Des Williams is a Bosco Volunteer Action (BOVA) volunteer from Scotland, who took some time out of running his own business to spend 4 months volunteering at Don Bosco Care Home, Salem, India. Des has spent time reflecting on his experiences during and after his placement and shares with us some of his thoughts a few months after returning to the UK - Anita Motha, BOVA
Sixty two boys aged from seven years up to twenty-one live here in the care home. All the boys are living with HIV; nearly all were born HIV positive.
Fr Daniel, the Rector, has, throughout the last 5 years, developed the care home with a holistic approach. There are a variety of animals and birds on site. All the boys are responsible for their feeding and welfare. Up to 8 cows supply milk which in turn can be sold for profit which goes towards much needed funds to sustain the care home. The boys all work the land cultivating fruit and veg such as coconut, mango, carrot, onion etc. Corn is harvested and adds to the natural bounty.
Sport is enjoyed weekdays from 5-6 pm and twice on weekends. Special programmes take place fortnightly which include comedy, singing, and dancing. The boys are very talented and so enthusiastic, preparing and participating in the entertainment shows. Education is regarded highly here and the boys study morning before school and evenings for up to 2 hours. All boys rise at 5.30 am weekdays and adhere to a strict timetable, though weekends are more relaxed with more sports, rest and relaxation.
The vast majority of boys have lost at least one but probably both parents to HIV. When one parent dies it is a huge financial, physical and emotional burden on the lone parent to cope. In such cases the best option is for the boy to find a new home with Don Bosco.
All the boys take medicine twice daily to support their immune system. They attend monthly checks in hospital and their CD4 count is monitored (white blood cells). At present 54 boys are on line 1 HIV tablets and 7 on line 2. One boy seems likely soon to be going on to line 3 which is the last option available. With their health and well-being looked after in the care home, and being spiritually and emotionally supported, these boys have a better chance to extend their life expectancy.
Krishna is 17 years old and has lived in the care home for 2 years. I spoke to him to try and understand his feelings about his past and how he sees things now and in the future. He said his mother died from a snake bite when he was a few months old. He told me his father died from pneumonia when he was six. He was then looked after by an aunt until he was thirteen. He left home and worked in the kitchen in a hotel for two years until he was fifteen. An NGO then placed him in Don Bosco in Salem.
Krishna tells me his parents died in these circumstances and that is what he believes. When I asked him how he contracted HIV he said he did not know but he accepts the situation now. He said when he first arrived in the care home he was very frail and his blood count was low. He said he felt he would rather be dead. However today when I speak with him he seems happy and he has a lovely calm persona. He tells me he likes living in the care home and does not visit his home village anymore. However I felt sad when he said he had no special or close friends. He is seventeen years old living in a care home with HIV and no family or close friends. He has no hopes of a relationship or marriage. He finds contentment and reward in art. He likes drawing and painting. He is attending school but is two years behind. He misses school from time to time due to illness, like many of the boys. It was my birthday recently and Krishna drew a picture of him and I, and wished me a Happy Birthday. It was a very humbling moment.
Having spent nearly four months here, I notice similarities in the boys with boys back home. There is rivalry on the sports ground. There are friendships and groups who stick together. There is peer pressure and bullying but no greater than I would say back in Scotland. However I have noticed differences also. The boys are woken at 5.30 am, which in my opinion is too early for the younger boys. Nevertheless, they accept this and are busy all day. They study before school (which I don’t see back home), they play sports (in very hot temperatures) every day for one hour, two at weekends. They are all working daily assisting in bird and animal welfare and the cultivation of plants, vegetables and some local fruits. Salem mangos are famed throughout South India. All boys are expected to participate in all activities whether it be dance, song, drama, games etc.
The boys live in the care home within the Salesian methodology of welfare: home, school, play, Church. Although only a handful are Catholic, all boys say morning and evening prayers and attend Mass on special days. I see how they draw strength from the spiritual aspect of the Don Bosco Salesian teachings. Having visited many other Don Bosco boys' homes during my stay, this is well-equipped in terms of variety of activities, and the setting of the busy town at the foot of the Yercaud Hills is stunning.
My lasting impressions are of boys from birth, through no fault of their own, having to struggle with incurable HIV. There is a social stigma to HIV in the villages where the boys are born and they suffer not only community rejection but family apathy because they are a financial and emotional burden. These boys know they at present will probably die young. They have probably seen their parents die from HIV related illness. Some also have to cope with the fact that they may have elder siblings who do not have the virus. Not only do they have the normal problems and anxieties of childhood but all these issues to live with also. Without the commendable care and selfless daily sacrifice of the Don Bosco Fathers these boys may not be here today.
BOVA is a volunteer group of the Salesians. It offers opportunities to adults (18+) to live and work with Salesian communities around the world, assisting in their work with young people while experiencing life outside of the UK. Placements last between one month and two years. If you would like to find out more about serving with BOVA, contact Anita Motha