21 September 2008

May I help? No, thanks!

I was sitting under a shady tree on stone benches with a group of friends discussing the progress of our projects when a boy with a virulent looking skin infection on his underarms, arms and chest showed up. He wanted money to buy medicines for his infection. This was unusual because most people who beg at parks only want money and hardly qualify the request. Of course, this child had a gross infection to aid his plea and he had probably figured that people were more generous when he asked for money to heal his wounds. Accompanying the request were two tubes of cortisols (topical steroidal applications) apparently prescribed by a doctor for these infections. The child also wanted one of us to accompany him to a pharmacy to purchase the drugs. 
I volunteer for an organization whose broad aim is to help the underprivileged children get an education (Asha for Education) and ironically, this was an Asha meeting. So, there were 7 motivated individuals listening to this boy's story, who wanted to do more than just help him buy medicines. Being the only one in the group to fluently speak (ha!) Kannada I became the ad hoc chief interrogator. 
The child's story - he lives in the park, his parents are close by but don't like him coming home because the neighbors complain about him coming in with an infection and they beat him. Most child beggers come up with stories that they think would give them the money so we weren't too sure about any of these details except that from looking at his skin they were possibly burns and that due to the elements they had turned pustulous. We were able to corroborate from other vendors that he has indeed lived in the park for a few months and no body knew if he had family.
I called my mother who works in an organization for abandoned children and she gave me the number of a shelter that we could bring the boy to. The shelter would take care of his infection and try to track down his family. It was a home for street children. The catch was that we had to bring this child to the shelter since they can't simply come by and pick him up. The other authority that could pick him up was the police but the child was too afraid of them and our instinct is not to trust the cops (which by itself is rather pathetic). Anyway, I tried talking to the boy and promised that we would take him to a home with a nice bed, hot food and medicines for his hurt. The plea fell on deaf ears - he claimed to have a nice bed, get food from a hotel and didn't need a home. With each declaration he walked away even more and the more we pled the further he got. While talking we also discovered that he knew english so at some point he went to school! Finally he was far enough that walking away was easy and we didn't have any more words to convince him to come with us. 
The irony of the situation still stings me. Here we were, offering the child every resource at our disposal but we couldn't get him to trust us. We thought we were being helpful but instead we were rebuffed. There are two aspects to this incident that struck home for me. One, trust is a valuable commodity. Why should anyone trust that you want to help them? Second, not everyone wants your help. You might want to reach out to every child and adult in your life with the words "May I help?" and get a "No, thanks." This was a hard lesson to swallow. My heart still bleeds for this poor baby who is wandering with a bad infection that I couldn't help. I know we did our best and this is something I need to digest philosophically. Not everyone wants your help so allow yourself to offer it without expectation and when your help is accepted, be grateful for the opportunity. 


  1. So, to be honest, I think we made a mistake. This was a kid with an infection after all, and we probably should not have paid so much heed to whether he was shy/scared/what he wanted etc.. We should have just dragged him to the hospital whether he liked it or not.


  2. Yeah, taking him to hospital would have been one action we could have taken. But, what happens after the first treatment. Was anyone of us going to stay with him till he got better? What if the treatment cost more than we bargained for? What if the treatment needed parental approval? My mind reels with the case scenarios after we would have brought him there. Gosh this incident really has so many approaches!