Autumn 2008

Elizabeth Sholtys portrait with child

Elizabeth Sholtys 07C with Ramu, now a year and a half old, adopted by the Ashraya Initiative for Children as an infant.

Photo by Gautam Singh/Associated Press

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Brave Hearts

Two alumni. Ten homeless kids. 8,600 miles from Emory.

By Robbie Brown 07C

“This rickshaw won’t explode, right?” I ask Basraj.

We’re trying to wedge ten children, twenty soccer cleats, and two full-sized adults into a rickety, three-wheeled vehicle the size of a bathtub. Then we’re going to ride down the highway to soccer practice.

Basraj shakes his head: It probably won’t explode.

Like most ideas at the orphanage I’m visiting, Basraj’s plan for loading the rickshaw seems impossible—but it works. Under his direction, everyone piles inside the automobile: Tushar, nine; Santosh, ten; and Geeta, eleven, perching above the back seat; Akash, fifteen; Sanjay, eleven; and Ashwini, twelve, forming a human bridge across my lap; Sonali, eight; Kajal, nine; and Jyoti, eleven, cramming between the older boys; and the rickshaw driver pressing against the wheel. Then Basraj, sixteen, slips inside the left door, and voilà! We’re on the road!

The ride is typical of life here at the Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC), an orphanage in Pune, India, founded and run by twenty-four-year-old Elizabeth Sholtys 07C. Ashraya takes a bold, unconventional approach to improving the lives of the world’s poor. Employing only college students and recent graduates, the organization adopts abandoned children from India’s slums, then feeds, educates, houses, and cares for them.

With donations and grants, Ashraya has enrolled the children in private school and expensive club-league soccer lessons. It tries to give this small cadre every advantage they lacked on the streets. The organization’s deepest hope is that these unrelated children will somehow coalesce into a happy, healthy, educated family.

“We want the orphanage to remain small so we can treat each child like an individual,” Sholtys says. “We want to meet each child’s needs and foster a real sense of family and togetherness.”

Ten minutes after the rickshaw departs, we reach the soccer field. Children spill from the vehicle like circus clowns exiting an impossibly small car. Now that we’ve safely arrived, I finally exhale (for physical and emotional reasons) and the kids race around the field, kicking, laughing, and imitating their favorite soccer player, the A. C. Milan midfielder Kaká.

After practice, we pack into the rickshaw again and return home to a warm, waiting dinner of rice and vegetables. The kids study vocabulary words, play chess, read books, and complete chores. Then at night, we pile into the den, under blankets, with Ashraya’s two dogs and four cats, and watch the ideal movie for any jam-packed house: 101 Dalmatians.

Everything seems so loving and natural that you almost forget that four years ago most of these children were strangers, parentless or abandoned, uneducated, and begging from meal to meal.

This incredible family is Sholtys’s brainchild. As an Emory first-year student in 2004, Sholtys and six friends founded Ashraya, which means “hope,” “trust,” “shelter,” and “protection” in Hindi. She was twenty, had lived in India in high school, and was deeply inspired by a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains about Paul Farmer, the pioneering physician who created Partners in Health in Haiti as a medical student. If Farmer could start his own nonprofit in a foreign country and still earn his degree in America on time, Sholtys decided she could, too.

On June 28, 2005, at age twenty-one, Sholtys adopted her first three street children—Basraj, Akash, and Sanjay—with donated funding. Still taking classes full time at Emory, she purchased an apartment in Pune and began commuting between India and Atlanta. Sholtys traveled to India five times between her freshman year and graduation, totaling eighty thousand miles in the air and twenty-five months outside America. While abroad, she received credit from Emory for independent-study courses in sociology and the Indian language Marathi. In May 2007, she graduated on schedule as a Robert W. Woodruff Scholar, having also studied in Emory’s graduate Rollins School of Public Health.

“She’s like a modern-day Mother Teresa,” CNN anchor Don Lemon said during a broadcast about Ashraya in June 2007. “We just thought it was such an amazing story.”

Bobbi Patterson, senior lecturer in religion and former Emory Scholars Program director, recalls Sholtys’s single-mindedness when founding Ashraya. “This wasn’t a game, this wasn’t a lark. It was a lifetime calling. And it’s a complex calling—working with another culture’s street children.”

