-legs up and wading into dark, murky water. We were walking door-to-door with the community health workers in Fakir Bagan. The health workers, who form the foundation of CK’s mission, cajoled and persuaded, informed and explained, about the basic behaviors that were essential for their health and the health of the child in their womb. I realized then, as the gentle fans in the homes of the expecting mothers did a valiant effort to dry our monsoon rain-soaked clothes, that public health didn’t get more grassroots than this. Calcutta Kids worked, rain or shine, at the deepest and most essential roots of maternal and child health, in areas that are black holes in the larger Indian public health system.

Cleaning the drains in Fakir Bagan

Compared to the U.S., Calcutta is, of course, a risky place. One thing that I heard many times from family and friends was to take care of my health. But the truth is no matter how much riskier my life has gotten since I came to Calcutta from Ohio, daily life for an inhabitant of Fakir Bagan is laden with an immensely greater amount of risk. We can look to life expectancy (an admittedly crude indicator). Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is 78.5 years, and in India it’s 67.1 years (CIA World Factbook 2012). These are averages though; estimates of life expectancy in slums across the globe, ones similar to Fakir Bagan have ranged from seven to fifteen years lower than non-slum urban areas. The risks begin at the very beginning of life and continue throughout, and are not far from what the average American would have faced a century ago.

A healthy CK child

In my view, all health providers at their core attempt to mitigate and prevent risk for their beneficiaries. At the most essential and highest impact stages of life, Calcutta Kids tackles this vast disparity for risk of death and illness. I’ve seen this done through a myriad of MCH programs, including nutrition for malnourished children, regular immunization, check-ups with an on-staff physician, and regular meetings with our health workers.

Immunizations about to be given

Over the next year, Calcutta Kids’s capacity to be involved and engaged within the community will increase, including the behavior change communication programs and community health meetings Sriya will be aiding with as well as the new child development corner. Additionally, Calcutta Kids will be transitioning the health clinic into the Ma o Shishu Shiksha Kendra community center, right in the thick of Fakir Bagan, and initiating a potential geographical expansion within the Howrah slums. I look forward to helping with these goals throughout the year and many more rain soaked home visits.–Pranav Reddy (AIF William J. Clinton Fellow 2012-2013)

AIF Fellow impressions 2012-13 (1 of 2)

I am so impressed and inspired by the motivation you see at Calcutta Kids. Every health worker I have been able to spend time with during my first month here is doing a wholehearted job to be a good resource to the organization and more importantly to the community they are serving. Thanks to our mentor Danya Sarkar, who helped us feel settled down, Pranav and I have been able to explore the community and learn all the various functions of the organization. As we make our visits into the field with the health workers, the community has noticed and recognizes us as new members of Calcutta Kids. We realized this as we looked a little lost while trying to find our way to the community center and two women immediately gave us directions before we even asked them!

The mission of Calcutta Kids can be understood through the manner in which the health workers communicate with the women of the community. Every child is important and can be given adequate care by simply monitoring them. If a child’s weight has not increased during the monthly Growth, Monitoring and Promotion Program, the health worker visits the mother in the following week and counsels her. The health workers express how they are really sad when they see no positive growth in the child. They encourage each mother to take more care of the baby, give her simple tips on how to create a healthy diet and also praise her when she has done a good job. Thus, the health workers have built a great relationship with the mothers of the community. The mothers are always happy to see the didis and welcome them into their houses. They also offer tea or lunch and ask us to spend time with them. When the health worker completes filling up her form and questionnaire, the women thank her for coming and tell her that they felt happy they got to chat with them. The women also trust the health workers as much as they trust a doctor. Even when the health workers are merely on their walk from one house visit to another, many women stop them with their babies and talk about how their child still has a cold or might have developed a skin infection.

Meeting for pregnant women lead by Laxmi Gupta

Meeting for pregnant women led by Laxmi Gupta

The success stories from Calcutta Kids are commendable and its establishment in Fakir Bagan is very apparent in the number of people who visit the clinic everyday or the manner in which we are received in each house. However, there is still work to be done. Although the women recognize the messages delivered by the health workers, many women still do not seem to be adopting a change in their habits. They usually quote too much housework and stress in their lives as reasons for not being able to follow the health workers advice. Even when they come to the community meetings, they listen to the messages or watch the videos but whether they are following the key points is something yet to be assessed. This is a project I plan to work on during my time at Calcutta Kids. I will be working out behavior change communication strategies using different methods of delivering messages to the community. I will be working with the health workers and the beneficiaries to find out why they are not able to follow simple, yet key health practices. Through the health counseling sessions, community meetings and discussions groups I hope to understand the needs of the women, analyze existing techniques of delivering health messages and find ways to improve them. Eventually, I hope to create a sustainable structure to monitor and evaluate changes in health behavior as put forth by the health workers.- Sriya Srikrishnan (AIF William J. Clinton Fellow 2012-2013)

