Contributed by Margot Welsh and Rebecca Stadolnik
Many families in Stow and surrounding communities think of January as “Friendship Kit” time. Friendship Kits are Ziploc bags filled with small toys, jewelry, vitamins, and school and craft supplies, put together by members and friends of First Parish Church of Stow and Acton and personally delivered by Acton resident Bob Tabor to the children of Mercy Home Orphanage in Tiruvannamalai, India.
Tabor has been making the yearly trip to India since the devastating tsunami hit in 2004. The media reports of the damage inflicted by the tsunami inspired him to take action. Bob sent emails to a number of first-responder organizations asking how he could help. After one week his phone rang. Someone he could not understand was talking and Bob was about to hang up, when he finally understood one word, “Tsunami.” Bob asked for the man’s email address and his life changed.
Bob initially traveled to Mercy Home Orphanage where he met some of the children who were orphaned by the tsunami. He immediately made a connection to them despite the language and cultural barriers.
The folks at Mercy Home also helped Bob journey to the coast of India, where he and some other volunteers came to the village of Shanmugarnagar, India. Medical emergency organizations had come and gone to other fishing villages, but because Shanmugarnagar was a village of tribal people, a group considered beneath even Dalits (“Untouchables”) in the caste system, it had been ignored. There were no medical emergencies there (people had either survived or drowned), but the village’s fishing boats, nets, equipment were all gone. The villagers did not know how to get help and had no access to food, water, power or means to survive.
Bob, working with some Swedish college students, borrowed a tractor and trailer from a rice farm ten miles away and pulled in over 7,000 pounds of rice to the village, despite the fact that there was no real road. Next, using a taxi driver to translate his requests, he worked to persuade the people and the district government to approve the building of a road to the village so that it could receive government help more easily in the future. Once it was approved, he worked with the students, villagers, and local non-government organization to build the road.
When Bob returned home, he shared his experience with fellow church members and began the program that provides local kids with an opportunity to bring joy to the children of Mercy Home. In addition to the various goodies included in the kits, each family includes a photograph of themselves so that the kids at Mercy Home know who donated their kit. In return, Bob often photographs the kids holding up their family photos so that the donating families can see how happy the children are to receive their kits.
“The children appreciate the effort families put into assembling the kits, love the writing materials and crafts, and treasure the little toys and pipe cleaners,” said Tabor.
Bob is planning his ninth trip to Mercy Home and Shanmugarnagar at the end of January. Everyone there – children, adults, and the newspapers – call him “Bob from America.” He will once again be delivering Friendship Kits from children in Stow and area communities.
Over the years, First Parish Church of Stow and Acton and local families have also contributed funds used to help support the 67 children at the orphanage, as well as build pre-schools, toilets, 60 permanent (brick) homes, and potable drinking systems in primitive rural villages in the area.
In addition, some families contribute additional funds to sponsor 14 Dalit children at Mercy Home Orphanage, where they receive care and nurturing as well as an excellent education through high school. It costs $350 to support a child for an entire year, including food, clothing, medicine, board, and school supplies.
According to Bob, “It takes so little to do stuff! $2500 builds a preschool with a toilet. It can change a whole village!” Through his India Project efforts, Bob Tabor demonstrates that with the help of his community, one person can make a difference in the lives of others.
Anyone who would like to support the “Friendship Kit” project, or the other programs being undertaken in the region, can send a tax-deductible charitable contribution payable to “FPC-Southeast India” to the First Parish Church of Stow and Acton, 353 Great Road, Stow, MA 01775.