Everyone told Sholtys that she couldn’t start an orphanage halfway around the planet and earn an Emory degree at the same time. Now she’s trying to disprove another prevailing assumption: that India’s 18 million homeless children are beyond redemption.

“We want to show people that whatever negative thoughts they have about street kids—those don’t have to be true,” she says. “We want to put these kids in a position to speak for themselves. Twenty years from now, I hope they can say, ‘I used to be one of those kids on a street corner selling newspapers, but look how far I’ve come.’ ”

With adoption came many cultural adjustments. The children had experienced the effects of alcoholism, sexual abuse, and crime. They weren’t accustomed to rules or routine. They hadn’t attended school. They didn’t speak English.

Within the first year, five children ran away or were reclaimed by their mothers. “In the beginning, we used to sleep in front of the door at night because we were afraid they would run away,” Ashraya Assistant Director of Health Outreach Patrick Mayne 06C says.

But against all odds and societal norms, they have become a family. The children eat together, study together, play together, pray together, watch movies together, and celebrate birthdays together. They clearly love each other. The younger ones call the older ones didi and dada, Hindi for big sister and big brother. They share possessions and bedrooms and secrets.

“Certainly we’re working on instilling family values and a sense of togetherness,” Sholtys says. “To have the kids feel like they are siblings—that’s very important to us.”

Sholtys and I were classmates at Emory, and like most students in the Class of 2007 I heard a lot about—and was slightly in awe of—“that crazy girl who started the orphanage in India.” So when I received the Lucius Lamar McMullan Award at graduation, I chose to donate the $20,000 prize to Ashraya.

By coincidence, Sholtys’s hero Paul Farmer was chosen as our Commencement speaker, and we were among the students selected to meet him at University President James Wagner’s home.

But I still didn’t know Sholtys well, had never visited the orphanage, and could only guess at how—or why—a twenty-four-year-old woman from Ithaca, New York, would adopt ten homeless children.

So, for a week in January, I visited Ashraya to observe the children, watch Sholtys and Mayne in action, and speculate on how anyone maintains even the slightest bit of sanity as the legal guardian of ten adopted children.

Traveling to India was my way of finding out.

I arrived in Pune by taxi one night in January and found myself, suddenly and unexpectedly, knee-deep in screaming children. “Robbie Brown dada! Robbie Brown dada! Robbie Brown dada!” I staggered into Ashraya’s main apartment, the kids climbing my body like a ladder, and dispensed Snickers bars I’d bought at a gas station as gifts.

Around-the-clock energy—that’s the best way to describe Ashraya. It’s like living inside a kindergarten classroom.

On the den wall, a colorful poster outlines the kids’ daily routines, from wake-up at 5:30 a.m. to chores, reading, and bed by 9:00 p.m. Even with such firm rules, though, Sholtys must constantly resolve unforeseen problems. Geeta won’t share the bicycle. Ashwini has the mumps. Akash broke a neighbor’s window. Tushar’s socks are too big. The dogs have parvo. In a household of ten children and six pets, peace and quiet are rare commodities.

“It’s really hard to draw the line between work and life,” Sholtys says.

“It’s not even worth distinguishing between the two,” Mayne adds.

Sholtys and Mayne met in 2003 through the Emory Scholars Program. He volunteered at Ashraya several times during college and graduate school.

This May, after studying for a year at the University of St. Andrews as a Bobby Jones Scholar, he moved to Pune. He plans to stay for a few years before returning to graduate school.

“Working at AIC is pretty much my dream job,” he says. “I still do sometimes wish that I had gotten a job in a city somewhere with friends and had a ‘normal’ life. But nothing compares to the kind of work I get to do on the ground with AIC.”

Each night, after the children fall asleep, Sholtys and Mayne work for hours in her bedroom/office. Sometimes they watch the TV show The Office, a comedy about a mundane, nine-to-five paper company that seems light-years removed from Ashraya.

The children call Sholtys and Mayne “Elisa didi” and “Patrick dada,” but the Emory alumni are less like big siblings and more like parents. They joke about what the neighbors must think: a twenty-four-year-old couple with ten children?

Still, Sholtys is careful to differentiate herself from the kids’ biological parents. “You don’t take a thirteen-year-old street kid with substance abuse problems and tons of emotional baggage and try to pretend like you’re his mother,” she says. “Even the kids who’ve been at AIC the longest have been here for only two and a half years—as opposed to thirteen years on the streets. You have to be aware that the kids are coming into the situation with so many memories and experiences. You can’t pretend that you’ve always been in their lives.”

