Natalie Brackett received her BA in Anthropology and Religious Studies from Washington University in St. Louis in 2013. Brackett’s demonstrated commitment to South and Southeast Asian communities has included study and research throughout Nepal, Bhutan and India; a yearlong Princeton in Asia teaching fellowship in remote northern Thailand; and ongoing work with refugee populations in the United States. The Nichols Fund will support Brackett’s efforts in Sikkim, India, where she will join the Tennessee-based Taraloka Foundation in their mission to provide education, healthcare, and safe refuge for vulnerable Himalayan youth. The non-profit’s Happiness Home is a place of comfort and love for over two-dozen girls rescued from very difficult circumstances, and Natalie is thrilled to serve there in the summer of 2016.
Blog Post One:
Highest highs and lowest lows” – this is the mantra for surviving India, and possibly life generally. Seven years ago, I received this wisdom from Tim Williams, future founder of the Taraloka Foundation, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities since to repeat it to myself again and again in this strange and beautiful country. My first time in India, a visit to the Sikkim Happiness Home certainly qualified as the highest high. Meeting dozens of small smiling faces and witnessing the easy compassion and joy with which they live, study, play, and grow together instilled a purpose in my eighteen-year-old heart that I have been chasing ever since. Returning here is a dream fulfilled, a circle completed, and so many other clichés that barely begin to get at how important this opportunity is to me personally and professionally.
Authenticity, however, is at the core of Taraloka’s mission. The girls and the community that supports them are deeply intentional in their approach and conscious of the unique magic bottled here. The Happiness Home provides refuge and education for twenty-six Himalayan girls, currently ranging from second graders to recent high school graduates. The complete competence, extreme efficiency and purest grace with which these young women take care of themselves and each other belies the reality of their situations were it not for the opportunities created in this safe space. Their fluid and selfless motions come across more like a single entity rather than a group of individuals from varied and sometimes tragic backgrounds. A key part of entering their world and participating in their daily life is not disrupting the beautiful balance they maintain together as a family.
But… they are teenage girls, after all. On Friday, school let out for a quick ten day “summer,” and we have been binge watching Korean soap operas and squealing over too cute and too pale shaggy-haired pop stars ever since. The relaxation is tempered with endless projects in every subject, and I’m fumbling to assist with everything from political science dioramas to environmentally conscious poetry. The girls are sweet to allow these superfluous attempts to help, because again they are so smart and capable all on their own. Each girl here has bigger dreams, more ambition and quiet, unassuming confidence than I ever remember having at their age.
This time around, I can already identify my “highest high/lowest low” moments. They occurred simultaneously. One of my first tasks upon arrival was to attend parent-teacher meetings and pick up the girls’ end of term report cards. I was so excited to see their school, meet their friends, and undoubtedly hear endless praise from teachers. But the night before, disaster struck: inevitable revenge of the truck stop food from my journey up the mountain. Of course, the peak moment of illness arrived right in time for an hour walk up the ridge in the pouring rain, an hour of waiting for the delayed school faculty, and another two hours of running in circles around an unfamiliar campus, negotiating in three different languages, and collecting precious documents before the clock struck 11:00 AM and late fees were due.
It’s a little blurry, but between all this and many trips to the latrine, I finally sat down face to face with my sponsor sister’s teacher. The parent-teacher meetings are set up at a single desk in front of a packed classroom of mothers and fathers and students waiting their turn. The comments and rankings are public to the extreme, and all eyes are already on us, the gaggle of twenty-some girls led by a queasy white lady.
The mustachioed instructor starts when I sit down, “You are the guardian?” I am today, and for a moment my internal monologue of “do not puke” ceases as I hear amazing things about my sister: she ranks first in all of ninth grade, she is a wonderfully hard working pupil and a natural leader among her peers. Her math scores could use some improvement, but overall the strongest performance of the term. The teacher bestows a bar of chocolate unto her and shakes my hand, and then – in all seriousness – the entire classroom erupts in applause. She just about explodes in red-cheeked embarrassment and hurries out to the hallway where a circle of friends surrounds her and jumps up and down with their heartfelt congratulations.
Despite feeling very low physically, this was one of the proudest and most fulfilling moments I have ever experienced. To know that this girl – who for seven years has written me letters and shared the details of her life – is so giving and so good day-to-day; to see that she is genuinely and deservedly appreciated, uplifted, and loved by those near her; to observe all at once her perfect academic performance and her KPop obsessions and her silly teasing with her sisters and her dreams of one day earning an MD and a PhD in botany – this opportunity means everything to me. I am so grateful to the Nichols Fund for facilitating my presence, and to the Taraloka Foundation for creating these possibilities twenty-six times over, providing safety and education for some very special young women whom I feel privileged to know and learn from.
Blog Post Two:
Since returning to the United States, I’ve been reflecting on the concept of “home.” Reverse culture shock is very real (I can drink out of this faucet?!), but once that slides away it’s always surprisingly simple – almost like muscle memory – to fall back into my own, relatively easy life.
Everything in India is a bit of a challenge. You’ve got to gear up to dodge buzzing traffic and cow patties, to suck down smoke and pollution and unidentified smells, and – in the case of Sikkim – to climb actual mountains to complete even the most mundane daily tasks.
On the other hand, all that sensory overload kindles a kind of shared vulnerability among friends and strangers alike. The ability to connect with others is as immediate, accessible, and deep as you are willing to cultivate.
From the beginning, I was so warmly received at the Sikkim Happiness Home, but one of my most shining moments of success was when I finally stopped feeling like a guest – after mornings and nights of waiting in line at the sink only to have my dirty dishes stolen (with varying degrees of subtlety), I was allowed to scrub my own plates and silverware. Soon I found my way into the daily rotation of shared chores, sweeping and mopping and squatting by the rooftop faucet over buckets of laundry. Eventually the girls even stopped saving me a silly seat of distinction at the head of the table or waiting for me to be first in line for every meal before grabbing their own food.
I’ve learned that the gratification of earning my own comfort is a major part of my definition of home. It’s easy to learn from the girls’ example the worth of putting in work to manifest your love for a place and the people around you.
This summer, I drafted and piloted an impact evaluation survey at the Home in order to begin formal data collection that will empower future grant writing and fundraising efforts on behalf of the Taraloka Foundation. From 2009 to 2016, reconnecting across the world and across time, I’m excited to know that this is just the beginning of my work maintaining relationships with the girls and contributing to a place that I, too, am happy to call Home.