Shelley Seale & Freelance Writer
FINALIST: The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India

Shelley Seale is the author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, published on June 15, 2009. Buy the book here:

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Lurching along the dirt road, I gaze out the window at rural Orissa in northeastern India as the car bounces over potholes, sending plumes of red dust billowing behind it. The small villages we pass are as familiar to me as if I had been here only last week. The shacks that line the river, their plastic or tar paper roofs held down with rocks. The smell of curry and incense hanging thick in the air. The tiny shops and vendor stalls selling saris or pots or candies, the mangy dogs and cows nosing at piles of trash, the rickshaw drivers pedaling through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. People seem to fill every square inch of space. It is exactly as I left it a year ago. I glance at my daughter sitting next to me, trying to gauge her reaction. She's looking out the far window with eager eyes. Like me, she is excited to be on our way to the orphanage, at last. The reason we are here in the first place; the reason I have brought my fifteen-year-old child halfway around the world. To spend a week with a hundred children at the Miracle Foundation home who had captured my heart on previous visits. I have devoted the past three years of my life to writing a book about them - a decision that has changed my life and, hopefully, will change theirs too. My desire to bring my own daughter to this place, to this experience, has led us to this moment. suddenly we turn a corner and are pulling through the gates into the ashram. We get out of the car and start up the little pathway that leads between buildings to the interior courtyard and, one by one, they begin to spy us. I see little brown faces peeking out around corners and through bushes. Slowly the ashram comes to life. Word of our arrival spreads and dozens of grinning, jumping children surround us on the path and pour into the courtyard. Within seconds we are engulfed by barefoot children grasping for our hands and clambering over each other to smile up at us. children run up to show me small things I had given them the year before – stickers, crayons, hair clips. They display these cherished treasures; such simple possessions, so proudly owned and taken care of. They ask for nothing from me other than being here. In many ways they are just like other children I've known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging. they had been imprinted on my soul forever.


As the New Year dawned on 2004 I was living in Austin, Texas, freelancing and trying to single-handedly shepherd a 13-year-old daughter through her teenage years unscathed. I felt slightly adrift after recently leaving Dallas, a relationship and a full-time real estate business to craft a life with more meaning. For me this meant going back to school, embracing my first passion of writing instead of the career I had haphazardly fallen into, and engaging myself more deeply with social and political issues of importance to me. 


One day in early 2004 I was paging through a local lifestyle magazine when an article grabbed my attention. It told the story of Caroline Boudreaux, who had visited India three years earlier and happened upon a home full of parentless children living in incomprehensible conditions. The couple who ran the orphanage constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for the children they had taken in, children who had nowhere else to turn. The moment she returned to the United States, Caroline left her career in television advertising behind and started a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the children in the home. 


I wondered what could be so powerful about these kids that would cause a person to completely turn her life upside down. And what kind of a woman does that? A woman that I wanted to know, I decided. Over the next few months I became involved with Caroline's foundation, and a friendship developed between us. Soon, she had invited me to go to India with her, and in March 2005 I met these children in person for the first time. 

It was during that trip, getting to know the children and the stories behind how each of them had wound up in the orphanage, that I decided to begin writing a book about their lives. I had assumed they were all orphans in the true sense of the word – their parents had died – and was shocked by how many of them had been "orphaned" by poverty; their parents had left them at the Miracle Foundation home because they were too poor to feed them. As I began learning about their hidden griefs and tragedies, words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. popped into my head: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." If my work had seemed to lack purpose the last few years, it had found it now. My mission began to form - to use my writing abilities to give a strong and hopeful voice to these invisible children, who had been silent for far too long. writing this book, the research and the months spent away from home and witnessing terrible suffering, have at times been difficult - emotionally and physically. I still don't know if this book will ever get published, will ever make a difference to anyone else but me. My biggest challenge has been that which probably affects all working mothers, and that is juggling the things that must be done and having enough time for it all. I am still not sure how it will all happen or where it will lead; I only know, in my heart, the peace that comes from being where I'm meant to be. being a mother has also caused things that I have witnessed to affect me in a very profound way. I have looked into the absolutely haunted, vacant eyes of street children or HIV-positive kids and seen the eyes of my own daughter staring back at me. I think it's perhaps even more soul-rending to see children suffering when you are a mother yourself. I hope that I am teaching my daughter compassion and justice, and not the sense of entitlement that seems so prevalent in our culture. I hope for her not to take for granted the things we are fortunate enough to have and realize that the human experience is a shared one. I believe that taking her to India with me showed her how 80% of the world lives in vastly different circumstances from us, where the same opportunities are not available. 


Also, I hope I can be a role model to her for following your passions in life, for doing what you love and loving what you do. Creating a life and work that have meaning is the most rewarding thing I can think of, and the thing that keeps most people from doing that is fear; fear of not following the herd and living life the way everyone else lives it or someone else thinks you should live. in my journeys over the last three years into the orphanages, slums, clinics and streets of India I have become immersed in dozens of children's lives. Their hope and resilience amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give. the stories they shared with me do not belong to me. They were given to me as a gift, often because I was the only person who had ever asked.