Note: I was talking with my yoga instructor when she told me she routinely spends time at an orphanage in India. Her description of the place brought back memories of my own encounters with a Vietnamese orphanage during and after what the Vietnamese rightly call the American war. In both cases, tragedy has been turned, through hard work and innovation, into a symbol of hope. And what better way to start a new year, than to write about hope?

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Sophie Herbert’s pictures from the Deenabandhu Children’s Home are remarkable not only because they’re beautifully taken-as befits the work of a graduate of New York City’s Cooper Union School of Art-but also because the children in them look so clean, healthy and feisty.

Deenabandhu is in the countryside, in the district of Chamarajanagar, in the south of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Karnataka is a cultural and tourist mecca that boasts palaces and temples, a wealth of universities, and a thriving infotech industry. Chamarajanagar, however, is a tattered and largely rural corner of the state, whose population is partly tribal and mostly poor.

The literacy rate in India was estimated in 2007 to be approximately 66%. Some optimistic figures place Chamarajanagar’s numbers below 61 %. These figures do not reflect the savage inequity between literacy in men, who often receive at least a basic education, and women, who as often don’t.

Sophie, my yoga teacher, travels to Chamarajanagar and the Deenabandhu Home whenever she can. She teaches yoga and drawing to the kids, helps till the community garden, milks cows, and gives the director instruction in Yogic “asanas” (poses).

When she’s back in New York, she raises money to support the facility.

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Sophie has been showering positive energy on the world since her college days. She “waitressed and coat-checked” herself into Dharamsala, Northern India, for five weeks in 2005 to study yoga and teach English to Tibetan refugees. While there, she visited an orphanage in Jaipur, and a Mother Teresa House in Mumbai that served 25 physically and mentally challenged children.

She speaks of a “beautiful girl, a polio victim, who took so much pride in showing me how she could walk with the support of two metal rails. I was so moved by these children, many of whom might have been healthy had they been given a vaccine costing less than one dollar. The smallest things can have a tremendous impact: One vaccine, or one less polluted river…I wrote to my school that afternoon, requesting a semester leave the following autumn to return to India.”

She did return, again studying yoga and teaching refugees. And again, in the summer of 2006: she went south to Karnataka for the first time, and affiliated herself with a network of schools for handicapped and/or destitute children. That was when she discovered Deenabandhu.

Now she comes back whenever she can scrape together the airfare from her yoga classes, her photography, and tips she earns as a singer/songwriter.

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If you check out the Deenabandhu website (http://deenabandhutrust.org–it’s still somewhat under construction) you’ll find that the place is more than an orphanage.

It was founded in 1992 by Mr. G.S. Jayadev, a zoology professor for a Chamarajanagar Town university, as home for a half-dozen destitute boys. Now, it houses, feeds and educates around 50 kids of both sexes. These kids, Sophie tells me, are referred to Deenabandhu from all over India by social services and concerned individuals. Many have a living parent or parents. The relationship, if healthy, is maintained.

The facility also provides schooling for 260 children from poor homes in the district, disburses scholarships for promising graduating students, provides teacher training and classroom resources within 18 public schools in the state, and administers a self-help Women’s Center that provides agricultural training for destitute women.

The whole package–orphanage, school, scholarships, women’s center and public school outreach–is funded through donations from India and abroad.

**

Deenabandhu’s embrace of the poor, as well as its “caste equality” attitude, are tested regularly against the complicated reality that is India. Things happen that cannot be helped-a child excels; another leaves, breaking hearts. Rain comes or it doesn’t; funding waxes and wanes. The place suffers growing pains, and must build accordingly.

To their great credit, its directors attack these challenges with positivity, flexibility and grace. Deenabandhu’s physical growth is a example of their approach: the newest buildings, including a Girl’s Home now under construction, are “green” in their use of energy and materials.

Sophie considers the facility a “model institution not just for India, but the rest of the world.” It’s a matter of the spiritual dictating the tangible: “While I have taught Mr. Jayadev yogasana over the last 2 years, he is one of my greatest yoga teachers for so fully embodying the morals and principles by which he lives. He has worked with devotion, dedication, and determination to merge jnana and karma yoga–the yoga of the intellect and the yoga of social service.”