Bill and Ken’s Excellent Adventure: A Visit to the VIKAS India Housing Project
It all started because of a chance conversation during a meal at an Indian restaurant.
Fr. Joseph Nagothu
It was 2010, and our new friend, Fr. Joseph Nagothu, had recently arrived in Canada from India. As my wife and I chatted with him, we happened to ask about his childhood in India. We found out that he grew up in a small rural village called Thurakapalem. He told us, with surprising nonchalance, how multi-generational families lived in small, cramped huts made of mud. Thatched straw roofs needed constant repairs because of damage from monsoon rains and strong winds. Wild dogs, poisonous snakes and rats invaded the huts regularly. The lack of a safe source of clean water produced a myriad of health problems for the villagers. One meal a day was a common reality for many families. And the conditions in his village had not changed much since his childhood. To say that hearing all this was an eye-opener is a pretty big understatement.
And thus the seeds were planted in our hearts for the VIKAS India Housing Project. Months of discussions, prayer and research ensued, and we decided to take the leap and see if we could help improve the lives of the villagers in Thurakapalem. With encouragement from other like-minded folks, the approval of Bishop Frederick Henry of the Calgary Catholic Diocese, and the support of our Diocesan Mission Council, we set out to raise money for a pilot project: building a safe and secure home for a needy family in Fr. Joseph’s village.
A finished new home in Thurakapalem
We learned an incredible amount during the ensuing months, and the pilot project was completed on budget and on time. We then moved on to Stage Two, which involved raising $150,000 to build twelve more homes. It seemed a daunting task, but thanks to generous donors that partnered with us, we were able to reach our goal in early 2016. In fact, donations exceeded our goal, so we were able to purchase cots, stoves and lockers for the twelve families who would soon live in the new houses. Under the supervision of community leaders and a village Project Manager, the houses were completed – providing much-appreciated employment to many villagers, and new sturdy homes for the village’s neediest families.
And so, in January of 2017, I found myself on a plane headed to India to see the results of Stage Two of the VIKAS project. With me was fellow VIKAS team member and photographer Ken Fast. Fr. Joseph was waiting for us in India to be our guide and translator. We were looking forward to finding out whether the houses that the villagers had constructed were well built, and whether or not they were making a difference in the lives of the recipients.
Ken Fast and Bill Locke, arriving at the Hyderabad Airport in India
Being our first trip to India, Ken and I both felt apprehensive (actually, “scared” might be a better adjective). We’d been told plenty of fear-inducing stories in great detail by enthusiastic friends who had been to India – with warnings about the unsafe water and food, the pickpockets on every corner, the corrupt government officials, the constant dust, the crowds, the unbearable heat, the overwhelming sights and sounds and smells, the life-threatening traffic and the perilous train system.
And yes, we did encounter some of those things – but we also experienced a life-changing and beautiful adventure.
During our first week in India, we met with stakeholders and community leaders in India who are selflessly serving the poor. They helped to deepen our understanding of the local reality. They are the experts; we are the students. We learned about the significant issues that need to be addressed in rural India, and we brainstormed about potential solutions.
Ranga Rao Jashti
For example, we met with Ranga Rao Jashti, longtime Director of ASSIST, a highly respected non-governmental organization renowned for its innovative development projects in rural India. ASSIST has been helping communities for over 30 years, constructing housing, providing clean water and washroom facilities for schools, and developing vocational training centres. We hit it off with Ranga from the moment we met, and I feel so blessed to now call this gentle, dedicated, articulate man my friend. We talked for hours about India’s future, and dreamed together about development projects in Thurakapalem and the surrounding villages.
Dancers in the parade
After a harrowing drive on a secondary highway, we arrived in Fr. Joseph’s boyhood home, Thurakapalem. The entire village – hundreds of people – were waiting alongside the highway with a band playing and young men dancing. The local people were overflowing with gratitude. We were invited to climb onto the back of a tractor-trailer as they covered us with streams of flowers, and we were then paraded throughout the village. It was an absolutely unbelievable moment, like something out of a movie.
And there were more surprises. When we visited the families in their new homes, we weren’t prepared for the sheer joy on their faces, the love in their hearts, and the friendships waiting to be kindled. One elderly couple wept with gratitude the entire time we were with them. It was so humbling. Their new home was a long-held dream come true – a dream that they and most of the other families never expected would ever happen. For a number of them, it was the first time they had ever slept on a bed.
We discovered, to our delight, that the project in the village has been a huge success. The homes were constructed impeccably; the electrical, water and sanitation facilities functioned beautifully; the cots, stoves and lockers were received as a treasured bonus. The lives of these twelve families were changed dramatically for the better. It was beyond exciting for us see how much good a relatively small amount of money (in North American terms) can do in India.
What I didn’t expect from this adventure was the way that my heart was opened and softened. I came away richer, more complete, and excited about the budding of new relationships. All my apprehension and fears were replaced by hope and optimism.
The people we met in India impressed me deeply by their courage, and by their commitment to improving the lives of their neighbours. Their courage gives me courage, to continue to work alongside them in this task.
Showered with love by the villagers of Thurakapalem.