Even knowing whether you can hug each child is difficult, she says. “If it’s your own child, you grow up with all of this physical touch. There are so many things you have to tiptoe around when you have this strange new person in your house. I have a really distinct memory of the first time that Santosh came to me and asked for a hug. It was an incredible feeling.”

Sholtys and Mayne have support with this delicate process. Sholtys employs two full-time Indian housekeepers and a constantly rotating roster of college-aged volunteers. Since 2004, more than eighty college students have worked at Ashraya, including about fifteen from Emory.

“AIC defined my whole experience at Emory,” says Amber Wang 06C, who helped found Ashraya and served as co-home director for eight months in 2005. “I came to college wanting to grow into a better person—to actually do things, not just talk about them. With AIC, I saw a dream become a reality.”

Ashraya supporters have organized fund-raising chapters in six countries— Canada, the U.S., Japan, Austria, India, and the United Kingdom. Sholtys herself has won numerous grants and awards: from Emory, she received the Stephanie Canright Scholarship, the Institute of International and Comparative Studies Scholarship, the Center for Women’s Unsung Heroine Award, and the Emory Humanitarian Award. Wang and Mayne have earned prizes and recognition for Ashraya as well.

Mayne and Sholtys receive no salary; they subsist entirely off their own savings. Awards and donations fund the daily costs of raising ten children: the soccer jerseys, the school uniforms, the doctor’s visits, the computer equipment.

But there’s a greater cost looming on the horizon: Sholtys hopes the children all will attend college. The Ashraya kids are now among the top students in their grades, despite having missed years of school while homeless. They all make the Indian equivalents of As or B pluses, and three are skipping ahead a grade next year.

The kids wear T-shirts from the American universities Ashraya volunteers have come from: Emory, Yale, Michigan, Maryland, Duke, Cornell, and others. “If you ask the kids where they want to go to school, they all say Emory,” Sholtys says. “We’re trying to instill in them that ‘College is cool. All the cool kids go to college.’ ”

Sholtys understands how ambitious this goal is. That’s why the children spend an hour and a half every day studying English and completing their homework. It’s why Sholtys posts SAT words like “loquacious,” “procrastinate,” “compromise,” and “sufficient” on her bedroom door. And it’s why the children must read books aloud and play chess with the volunteers before bedtime.

Sholtys’s emphasis on the children’s education reflects her own impressive academic record. After two years of high school in her hometown of Ithaca, New York, Sholtys was admitted to the prestigious Mahindra United World College of India, an international high school outside Pune. At Mahindra, she began working with street children and excelled well enough academically to earn admission to Princeton and Harvard.

“We’re trying to teach these kids to think for themselves,” Sholtys says. “The Indian education system stresses rote memorization: memorize this sentence, copy this paragraph. In art class, the teacher draws a bird on the board and says, ‘Draw a bird this way.’ We say, ‘Draw the bird any way you want.’ ”

One afternoon, Sholtys helped Basraj and Akash with history homework. Their assignment was to copy answers from a chapter about civil disobedience, but Sholtys wanted to make them think.

Sholtys: “If one person doesn’t obey the law, what happens?”

Basraj: “They’ll get killed “

Sholtys: “Um, hopefully not.”

Basraj: “They go to jail.”

Sholtys: “Okay. But what happens if everyone gets together and says, we want a different law? What are the leaders going to do then?”

Akash: “Make a new law.”

Sholtys: “That’s right!”

Then Sholtys explained to Basraj and Akash how Gandhi used this strategy to reform India. It was a fitting lesson from Sholtys, who had earlier taped a poster in the Ashraya kitchen with the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“We’re able to work on a much more individual basis [than most orphanages],” Sholtys says, noting that many other homes for street children expel their residents after they turn eighteen. “We can help the kids apply for internships, jobs, scholarships. If a kid needs more time, we can accommodate them. It’s just like any family. When you turn eighteen, your mother and father don’t tell you to find a new roof to sleep under. We can really look out for these kids’ long-term futures.”

If Ashraya were only an orphanage, the workload for Sholtys and Mayne might seem manageable. But since last October, the organization has redoubled its responsibilities: Ashraya is now an orphanage and an outreach center, providing health care to Pune adults and after-school education to children who don’t live in the orphanage.

