NEW ULM - Vehicles continuously honking their horns to turn, vendors selling their goods under the shelter of brightly colored umbrellas, the unforgettable heat and humidity, the strong smells, and the precious faces of the children all paint a scene of what life is like in Kolkata, (also known as Calcutta) India.
Mary Beth Botz, a high school science and English teacher at St. Mary's High School in Sleepy Eye, helped organize the mission trip at the local level.
In addition to Botz, Monsignor Eugene Lowinski (of St. Mary's Church Sleepy Eye), Julie Neubauer, (a world history and English teacher at St. Mary's) and a group of 15 older students and young adults all went on the trip from June 19-28.
Brianna Jensen and Molly Mathiowetz are pictured with students at a rural school just outside of Kolkata.
The primary organizers and leaders of the mission trip were Sleepy Eye native Grace (Sellner) Strangis, who founded The Pathways to Children Foundation, and Gina Zappa (who is a volunteer with Pathways. She helped once they arrived in India).
"This has been a spiritual pilgrimage for me," said Botz, "I have always been fascinated by Mother Teresa. I was always fascinated by the stories of the missionaries and I was at a time in my life where I could make this trip. She (Mother Theresa) gave up everything to live with the poor."
The group stayed in the state of Bengal where there were two national languages: English and Hindi. The locals spoke "Bengali."
"I was prepared for the images of poverty but not the overwhelming crowds of people and the smells. It was the monsoon season so this hot, humid weather was constant there. It rained almost every day that we were there. There's garbage in the streets, people living on the streets, animal manure on the streets and that's all hot and humid and it's hanging in the air. That - I wasn't ready for."
People do not use their turn signals they honk their horns to turn instead, said Botz.
They went to a couple of orphanages for children with both mental and physical special needs.
"It didn't take you very long to fall in love with them," said Botz, "We had two young men along and they were just like kid magnets. They were exhausted from the amount of physical play that they had to do there."
Many parents who have children with special needs do not have the resources to take care of them, Botz said.
"When we were with the poor, there would be English-speaking teachers or tour guide contacts to help communicate with them," said Botz, "I know what a blessing those children are."
The group from Sleepy Eye brought four tubs (50 pounds each) of school supplies (student and teacher supplies), donations of clothing (including over 100 pillowcase dresses made by a local New Ulm group-Little Dresses for Africa), knitted hats and small baby blankets (from a Sleepy Eye Women's group), according to Botz.
The travelers also packed extra supplies in their checked luggage.
At one point in the trip, the group divided into two separate groups and went to schools in the slums of Kolkata.
Botz said she went to a one-room school with about 60 students.
"It (the room) was just divided by bookcases or rugs or whatever," said Botz, "They had computers the other school did not even have the supplies that this school did."
Since Botz is a science teacher she brought along some simple science experiments.
"It was fun. It was great," said Botz, "They were so excited to learn. The Indian children were so happy and eager to learn new things."
Molly Mathiowetz, who is a high school graduate of St. Mary's in Sleepy Eye, went on the trip to India. She recently graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in May. Mathiowetz will begin her first year this fall teaching fifth grade at St. Anthony's Elementary School in New Ulm.
"I just felt that at this time in my life as I entered the real world and another step that it would be a really great opportunity and a good time for me to go and get some perspective," said Mathiowetz, "I just wanted to see how other schools and teachers in India are teaching children without what I will have access to here in the United States."
Mathiowetz said being in India and the experience was quite surreal.
"I couldn't expect the population and the traffic to go along with the poverty," said Mathiowetz, "I felt like I could leave but the people who lived there had to stay and those were the struggles that they had to overcome everyday."
She kept a journal on the trip to help her reflect on her experiences.
"I think we all realized how blessed we are," said Mathiowetz, "I was pleasantly surprised to see that a few people we met were making so much change there and it only takes one or two people to start making a change in their lives. You have to believe that there's change possible and that it's not hopeless."
Mathiowetz also said, "There's also good things about it (Kolkata) they have a huge spirit. They love where they live. They believe in their culture and they are working toward change so that there is good coming out of it as well."
The 15 students and young adults on the trip were amazing, Botz said.
"There was not one of them that held back from helping the children or doing any job we got," said Botz.
Tasks completed by the members of the group included interacting with the children in the orphanages, cleaning and organizing playrooms, scraping and painting metal cribs, and cleaning the stone walls of a kitchen.
"You could walk away and be devastated by the poverty - but you weren't because we saw enough signs of hope," said Botz, "It was devastating, but not hopeless."
Some of the organizations doing charity and mission work there include; Pathways to Children Foundation, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (an Order of Brothers and an Order of Sisters) and The Society for Indian Children's Welfare, Botz said.
"One person can't do it but there are organizations working together and you see hope," said Botz.
The schools the group visited while in India were sponsored by Pathways to Children Foundation.
"In India it is a state education system," said Botz, "There is education available to everybody. Either the poor just don't go or there's no effort to get them to come (to school)."
In the schools the group visited there was a big effort made by the parents for their children to attend school. All of the children had clean, pressed uniforms on for school.
Many people lived in homes made of corrugated metal with no windows, Botz said. The homes had dirt floors.
The Pathways to Children Foundation was founded and directed by Sleepy Eye native Grace (Sellner) Strangis. It is a Minneapolis-based, non-profit organization that designs volunteer visits with in-country, non-profit partners in Africa, China and India to help poverty-stricken children and their families to improve their basic survival needs, health care as well as education.
Strangis received the St. Mary's Alumni Distinguished Service Award.
Botz had contacted Strangis to come and talk to her class. She felt like Strangis had an interesting story to tell to others.
They talked in late November 2010 and by June they were in Kolkata.
"It was just a whirlwind of planning and organizing it was just meant to be," said Botz, "We had some pretty strong divine protection because to bring 18 people over there really nothing went wrong there were a few glitches."
Botz said they lost one piece of luggage on the way over and one piece of luggage on the way back.
"Now that were back Julie and I are brainstorming ways to help throughout the year so that our students at St. Mary's can make the connection," said Botz, "It would nice to Skype with them, but we can't because of an 11-hour time difference."