As students at Ave Maria are just waking up and heading to their first morning class, nine thousand miles away, in a small village in West Bengal, there are students turning on solar-powered lights and sitting down to spend the evening in study. The village is called Bamandanga, and the students are at Emily House, a hostel—or boarding school—for girls.
Emily House ran for nearly two decades without a reliable source of energy. Massive power cuts at night meant that the girls could not rely on having light to work by in the evenings. The unpredictability made it difficult for them to use their time productively, and often left them sitting in the dark.
Light is something frequently taken for granted in the U.S.—perhaps especially in Southwest Florida, the “Sunshine State.” Getting bright light at any time of day is, quite literally, as easy as flicking a switch. But for most of the villages in rural India, light after sunset is a precious commodity.
Over the years, some of the related hostels for boys have had solar lights installed. But by 2014, not one of the girls’ hostels could rely on a power supply at night. It was at that time that Ave Maria University was given the opportunity to help out.
Emily House is one of the many initiatives of Seva Kendra, the official social service center of the Archdiocese of Kolkata. The center is run by Fr. Franklin Menezes (photographed to the left), who has been overseeing and leading Seva Kendra’s efforts in “bringing hope and healing” to the impoverished and underprivileged of Calcutta, with a special emphasis on sustainability. “He is just an extraordinary priest,” AMU President Jim Towey remarks, calling special attention to Fr. Franklin’s entrepreneurial investment in “green” alternatives. One such instance of this is the system by which Seva Kendra is powered: stored rainwater. Another example is its Alternative Energy Solutions Project, through which young men and women are trained in how to assemble and install solar lights—which is where Emily House and Ave Maria University come in.
Each year, AMU’s Mother Teresa Project takes a group of students on a mission trip to serve the poor alongside the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. Of course the aim of the trip is to offer physical service to those in need, but there is only so much that can be done in the space of a week’s visit. The mission trip has the far more lasting effect of enriching the lives of the students who go to serve. Without exception, all of the students return home with countless stories of how they have been inspired and touched by the people of Calcutta. “Our student ambassadors to Calcutta are building a bridge,” President Towey says. “But it’s not enough for our students to be educated and enriched by the experience. We wanted to do something to help educational advancement there as well.” The true aim is to build a reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving between AMU and the Archdiocese of Kolkata. It is easy to see how the people of Calcutta enrich the lives of the AMU students who visit them, but what more can AMU do in turn to enrich the lives of the poor? President Towey, who has known Fr. Franklin Menezes for many years, saw the opportunity to do just that when he heard about Emily House and the need for solar lighting.
With a $5,000 donation from Ave Maria University in 2014, Seva Kendra was able to install solar lighting at Emily House, finally allowing for the girls there to have a normal evening life of recreation and study. One year later, AMU made another donation, this time to set up solar lighting for a boy’s hostel, Henry House, in Kearchand. Just this past summer, the University helped set up lighting for a third hostel in Serampore. These three hostels, which each house around 100-130 girls and boys, are now lit for four hours every night—from 6-10pm—thanks to Seva Kendra’s groundwork and the donations from AMU. The installation of solar lighting for the students in West Bengal is a step towards President Towey’s hope for a relationship of giving and receiving between the University and the Archdiocese of Kolkata.
Three groups of AMU students on the Calcutta mission trip have had the opportunity to meet Fr. Franklin, tour Seva Kendra’s headquarters and get a glimpse into its work in the slums. Unanimously, the first thing that struck the students was Fr. Franklin’s joy. The second thing was his clear delight in wearing the “AMU” t-shirt President Towey had given him the year before. “He kept pointing at the shirt, laughing and smiling,” alumna Mary Katherine Lee recalls. Corey Blanchard, an AMU senior, agrees. He also remembers being struck by how Fr. Franklin’s work at Seva Kendra empowers individuals to take initiative. “Fr. Franklin’s idea is that it’s better to build leaders, to show them how to lead in their communities, in order to create a better economy,” he explains. For junior Marisa Helms, something Fr. Franklin said sticks out in her mind particularly. “I remember Fr. Frank telling our group that through our efforts with the Mother Teresa Project we are putting into light what was meant by the words ‘Come be my light.’”
“Come, be my light.” Those are the words Jesus used in calling St. Mother Teresa to serve the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. And, echoing the theme of light, Mother Teresa expressed the desire to light up all of India with “the fire of charity.” As the sun rises over Ave Maria’s campus, it is also setting over Emily House in West Bengal. In that moment, the two are united, not just in the pursuit of learning, not just in the physical link between a donation and a solar light, but also—and more importantly—in the great blaze of charity, that flows out of the heart of God, is passed among his people, and then brought home again, into the Light that is Love.
by Sarah Blanchard