The CK-AIF Partnership

The partnership with the America India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship Program has become an integral part of Calcutta Kids and a rich addition to our operations. In a field which has become infamous for its infighting and noncooperation, this partnership represents the best in international development cooperation. Here are two organizations which have their own distinct objectives, but share a common goal—to create positive social change in India. And together we have been doing just that…creating positive social change through eager young people committed to helping India bring about change that will help empower traditionally disadvantaged populations and, in turn, bring about sustainable poverty alleviation.

Since its inception, Calcutta Kids has enjoyed the chance to mentor and provide valuable learning opportunities for the next generation of western development workers through our internship positions. We’ve had dozens of young people from the United States and Europe work with Calcutta Kids to learn about and participate in our mission to improve the health status of pregnant women and children in slum areas of Kolkata. These internships have proven overwhelmingly positive for both the interns and for Calcutta Kids. At the same time, we’re aware that doing it right requires a lot of work on our part to identify the right interns, link them up with needed tasks that will utilize their skills, and then organize logistical support for them.

2012-2013 AIF Fellow, Pranav Reddy

Last year we began partnering with AIF’s Clinton Fellowship Program. And it was a terrific year indeed. AIF carefully selects Fellows who are not only eager to learn, but who also show considerable potential to benefit the small organizations with which AIF partners. AIF also organizes funding for the fellows, and facilitates housing for them. Taking care of these logistics allows Calcutta Kids the time to focus on the Fellow and the task, and to figure out the best means of linking the two. Last year, AIF sent us Margy Elliott who had recently finished her MPH at Columbia University. Margy spent ten months with us, quickly became part of the Calcutta Kids family, and, in the process, solidified our relationship with AIF.
Margy took on an array of professional tasks at Calcutta Kids—and in each served as a healthy bridge between the community health workers and the main office administration. She also developed our beautiful website and conducted a SWOT analysis which has provided invaluable insights, and, in turn, has resulted in significant morale boosting among the Calcutta Kids team.

In September of this year, AIF sent us two new fellows—Pranav Reddy and Sriya Srikrishnan—both of whom are quickly becoming part of the Calcutta Kids team and family. Still early on in the fellowship, Pranav and Sriya are getting to know the organization with the idea of identifying limiting factors and means by which they might best be addressed. Sriya is spending a substantial amount of time in the field with our community health workers and participating in our community meetings. She also is working to increase the effectiveness of our behavioral change communication efforts. And she is examining means by which Calcutta Kids might establish a more meaningful and sustainable collaboration with government programs. Pranav, meanwhile, is carefully examining Calcutta Kids data and looking for cost-effective means of expanding our coverage area—one of the organization’s major goals for the coming year. He has a particular interest in examining the inner-workings of an Indian NGO, and then helping to mainstream administrative tasks.

2012-2013 AIF fellow, Sriya Srikrishnan

As was the case with Margy last year, we are expecting valuable results from the work Pranav and Sriya are doing. They’re off to a great start!

All of us at Calcutta Kids are grateful to those individuals who have helped to make this partnership with AIF possible. We look forward to the next 9 months with Sriya and Pranav, and then to many more years with such bright and eager AIF Fellows.—Noah Levinson

(A similar blog written by the same author was submitted to AIF to be posted on their website.)

CK Starts Routine Deworming

We introduced an exciting new component to our young child health initiative that we hope will help improve the health status of children in Fakir Bagan.  During our Growth Monitoring and Promotion (GMP) camp this week, Calcutta Kids carried out routine deworming of preschool age children. We have been discussing this idea for several months now after our data analysis showed a high prevalence of worm infestation in a group of malnourished children enrolled in our nutrition pilot program (YChiNG). At the time, we dewormed the children in the YChiNG program, but realized that there were many more children in our catchment area who could benefit from deworming.

