Man Finds Hope In Midst Of India's Despair


Laundry laced from building to building to dry over an alley; women cooking the evening meal over small fires fueled by cow manure; small children lying weakly in a hospital ward built specifically for malnourished patients; laughing children, dressed in blue uniforms with the word "hope" pinned to their sweaters, right over the heart.

These snapshots were taken by a Payson man who traveled halfway across the world and found a deeper passion for needy children.

Randy Roberson, a Payson Realtor and former local radio talk show host, returned from a trip to Calcutta, India a week and a half ago and said he's still reeling from culture shock and a deeper understanding of both the Indian culture and the spirit of charity.

Roberson spent 10 days documenting the trip on video as a promotional tool for Hope Academy, a school for needy Indian children and NEED Inc., which oversees it. NEED Inc. is a charity organization based in Payson. Its founder, Larry Ward of Payson, traveled to Calcutta with Roberson.

Hope Academy has been in operation 13 years and the school takes children from 6 to 17 years of age. More than 300 students now attend the school.

Roberson himself has two children and said the trip had an undeniable impact on him. It shifted his view of even simple moments back at home.

"It changed my life," he said. "I mean, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Some people would expect to experience some major culture shock going into a place like that. But even being exposed to some pretty unbelievable conditions, I never really experienced it while I was there. The shock came when I came back. I'm looking at everything so differently than I was when I left, both at a spiritual level and a materialistic one."

The city of Calcutta has a population of about 13 million and Roberson said authorities there estimate 4 million people sleep on the streets each night.

"Some of the needs we saw were just astounding," he said. "The conditions were a stark contrast to our environment, with a whole new definition of stark."

The bleak atmosphere did lead to some lighter moments, though.

"We slept on mosquito nets at one point with a dead bat next to us," he said and laughed. "It kind of grossed us out a tad, but we lived through it. I would not recommend Calcutta as a tourist destination, but I'm eager to go back again."

Roberson spent some of his time in India at the Sheeshu Children's Hospital, one of few in the country. He said touring its halls gave him a unique vantage point for comparison with life at home.

"Sanitary conditions there were grossly lacking and they had a whole malnutrition ward," he said. "After watching little babies dying while their mothers looked on and coming here and watching babies get spoiled at Christmas, it's a major perspective change."

That change in perspective was brought more sharply into focus by a walk through a poor Calcutta neighborhood.

"There were amazingly destitute conditions in a lot of areas," he said. "There are many people that are sleeping in very rough framework (structures) with tarps hung over them, and that's home."

Hope Academy takes the poorest of the poor children from these kinds of conditions, and through outside sponsorship teaches them to read, write and speak English.

"After the kids go through several years at this school, they can come out and be way up on the employability scale when it comes time to find a job," Roberson said. "It makes a huge difference to them and to their whole family from that standpoint."

Roberson said the school has the capacity to double the number of students it accepts, but lacks the sponsorship money to care for them. Several years ago, when word spread that the Academy had sponsorships for an additional 30 students, more than 1,500 parents gathered at the front gates of the compound and ask for their kids to be put on the list.

School officials processed all the applications, but there was only enough money to take in the handful of students.

During his time at the school, Roberson interviewed several Hope Academy students for the video and asked them what they felt was the most important aspect of the school.

"One girl said she felt discipline was the most important thing," he said. "She went on to say all through life there are different rules and they're there for different reasons. This really shocked me. You don't often hear 17-year-old kids saying that kind of thing, at least here.

"Another girl said she lived in a country where everybody hated each other and through the Christian focus of the school, she learned we have to love each other and love our enemies."

Roberson said he was amazed at the impact the school has on its students.

"After looking at the conditions they're coming out of and the environment in which they live, to have any kid come out of the school after a few years with that kind of focus really proves to me the school is doing a good job," he said.

Though his time in Calcutta was personally well spent, Roberson said, the value in the bigger picture hinges on the video project.

"If we can show the video to a lot of people, I will have accomplished something good," he said. "If we can't, then the cost of my trip over there will have been a waste of money. There were a lot of things accomplished in my life personally as a result of this experience, but it really boils down to the video. It may be the best video or the cheesiest, but if no one sees it, it won't make a difference."

The Kiwanis organization is hosting the first screening of the 15-minute video at 7 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 24 at Denny's in Payson.

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