ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

New Life, New Hope

The DeBritto House Hostel, run by American Jesuits in the small town of Gomoh, India, provides a serene and healthful setting in which homeless boys can live, work and learn.

Peter is 10 years old. Though he is known by the name Peter, it is not his given name. If you were to ask Peter what his given name is he would not be able to tell you, nor could he tell you where his family lives. Peter only knows that for the first eight years of his life he was caught in the binds of the caste system of India. He was a harijan – a child of the street.

One of Peter’s legs is missing. He cannot tell you why; he does not know how he lost it. The event was so frightening that his mind refuses to remember it.

Though Peter cannot recall much of his short life, the staff members at the DeBritto House Hostel do know a little of Peter’s past and how it reflects the lives of thousands of children in India today.

Father Larry Hunt, S.J., the American Jesuit who began the hostel for homeless boys, says, “Peter is a fine example of what the DeBritto House Hostel can do for these kids who literally come in off India’s streets.”

Father Hunt explains that when Peter was seven years old he was working on a train as a busboy in the diner car. One day as the train pulled into a station near Calcutta, Peter was standing in an open doorway. Suddenly the train jerked violently and Peter was thrown out of the car. He landed on the tracks while the train was still moving. It severed his leg above the knee.

Peter was fortunate enough to be close to Calcutta when the accident occurred. He was taken to a hospital, where doctors managed to save his life. They could not save his leg.

While Peter was recovering from his ordeal, his story was made known to several Catholic Sisters who worked in the hospital as volunteers. They realized that Peter’s future looked bleak. He had no family to turn to, and his chances of finding work were slim, considering his age and his handicap. He would probably have to spend the rest of his life as a beggar. Like thousands of other children throughout India, Peter would call the streets his home, and his constant companions would be hunger, disease, and the bitter knowledge that life held no hope for him.

But the Sisters knew that there was still a chance for Peter. He was a perfect candidate for the DeBritto House Hostel, run by American Jesuits in the small town of Gomoh. Located in the Bihar province of east India, Gomoh is surrounded by farmland and open country. It provides a serene and healthful setting in which the boys can live, work, and learn.

“If Peter had not been found by those Sisters and sent here to the DeBritto House, he probably would not have led a very fruitful or happy life,” Fr. Hunt remarks. “Today Peter knows weaving and batik, and he can read and write in his own language. Before he leaves the hostel, he will be a master tailor and he will be able to speak English.”

It was for children like Peter – children who might otherwise be condemned to the life of the streets – that DeBritto House was founded.

The hostel was originally a school where American Jesuits were trained in the Hindu languages. Their primary mission among the people of the region was to work with the victims of leprosy, a disease which ravages the spirit as well as the body.

Father Hunt swiftly recognized the acute need for a special facility for the children of leprosy patients. Although many of the youngsters did not have leprosy themselves, they inherited the social stigma attached to it. The community considered them to be outcasts by association.

In 1968, Father Hunt converted the former school into a hostel which would provide academic and vocational training for the sons of leprosy victims, while helping them to overcome the stigma their society placed upon them. Father Hunt recalls that the cliche “easier said than done” proved true.

“Children who are this young,” he says, “are very impressionable and very sensitive to the way others act towards them. They perceive things much more strongly than adults do. We knew we had our work cut out for us at the start, but it has been incredibly rewarding the whole way.”

Since the hostel’s main goal was to give the boys a new and better image of themselves as important and intelligent people, Father Hunt set up a carefully designed system. The boys would run the hostel themselves, taking responsibility for its operation and working with the supervisors.

When they arrive at the hostel, the boys immediately begin workshop classes in which they learn a valuable skill. Classes include batik, weaving, tailoring, blacksmithing, carpentry, and masonry. All of these crafts are highly marketable in India, where manual skills and cottage industries remain a significant part of the economy.

When a young man possesses one of these skills, he can become financially independent and one day support a family of his own.

After each student has received background instruction in every workshop class, he selects the trade he would like to pursue, with the guidance of his teachers. He then enters a class where he receives intensive instruction.

The boys learn to read and write their native language, and they are instructed in math and Indian history as well. Each boy is also given the opportunity to learn English.

When they are not attending classes, the boys run the hostel farm. Some of them cultivate the extensive fields, raising food for all the residents. Others tend the hostel’s small herd of livestock. All four water wells on the grounds were dug by the boys, and several of the handiest youths installed the plumbing to pump water to the buildings. When repairs are necessary, the boys generally do the work themselves.

The daily round of classes and chores at the DeBritto House gives the boys a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Suresh Sahoo, one of the young residents, says, “I not only have a good trade now, but I love myself. I didn’t know that someone could love himself.”

Suresh will be leaving the hostel soon. He has been there for four years, since he was 15. When he arrived, his hands were bent and beginning to atrophy from leprosy. Suresh received medical treatment and then began classroom training. Today he is a master tailor, doing a job that requires skillful hands.

The boys of DeBritto House Hostel take pride in doing their work well, cooperating with each other and with their supervisors for the benefit of all. Father Joe Lacey, S.J., manager of the hostel, sums up its mission and its most important lesson when he says, “You can teach someone to lay bricks or to sew, but how do you teach someone to care? That’s the hardest chapter in the book, but I think we do it here. It’s not hard to see, once you’ve been around these boys for awhile.”

Mark Guidera and his brother Tom have worked with the Jesuits in Bihar, India.

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