Nasreen helping a father give deworming medicine

We were motivated in part by a Government of India mass deworming campaign in New Delhi earlier this year, which included deworming not only school-age children in government schools, but also pre-school age children in ICDS/Anganwadi (government health) centers. During last month’s GMP in Fakir Bagan, we conducted a survey with mothers of children 1-3 years old, asking them to report if their child had an incidence of intestinal worms in the past 6 months. A resounding 43% of mothers answered yes, which reflected a clear need for an intervention.

Intestinal worms, which are pervasive in India, can have devastating effects on a child’s physical and mental growth. In low-income urban areas like Fakir Bagan, where sanitation and hygiene are poor and many children walk around without shoes for protection, the most common type of intestinal worms are soil transmitted helminthes. Once in the body, these parasitic worms feed on host tissues, including blood, leading to a loss of iron and protein. They also hinder the absorption of nutrients. The result is diarrhea, anemia, and malnutrition, all which have a detrimental impact on child health, growth, and development. To counter the negative effects of worms, the WHO recommends periodic drug treatment (deworming) of all children living in endemic areas. (1) Studies have shown that routine deworming of children can have significant positive outcomes on nutrition, growth, and cognitive performance.

A child excited about the new deworming medicine

School-age children are thought to have a high burden of worm infestation. Fortunately, they are easy to reach for deworming because schools serve as pre-established distribution networks. The evidence shows that routine deworming makes a difference. One landmark study showed that deworming can reduce school absenteeism by 25%. Furthermore, children who are regularly dewormed earn over 20% more as adults and work 12% more hours, while those infected are 13% less likely to be literate. (2) Global campaigns now target pre-school age children, who are tougher to reach but also a vulnerable group in terms of exposure to worms. Studies conducted in Indian slums show that there is substantial weight gain in young children (pre-school age) who are dewormed regularly. (3)

Apart from the mass campaign in Delhi this year, which followed mass campaigns in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh a few years back, deworming campaigns have not been widely organized in India. Given that deworming is extremely cost-effective at only a few cents per pill, and provides both short-term and long-term physical and cognitive benefits to a child, India could see great benefits by ramping up state deworming campaigns, which can be effectively carried out through government schools and ICDS/Anganwadi health centers. The WHO includes intestinal worms among “the 17 neglected tropical diseases” which WHO Director General Margaret Chan described as “diseases that are largely silent, as the people affected or at risk have no political voice.”. The WHO launched its “neglected tropical diseases” campaign to raise awareness among policy makers and donors, in hopes of stimulating more action, like deworming campaigns. For Calcutta Kids, this new deworming initiative marks a proactive step to address the “neglected disease” that is most prevalent in our community.

The first round of deworming this week marked the beginning of our commitment to ensure routine deworming every 6 months to each preschool aged child in Fakir Bagan. We reached each of the 311 children between 1-3 years old, but missed some children who had traveled to the village with their families, but they should be covered in future rounds. Between rounds, we will immediately treat any children who present with worms. Parents at the camp were positive about the deworming intervention. The results were telling. In the words of one father, “My child was feeling sick and her stomach was swollen from worms. I am happy that she is now getting medicine to make her better.” – Danya Sarkar

3. Effects of Deworming on Malnourished Preschool Children in India: An Open-Labelled, Cluster-Randomized Trial. Shally Awasthi, Richard Peto, Vinod K. Pande, Robert H. Fletcher, Simon Read, Donald A. P. Bundy. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, April 2008, Volume 2, Issue 4

We Will Miss You Ma

On 9th August 2012, Mrs. Shwasti Chaudhuri, a founding board member of Calcutta Kids Trust, passed away. An unsung hero in almost every road she travelled, Mrs. Chaudhuri played a key background role in the establishment and ongoing success of Calcutta Kids. I wish to use this week’s blog to write about this extraordinary woman and the impact she had on my life.

In 2002, during a 9 month stay in Kolkata, I was introduced to Santanu and Shwasti Chaudhuri by dear friends of Calcutta Kids, Charlie and Cordie Puttkammer. Santanu was a retired business man and a former board member of Shaw Wallace; Shwasti had a small handmade paper factory and managed their beautiful home—one of the last standing British bungalows on Ballygunge Circular Road.

The Chaudhuris and I became enamored with each other. They were very supportive of the work I was then doing with the Ashalayam Mobile Health Clinic, but they realized quickly that the road I was headed down – non-stop work with the neediest kids in the slums – was a dangerous one—one that might very well lead to burnout. The Chaudhuris, worldly people who knew how hard life in Kolkata could be for foreigners, had seen others push too hard and then give up in desperation. And they made it their mission not to let this happen. They ‘adopted’ me and on a weekly basis would invite me to join them for dinner at one of the old British clubs of Kolkata—the Bengal Club, the Calcutta Club, the Saturday Club, or their home which is almost as big and fancy as a dinner club.

