By Karen Flaten
When Connie Meyer-Schultz, formerly of Miltona, lost her husband to cancer in 2005 she was devastated. But through her grief, she wanted to do something positive - something to help people. She had received a life insurance benefit, and knew she could put it to good use. Having run a daycare from her home in Miltona for 30 years, she thought she would like to focus on helping children. And so she decided to find out what would be the best way to go about it. She talked with people, she prayed about it, and she did some research. It turns out that there are children needing help all over the world. Children living below the poverty line, children forced to beg or look for food in dumpsters, children who have been orphaned and have no family to take care of them…The idea began to develop in Connie’s mind that helping children in a poorer country might be the answer. She called her travel agent and found out that one of the places where children need help most is India, where there are children who are without families. Orphans are left to scrounge, beg, or steal their food. And India, she found out, is a place where most people speak English, so she would be able to communicate.
Connie began to reach out to churches in India. She sent emails, asking about orphanages, and asking if she could visit. She focused on orphanages that were in poorer areas, were Christian, and which accepted both boys and girls. But the responses were slow in coming. She was frustrated at the lack of replies
“I told myself if I didn’t hear by this day, I would go out and buy a sports car [with the life insurance money],” said Connie. But in a strange twist of fate, her deadline was met with an email. Far across the world, an Evangelical Christian named Raj Kumar had recently had an epiphany. His mission in life was to take care of orphans. He had begun to bring orphans that he found on the street into an unoccupied (and unfinished) house and had used his own funds to take care of them as best he could. It was Raj who responded to Connie’s email about visiting orphanages emphatically – “Come visit ours!” he wrote.
And that is how Connie, who had never traveled outside of the United States, took a trip half way around the world to India to visit orphanages, with a plan to help if she could. Connie flew to Chennai (formerly known as Madras), India. Her new contact, Raj, met her at the airport, holding a sign with her name on it. He then accompanied her on the next leg of the journey -- an 11-hour train ride to the small village where he lived.
“It was an adventure!” exclaimed Connie.
Connie immediately took to Raj, and agreed with what he was trying to accomplish. By the end of the visit, she had decided that this was the community where she could do the most good right away. She agreed to donate enough money to build an orphanage, hire two people to run it and care for the children.
But, first things first, Connie assisted in having the original unfinished house completed. The first orphanage building was finished in 2007 in Bhimavaram, but soon Connie had found like-minded people to donate so that more orphanages could be built... and by this year, a total of 14 orphanages were built.
During her first visit to India, Connie learned how dire the circumstances were for orphans in India. India’s caste system puts orphans, as well as others such as widows, at the bottom of the social rung. Both orphans and widows are considered “untouchable” – some people in India feel that if they touch or even cross paths with a widow or orphan, they must immediately clean themselves. And with very few social structures in place in India to help those at the bottom of the socio-economic system, many orphans are left to live on the streets, begging or stealing for their living. Often these young people fall victim to people who would take advantage of them. Attending school is not even an option for these poor children.
Everything she found out about conditions in India informed Connie’s decision. When she decided to fund the orphanage, Connie made sure that the children would receive nutritious meals, decent clothing, and that they would go to school through 10th grade, if not beyond. She hoped the young people would be able to attend trade school or college as well. She and Raj had no quarrel over these items, nor over making sure all the children would receive instruction in Christian principles.
Connie set up a non-profit to fund Mercy Orphanage, and ran the program on her own for several years. She did outreach through her church and in her community to let people know about the orphanage. She found that people in the Alexandria area were more than willing to help – both through donations and through volunteer work. Bob Bergan, a former Industrial Arts teacher in Alexandria, offered to volunteer, and journeyed to India with Connie more than once to help with the program.
The orphanage flourished, with dozens of children benefitting from Connie’s program. She set up a sponsorship program, similar to some used by other charities. A person can donate $15 per month to sponsor a child, which pays for food, shelter and clothing. The sponsor receives information about the child, including the child’s name and a photo, as well as any additional information, such as special interests. “Everything goes to the kids,” said Connie. There is no money taken out for administrative costs, as is often the case in other charities.
Bergan noted that he and his wife Linda used to sponsor a child through another charity. “We paid $30 per month to support him. We only got one photo per year, and a letter that had the same story each year.” Now Bob and Linda sponsor a child through Mercy Orphanage, and often receive multiple letters in a year from the child they sponsor, usually handwritten by the child and full of information. One of the children the Bergans sponsored through Mercy Orphanage has completed her secondary education and is now attending nursing school. Becoming a nurse would be a major accomplishment for an orphan, since often a child who is orphaned in India would not even be able to attend primary school. Some orphans, Bergan noted, have wound up working in brothels, or – worst case scenario – have been bonded into slavery.
