- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

Rupa Raghunath Das of Italy, aka Pietro Paolinelli, used to spend six months of the year working, usually with a fine-dining restaurant, a cruise ship or a catering business, then six months traveling.

That decade-long pattern went on until his globe-trekking took him to India in 1980. Now director for the Food for Life Vrindavan society (FFLV), he spends all his days foraging for sustenance to feed “the poorest of the poor.”

“Rupa,” as he is known and refers to himself, is even more compelled to save India’s young girls. Much of the 54-year-old chef’s work centers on raising funds for dowries to keep girls as young as 12 from being sold by their parents into arranged marriages, often to older men. These children are forced to become young mothers and usually end up as little more than servants.

“When a daughter is born, it is a curse to the family,” Rupa said earlier this month in the District while on his annual American fundraising trip. “The dowry fund is an incentive for parents.”

Rupa also wrote on his blog, at www.fflvrindavan.org: “We found that moral appeals and threats of legal action cannot equal the power of financial incentives to change the minds of the desperately poor and uneducated parents of so many of our students.”

Through the FFLV Save Our Girls fund, Rupa promises parents that their daughters will receive $200 in U.S. currency, with interest, if they allow the girls to remain unmarried until they are 18 or complete the 12th grade at FFLV’s Sandipani Muni Secondary School in Vrindavan.

What the parents don’t know, however, is that the money eventually will be given to the girls, not to them, Rupa said.

In the first four years of the school’s existence, at least 25 girls were taken out of classes and never returned. That number has slowed considerably since the Save Our Girls fund and Gift of Hope tuition sponsorships were established.

A monthly “hope” donation of $30 pays for a child to attend the school for one month. The Save Our Girls fund costs $5 extra. Rupa said he experienced a drop in donations during his latest fundraising junket in the United States. The recession has made some donors “justified in their sentiment not to give,” he said.

Undaunted, Rupa quotes the words of the late President Kennedy, which are printed on the FFLV 2009 spring/summer newsletter: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Based on FFLV statistics, 75 percent of the organization’s students’ parents earn less than $1 per day.

Rupa explained that the younger the girls, the less the parents have to pay for their dowries. For example, a family typically pays 5,000 rupees, or $100, for a 13-year-old girl, but if they wait a few more years, they must pay 50,000 rupees, or $1,000. That’s two months’ salary versus 20 months’ salary for most, he said.

Still, Rupa reports that last year he arrived just in time to halt the wedding of one girl, Usha, by telling her father about the Save Our Girls fund.

In another case, he rescued a 9-month-old girl who had been covered in excrement. Her mother challenged Rupa. “She said, ‘You saved my daughter, now you pay her dowry,’ ” he said. “I don’t think that woman doesn’t love her daughter, but survival makes you do things you wouldn’t do in normal conditions.”

Today, FFLV also operates the Sandipani Muni-Nandagaon School, a primary school for 500 students in the “bottom line” Nandagaon village area. Thanks to Rupa’s fundraising efforts in London last year, FFLV is constructing a third school that will accommodate 860 underprivileged children from age 2 to 14 by 2010.

“When a famous astrologer told me you will be opening schools, I laughed at the time; I had no idea,” Rupa said.

Vrindavan, also known as the City of Widows, is located about 90 miles southeast of Delhi.

At 5 p.m. daily, an average of 700 women and children come to FFLV’s Sandipani Muni schools to receive kitchri, a meal of rice, lentils and vegetables.

Besides educational services, FFLV provides food and clothing distribution, medical assistance, vocational training courses for women, adult education, self-help groups and assistance for the elderly and disabled.

Its environmental projects include protecting and developing Vrindavan’s natural resources by collecting garbage, planting and caring for trees, and drilling wells for drinking water.

Though single, Rupa, also called “buba,” or grandfather, by the students, says he is not childless. “I have many daughters, about 1,500,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to make sure we don’t let them down. The responsibility is nice because we’re their only hope.”

Born in Lucca, Italy, near Pisa, Rupa lived in Britain from 1973 to 1985. He joined Food for Life in 1990 after several trips to India to volunteer and to “start a spiritual quest.”

“Feeding is in my genes. I knew how to set up feeding for 5,000 people,” said the former well-paid culinarian, who started receiving a small salary from FFLV just last year.

Now, feeding the multitudes at FFLV “has become my life.” “I shop, shop and raise funds for our little program,” said Rupa, who said, “I no longer want to travel around.”

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