Noah and “Ma” distributing sweaters to destitute children in the winter of 2004 in honor of Fred Rogers.

The generosity showered upon me by the Chaudhuris was overwhelming, and along with marvelous conversations and delicious food and the best soufflé I’d ever tasted, I was introduced to and welcomed into a new Kolkata—a Kolkata far different than that of Mother Teresa’s work and the street children with whom I worked every day. If it was possible to fall deeper in love with Kolkata than I already had, it happened through the Chaudhuris.

My relationship with the Chaudhuris became that of a surrogate son. I soon began calling Mr. Chaudhuri “Baba” and Mrs. Chaudhuri, “Ma”. In 2003, when I returned to Kolkata for another long period of time, Ma and Baba invited me to live with them, and I continued to live there whenever I was in Kolkata until 2008.

While living with the Chaudhuris, Ma and I would regularly have long conversations. Ma would listen to me talk about my successes and failures working with the poor of Kolkata; she would listen to my frustrations; she would give guidance, but more often, she would just listen or re-direct my thinking if I was badly off the mark. Ma never told me what to do unless I specifically asked. She told me that the only way I was going to survive in Kolkata is if I made mistakes and learned from them. Ma was a great listener and someone I could always bounce ideas off.

When I was sick from dysentery or viral fever, Ma nursed me. When the Chaudhuris son Kaushik returned from America to live with them (I had been staying in Kaushik’s bedroom) Ma gave me her room so that I could stay close to the family; when I was far away from home and I lost two grandparents in just one month, Ma dried my tears. My own dear mother, Louise, was very close to Ma and they often holidayed together in the hills.

In 2005 when Calcutta Kids opened an office in Kolkata, Ma and Baba formed the Calcutta Kids Trust with an initial sizable donation. Ma and Baba were supportive of the Trust, but in a hands-off way. They knew that Calcutta Kids was my baby and they gave it and me the freedom we needed to grow. They often warned about potential problems; they often gave their opinions on ideas I would have, but they let me guide the Trust with their support. Board meetings were always held at their home and Ma would make sure that the trustees were well fed with singharas, an array of sandesh, pakoras and Darjeeling tea.

It’s because of Ma and Baba that I was able to survive as long as I have in Kolkata; it’s because of their love and support and friendship; it’s because they welcomed me into their home; it’s because they gave me the comfort I needed to juxtapose with my troubling days; it’s because they protected me while allowing me to make the mistakes which would eventually make Calcutta Kids what it is today.

In many ways, my life is what it is today because of Ma and Baba. Without Ma and Baba I certainly wouldn’t have survived this long in Kolkata and Calcutta Kids would likely not exist. And without my being in Kolkata, I never would have met Evangeline—my life partner.

This photo was taken at Noah and Evangeline’s wedding in India on January 14th 2012. Evangeline is sitting on Baba’s lap, and Noah is standing between his mother Louise, and his Ma, Shwasti.

Even after moving out of their home, I remained a son of the house. Ma and I spoke on the phone nearly every day. And oh how I will miss that daily phone call. But even more than the phone calls I will miss the one-on-one conversations we had over tea lounging on the bed; I’ll miss Ma’s infectious smile; and I’ll miss her scolding me for chewing on toothpicks and pulling hairs from my head when I am anxious.

Before Ma died, she told her family that I was like a son to her. The Chaudhuri family gave me the honor of carrying Ma’s body from the house to the hearse, and they asked me to participate in the Hindu rituals which a son performs for his mother. I’m deeply grateful to the family for giving me that honor.

Calcutta Kids will be forever in debt to Ma for all her love and support and to honor Ma’s life, we will continue to provide the best possible care to the pregnant women and children of Fakir Bagan.–Noah Levinson

The Story of Puja Yadav

I will never forget the image of Puja on that first day of YCHING (Young Child Nutrition Group) in April 2011: Her mother Rinku set her down on the ground, and she took off, a whirlwind of 11 month old energy, tottering on slightly bowed legs, eyes bright with promise, grinning ear to ear. She was a radiant child.

