Maureen Forrest gives hope to 25,000 children in Kolkata

Maureen Forrest began The Hope Foundation to support the street children of Kolkata, India, sustaining more than 60 projects in health, education, and vocational training.

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    Maureen Forrest poses with Geeta Venkadakrishnan, the director of the Hope Kolkata Foundation. Ms. Forrest has raised more the $27 million to aid the street children of Kolkata, India.
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Whatever the archetypal image of a humanitarian worker is, it almost certainly won’t look like Maureen Forrest. The petite Irishwoman is a study in glamour in a smartly tailored suit and sharply styled hair, complete with electric pink highlights.

But no amount of styling can disguise the quiet determination that shines through her restless eyes. It’s the kind of determination that always knows how to gently turn a “no” into a “yes,” and is responsible for the enormous success of The Hope Foundation, the organization founded by Maureen to support the street children of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India.

The Hope Foundation will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year, and in that short space of time has grown from little more than a dream and a fax machine to a network that sustains more than 60 projects touching the lives of 25,000 children who were born with few choices and very little hope.

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That growth can be attributed to the dynamism, charisma, and charm of Ms. Forrest, who has reached the age when many enter retirement, but who has absolutely no intention of slowing down or taking it easy. While others are puttering in their gardens, Forrest can be found talking to battered wives in Kolkata’s slums, negotiating with donors in Dublin, or sitting with teenagers in a drug rehabilitation center.

“It really would be much easier to go off and play golf!” she says with a laugh.

Kolkata is a thriving and highly cultural city, chaotic and sordid yet proud of its rich literary history and making the most of the colonial heritage bestowed on it by the British. But before visitors reach the modern highways, luxury hotels, trendy nightclubs, and busy art galleries, they are faced with a grim, incontrovertible fact: Thousands and thousands of people live on the streets there, in dire conditions. Many of them are children.

Maureen first went to Kolkata in 1993 as a volunteer for the Irish humanitarian aid organization GOAL. This was not her first time in the field. She had worked for GOAL on one of the toughest assignments imaginable – in Somalia during its war and consequent famine of the early 1990s. Yet what she saw in Kolkata turned her world upside down.

“Somalia opened my eyes to a world that I hadn’t imagined," she says. “The hardest thing was having healthy babies die in your arms because there wasn’t enough food. Their mothers were dying, and they were dying. And when you looked at it, there was no good reason at all.”

This was utterly unacceptable to Forrest, who had dealt with the personal tragedy of losing her first child.

That refusal to accept the unacceptable is part of what underpinned the drive to create The Hope Foundation.

“When she came here, she was different from other people,” says Geeta Venkadakrishnan, the director of the Hope Kolkata Foundation, which was founded and is funded by the Ireland-based Hope Foundation. “She wanted to know why the people were on the streets, why the government wasn’t helping them.

"These were God’s gifted children, and for her this was so strong. So many who come here, come and take photographs and ask questions and leave. But this was not enough for her.”

Forrest went back to Ireland a burning desire to help, and with it she lit up Hope, starting with a shelter for 26 endangered young girls. Today Hope funds and works  with 60 separate projects run by other nongovernmental organizations in health, education, savings and micro-finance, and training in life and vocational skills. The programs are intended mainly for Kolkata’s street children, but they also assist vulnerable women and the underprivileged poor.

Hope also directly runs five shelters, has built and operates a hospital, and continues to run its vital Childwatch service, which rescues high-risk children from the streets.

The money for this comes from Forrest’s relentless fundraising and a novel approach that engages students in Ireland to help their peers from another continent.

“She’s an amazing lady,” says Ms. Venkadakrishnan, who has worked for Hope since it was founded. “She’s so positive and is the backbone of the organization. At every turn, whenever we are dealing with a child who is in real need, she has said ‘Yes, help them.’ Then we have to find the money. It has helped us to see things through her eyes.”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘no’ in my vocabulary,” Forrest says with a smile. “At least, I’ve always looked at it as the opening of negotiations.” She smiles sweetly, giving a glimpse of the charm that has helped her to raise almost €20 million ($27 million) so far.

Most of the fundraising activities are focused on Ireland, a small country where everyone still knows someone who knows you. However, Hope has also always been adaptable, embracing new technology and new approaches.   

“You have to change your thinking and your focus, to look for other ways of fundraising," Forrest says. "The traditional ways don’t always work anymore, and you also can’t keep asking the same people. And at times of crisis, people also tend to focus on the home charities, so we’ve had to be inventive.”

One of the strategies she has employed has been to encourage high school students to raise funds for projects, with a prize for those who raise the most. That prize is a trip to India to visit the projects that the students have helped.

In this way, the teenagers become more than fundraisers. They also become emissaries for the organization and help to raise awareness of the issues confronted by the projects in Kolkata. The situation sounds different when it’s described by your friends, not coming from some voice on the television.

Recently a group of students from one of Ireland’s best boys’ schools was touring the projects that they had helped by packing shopping bags, baking biscuits, holding concerts, and harassing their friends’ parents. In the almost unbearable heat, the boys sang their hearts out with the Kolkata children, ran around playgrounds with them, and read to them. More importantly, they were becoming witnesses for them. They were understanding the children, and understanding that something could be done to help them.

Last year, 264 16- and 17-year-old students visited projects in Kolkata.

“For a young child to go into a slum and actually see the conditions, it makes a huge difference to them," Forrest says. "They become as immersed in the work as they can for one week and get to understand the program. When they go home, they become true ambassadors for the youth here.”

The Hope Foundation has also reached out to students in India, where rigid social structures still entrench economic and social divisions between castes. Hope has set up a program to bring students from well-to-do schools into the city to visit the shelters and help the the children with their reading and homework.

“It’s an eye-opening experience for them,” Forrest says. “Their parents often wouldn’t like them to have anything to do with children from a lower caste, and they’re very shielded from this world, often driven everywhere behind dark glass. They don’t have to see how other people live, but these are all India’s children.”

The project has been a big success, and more students are signing up to take part as they learn more from their peers.

Of course, many challenges remain. As many organizations have found, while the global recession creates greater need, it also restricts the supply of available support. But Forrest remains undaunted.

“I just focus on where I’m at now, and on what needs to be done now. But I’m a positive person, and I can always see the possibilities, and the good in things. That’s the way I do it."

“I wish we had thousands and millions more Maureens,” Venkadakrishnan says. “But we only have one, so we have to make do.”

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