Every weekday morning, a group of boys comes to Ashraya’s downtown center for snacks (including protein-rich milk, which they don’t receive on the streets) and help with homework. In the afternoons, the girls come. India’s public schools are so overcrowded that children in Pune only attend school for half a day, so Ashraya educates them during the remaining hours.

One morning during my trip, Sholtys and I were sitting in Ashraya’s education center, watching the boys study Hindi. She was busily checking a roster to see which students had been lagging in attendance. “These parents want their kids begging or working, not going to school,” she says. “One of the boys works in a liquor store. Some sell clothes. A lot beg. We put pressure on the families to send them to school instead.”

Sholtys monitors attendance for another reason, too. If these children don’t show up, there are others waiting to get in. Sholtys can only admit the kids who truly want to be there. “We turn people away all the time,” she says. “We just don’t have the time, the manpower, the energy. It’s not even an issue of money. It’s an issue of hours in the day.” In only a few months, Ashraya has gone from having to sweet-talk parents into enrolling their children in the after-school program to having to turn away applicants.

Later in the day, Mayne and I went to the busti, or slum, so I could observe Ashraya’s health care work. Neither Sholtys nor Mayne is a doctor; they majored in anthropology and international studies, respectively. But they can administer basic medicine and bridge the gap between Pune’s sick, who can’t diagnose their own afflictions and don’t know where to find treatment, and Pune’s doctors, who seldom venture into the busti.

The busti contains some of the city’s worst poverty. Putrid garbage collects in the dusty walkways between clay hovels. Chickens peck at dry ground, and flies circle over half-naked starving children. The people who live here are known as Wagris, a caste condemned to criminal status by the British and still downtrodden today. They subsist on less than $1 per family per day.

In this den of poverty, Mayne is a celebrity. As he approaches the busti’s perimeter, Wagris circle around him, hollering complaints: an elderly couple is going blind, a mentally disabled boy is anemic, a nine-month-old baby weighs less than a newborn and his alcoholic father hasn’t worked in months. Mayne isolates the problems, promising to accompany the elderly couple to a cataract surgery, to measure the hemoglobin in the anemic boy’s blood, and to speak to the father of the malnourished baby. Knowing just where to find him, Mayne prescribes 500 grams per week of milk powder for the child and lectures the father for his negligence.

“We estimate that there are about five hundred people in this busti, and we’ve probably interacted with at least two hundred of them,” Mayne says. “We recognize pretty much everyone.”

Back at Emory, Sholtys is remembered with both admiration and incredulity. Anthropology Professor Peter Brown taught Sholtys’s freshman seminar on public health and recalls her as “exceptionally smart, but also frustrated by her knowledge of global economic and health disparities.” The depth of Sholtys’s awareness placed her in an entirely different category from other college freshmen, he says.

“There was a courage and desire to change things,” he says. “Her writing was very mature. Her analytical abilities were even better than some of the graduate students I teach.”

Patterson first met Sholtys during the interviews for the Woodruff Scholarship. “She was like this elegant bird of prey,” Patterson recalls. “She had such a sharp mind, and she had clearly seen more than other high school students. We knew she was already thinking outside the box.”

Once Sholtys arrived at Emory, her proposal to spend so much time away from campus aroused discussion. “There were professors who said, ‘Is this what a Woodruff Scholar does? Don’t we pay Woodruff Scholars to come here—not to travel around the world?” Patterson says. “There were other voices who felt like her work could wait until she graduated.”

But Sholtys prevailed, through sheer persistence. She convinced the necessary administrators that she could juggle Ashraya and classwork. Brown and Patterson applaud the University for allowing Sholtys to pursue this unusual combination of learning and service.

“It’s great to have the ability as an institution to take a unique person like Elizabeth and give her what she needs,” Patterson says. “I really felt strongly that her innovative risk taking was something Emory should support. That seemed to me to be part of the liberal arts legacy. Elizabeth was completely consistent in arguing that she could integrate theory here with practice there.”

At Ashraya, the theory has been laid and the practice has taken over. Every moment of every day involves real scenarios, real people, real problems, and real solutions.

For the children there, this means movies and milk, soccer practice and schoolwork, English lessons, chess games, and their own beds at night—things that could only be imagined before Sholtys and her team came to create a home, thousands of miles from their own.