Puja in April 2011

Fast forward to January 2012: Puja’s family came back to Fakir Bagan after a 10 month stay in the village during which time Rinku delivered her fourth child, Prince. Rinku had conceived again when Puja was just 9 months old, and the family–which included Rinku, her husband, Puja’s older brother and sister, and Puja–decided to return to the village for the pregnancy and delivery and to be close to extended family at home. The next time we saw Puja in January, we were shocked to see her condition–gone was the sunny, energetic girl we knew a year back. The new Puja was sullen, lethargic, and irritable. There was a clear reason: after taking her measurements we found that Puja had dropped off her growth curve, plummeting from -2.2 in weight for age z-score (WAZ) in April 2011 to -3.6 WAZ in January 2012. She was severely underweight and obviously suffering from infection. We counseled her mother and urged her to bring Puja in for examination and treatment, but with the new baby, plus Puja and her older siblings, Rinku was overwhelmed and decided to return to the village before we could intervene.

The family reappeared in Fakir Bagan in June 2012 and we were dismayed to see that Puja, now at 27 months, had taken a turn for the worse.  She was now -4.8 WAZ, very severely underweight, and also severely wasted at -3.03 weight for height z-score (WHZ). She suffered from both chronic and acute malnutrition- she was very weak, had raspy, labored breathing, a swollen abdomen, and chronic fever. She urgently needed help. We were sure she would not survive if she continued on this downward spiral.

Puja in June 2012

The Calcutta Kids doctor examined Puja and we quickly put together a treatment plan for Puja. First, we referred and accompanied her to Hope Hospital in Kolkata where she could be seen by a specialist pediatrician. The pediatrician diagnosed her with severe protein energy malnutrition (PEM), severe anemia, and chronic infection, and suspected that she had TB. He ordered a battery of tests and we sent Puja to the local DOTS (Directly Observed Therapy) center for TB screening. Though her Mantoux test was negative, her chest x-ray showed severe infection in the lung.

In consultation with the Hope pediatrician, Puja is now taking a 3 month course of level I anti-tuberculosis drug for her lung infection and therapeutic micronutrient supplements. Rinku brings her to the Calcutta Kids clinic everyday for an energy and protein dense, nutritious meal. Our health workers visit her home regularly for follow up and counseling on care, hygiene, and nutrition with the family.

Puja and her mother Rinku, July 2012

Puja Yadav, like all our children at Calcutta Kids, was never just a ‘case’ to be managed. She was a child at risk, a child trying desperately to survive the odds around her–a life that would not only be lost, but discounted, if someone did not intervene. Our entire team rallied together with Puja’s family.  We had intense discussions, we shed a few tears, and we cheered when Puja started gaining weight, slowly but surely; started smiling again; and even laughing. We are very happy to report that Puja has started to blossom again, and is slowly starting to resemble the girl we met over a year ago. In two months, she gained 1.5 kg, and shot up from -4.8 WAZ to -3.5 WAZ. She has improved from severe wasting (-3.03 WHZ) to mild wasting (-1.38 WHZ), a remarkable turnaround. And all of this has happened with home-based care, which is much harder to adhere to and manage than institutionalized rehabilitation, an option that the family would not consider, because it would mean leaving the other children at home without a full-time caregiver.

Like Puja, the family has started to change as well. Initially, both father and mother did not want to take Puja to the DOTS center three days a week for medication. They feared Puja would be labeled as a TB patient and ostracized by their neighbors. Calcutta Kids counseled them and gave them confidence to explain to their neighbors why they sought treatment for Puja. The community around them has also seen the changes in Puja and supports the family’s actions. Furthermore, as Puja’s health has improved, her younger brother Prince has also made remarkable strides. He, too, had been severely underweight when they came back from the village in June 2012. In the past 2 months, Prince moved up to the moderate category, gaining 1.2 kg, going from -3.47 to -2.4 in z-score (WAZ). We believe that this is another testament to change that has occurred in the family and especially in Rinku, who now seems less burdened, more confident, and proud of her children. When she brings Puja to the clinic she is delighted when Puja calls our health workers ‘amar didi’ (my elder sisters) and when Puja holds her hands to us in ‘namashkar.’

Puja now–August 2012

Puja is a true fighter. She is still the vibrant spirit who caught our attention long ago. She and her family just needed some extra attention. We at Calcutta Kids feel privileged that we were able to provide that additional help. We are committed to making sure that Puja remains on this trajectory of growth and nutrition, a critical foundation for a healthy and productive future. –Danya Sarkar

Puja’s Weight for Age Z score.
(Ideal is a straight line at 0)

Puja’s Weight for Height Z score.
(Ideal is a straight line at 0)