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Three years ago, Kennett resident Mary Cairns has a sort of existential crisis.
The lifelong interior decorator was dissatisfied with her work improving the private lives of her clients, feeling she contributed nothing to the world at large.
“I wanted to something significant,” she said. “It was kind of, ‘what’s this really all about?’”
Having become interested in the child sex trade in India a few years prior, Cairns first decided to work in one of the homes where the victims are sent for recovery.
After a little deeper research, however, Cairns discovered a shady and high-risk world where even the police cannot be trusted to do the right thing.
“It was then that I decided that education is the key,” she said. “With most of our societal ills, education is the answer. I then decided to work at a school for girls.”
Cairns first heard about the school, located in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, through a customer who had a friend working there at the time.
Called the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society, the school was started in 2000 by Sam Singh, a retired DuPont employee who wanted to improve the lives of girls and women in his ancestral village.
Before the school opened in 2000, girls in the region did not even have the option to attend school, according to Cairns.
“There’s a 70 percent illiteracy rate in this village area, and the average family income is $14 a month,” she said. “The people live off of wheat because rice is too expensive, and whatever vegetables they’re growing at the time.”
The perpetual cycle of poverty and malnutrition, coupled with few or no opportunities for escape or even advancement, takes its toll on people there all too quickly, Cairns said.
“They’re absolutely beautiful but they’re among the world’s poorest children,” she said. “And what happens to them is age wears on them, so that by the time they’re 30 they look 50, and they’re stripped.”
Cairns spent five months there in 2010, doing whatever was required of her from an endless list of needs for not just the school but the entire village, everything from setting up the school’s computer network to making sure every child had access to toothbrushes.
The girls there range in age from 4 to 14 and are often among the lowest caste in India. Two hundred girls from one of the poorest areas started out at the school two years ago, where they are taught to be – in Cairn’s words – human beings.
“They’re teaching them to dress, how to eat off of a plate, how to sit and stand in line, because they’ve never had that kind of order or structure,” she said.
The goal, she said, is to educate one girl from each of the village’s 80,000 families, and show them options beyond being married off to much older men so that their families don’t have to be responsible for them.
It was a concept so foreign to the villagers, Cairns said, that founder Singh received death threats because no one understood what he wanted with their daughters.
“Girls had never gone to school, so the whole concept was very threatening. So they had to create incentives for the kids to attend,” she said.
The girls receive 10 rupees a day – roughly .25 cents – that goes into an account that they have access to once they graduate. If they attend regularly, they will emerge with roughly $600 – making them among the wealthiest people in the village, Cairns said.
Cairns was all set to return this October for a second stint there, with a retired nurse accompanying her to help administer vaccinations and provide routine medical care.
That retired nurse, Ronnie Duff, and her husband were killed in a car accident several weeks ago, however, leaving Cairn’s mission in jeopardy.
“I need somebody who will say I love to come with you, who can do so out of their own pocket, and help give shots, and can teach me to give shots,” she said.
They would also help address women’s hygiene and reproductive health issues, trying to overcome cultural boundaries that prevent the discussion of sex issues among those who are not yet married.
“We can talk about how the sperm and the egg make a baby, but we can’t talk about how the sperm and the egg got together,” she said. “It’s all very challenging.”
Challenging as it may be, Cairns said, she also can’t wait to return and help once again.
“When I was there, I couldn’t wait to get out,” she said. “Now I can’t wait to go back. They just stole my heart.”
To contact Cairns in regards to her upcoming October trip, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.