Up until the global pandemic limited travel, Connie visited the orphanage at least once per year, often around Christmas. When she visits, she brings personal letters and photos, as well as any additional monetary donations from the sponsors. She often buys gifts for the children when she is there, so that the children will have holiday gifts to open. When she returns stateside, she brings letters and photos from the children to their sponsors.
“They’re so grateful! They just thank you for everything,” said Connie about the children. She has also been impressed by the attitudes of people in India. “They have nothing, but they are really happy,” she said. Connie felt a strong kinship with Raj and the other people she met in India. “They made me feel so comfortable.”
During her initial visits she felt like a special guest - “I slept in their bed and they slept on the floor!” she exclaimed.
Over the years, with the success of her fundraising and finding volunteers to help, Connie found that she could expand the orphanage to include helping widows, another highly vulnerable group in India. With support of her donors, Connie was able to set up a program to help the women. In fact, the newer orphanage buildings completed through the Mercy Orphanage program were built with a section reserved especially for widows, so that they would have food and a home as well. The women are often skilled in handiwork, making lace table cloths and handbags, which can be sold to bring in money for their support. As the years have gone on, the program has expanded to include drilling wells, bringing access to clean water to small villages where it has not been available.
As Connie reminisced about the last 15 years, she recalled that things have changed a lot since her first visit to India. In recent years, she has seen more western clothing being worn in India. And in the last few years, there have been updates to the orphanages. In 2010, she worked with Raj to have western bathrooms installed in the orphanage buildings, making it much more pleasant for her to visit and for volunteers to go to India to help with the orphanage.
In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic has spread across the globe, travel to India has been suspended. The restrictions within India in the face of the outbreak are also quite repressive. Many of the orphans have had to be split up into smaller groups, with some of the younger children being moved to live with a pastor or with youth leaders. As in the U.S. and many places in the world, schools were closed in March, and only some have partially opened. In India, access to online learning is very limited, and unfortunately, not available in many rural villages. Sadly, the children of the orphanage are just some of many who do not have internet access, so for the time being, school is not available. Instead, according to Connie, some of the older children are helping with distributing food - “rice bags” - and other items to the poor. Some children are taking a sewing class, where they have been learning to make masks. Wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 is a requirement in India, just as the CDC guidelines suggest here in the United States. Connie said that Covid-19 protocols are being followed carefully at Mercy Orphanage - everything is being disinfected with bleach - and that Raj tells her the kids are OK. They long for the day that schools can reopen safely, so they can return to their studies.
Even before the pandemic shut down travel and other options, Connie had begun thinking about how to pass on the reins of the organization. Not long ago, she retired, closed her in-home daycare, and moved from Minnesota to Indiana so she could be near one of her children and grandchildren. Connie began to look for a partner to help with Mercy Orphanage. After talking with Tracy Alin, a Fargo-Moorhead woman who is committed to finding ways to end poverty, Connie knew she had met the right person. Tracy had an undergraduate degree in Social Work from Moorhead State University, and had worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. In addition, the thesis for Tracy’s Master’s Degree had been on human trafficking; she had learned that India had one of the highest incidences of human slavery in the world, and wanted to find a solution. Connie and Tracy found they could work together to continue to reach goals of helping children through Mercy Orphanage.
“Tracy is better at fundraising and at talking to groups of people than I am,” said Connie modestly. She gives Tracy kudos for helping to expand the program to support people with leprosy, as well as widows and orphans. Tracy has also added a “schoolbooks project” to support the education the children receive, and has focused on increasing the number of wells being drilled in rural areas to bring fresh water to small villages.
Tracy credits Raj, Connie’s original contact in India, for his ability to find discounts or negotiate deals to help the money go farther. Having created her own non-profit, called Amistad Worldwide, as Tracy became passionate about helping to solve the human trafficking problem, Tracy is familiar with what it takes to run a non-profit. Amistad (the name means ‘friendship’ in Spanish) has raised money to build churches and orphanages in Uganda and has partnered with other non-profits to attempt to solve the problems created by poverty. Currently, much of Amistad Worldwide’s work is focused on partnering with the program Connie built to help with orphans, as well as widows and lepers, in southern India.
“We are attempting to find long-term, sustainable solutions to poverty,” said Tracy. The two women, along with many volunteers and donors, have been working together to make a difference a huge difference – in the lives of many poverty-stricken people of southern India.
“It was a good healing thing for me,” said Connie, looking back on the beginning of her odyssey. “I knew it was something I was supposed to do.”