By Josette Keelor
India has more than 1.2 billion people and 30 million of them are orphans.
The poorest of the poor have little hope for a better life, according to John Megale, director of development for Bethania Kids in Winchester.
Children living in India's eastern state of Odisha live in mud huts. They have no Western-style medicine. When they're sick, they go to a witch doctor.
"There's little in the way of education," Megale said. "It's very much a tribal region that isn't aware of the outside world."
But the outside world is aware of them.
After nearly six decades helping India's poorest children, Bethania Kids has five fulltime orphan homes, a special school and 13 other care centers in India's three southeastern-most states. In all, they have 953 children under their care, according to Bethania's spring/summer newsletter. And Megale said it all started with just one home for 12.
In the 1950s, two Lutheran missionary families in Michigan and Minnesota traveled to India and provided food, clothing, medicine and shelter for children while teaching about God. In 1987 the organization became a 501c3 not-for-profit, Megale said.
The word Bethania literally means home for the poor, he said.
Everyone aided by Bethania Kids is an orphan or a child with only one caregiver who lives in extreme poverty. If the parents can't afford to send their children to school, Bethania steps in to help.
"As young as 3 to as old as 21, we see them through the end of college," Megale said.
"The kids stay in India," he said. The goal is to help them be successful in their home country, "to be world changers in their society," he said.
"They come from very disadvantaged backgrounds," Megale said. Now, "they're happy, they're cared for, they're loved."
You can see it in their faces, he said.
In India, 85 employees oversee the homes and offer daycare and evening childcare, providing all the same care the orphan homes do except for overnight. There is also a board of directors in India and in the U.S. to coordinate funding.
Bethania also runs a women's empowerment program for 55 women through two centers.
Through the program, mothers can learn empowerment and basic job skills, Megale said, "Just so they can have a steady and gainful employment."
The organization recently has been planning to start an English as a second language program.
Locally, Bethel Evangelical Lutheran and Grace Evangelical Lutheran churches in Winchester and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans help fund Bethania Kids.
David Granner of Ann Arbor, Mich., a financial rep for Thrivent, is a member of one of the founding families, Megale said.
It was very much a grassroots expansion in India, Megale said, and Granner helped spread the news. In 2004, Granner met Todd Heidelberger in Winchester, who was inspired to bring Bethania to its new headquarters on Jubal Early Drive.
Its current office at 127 N. Cameron St. in Winchester opened in July 2012.
All donations go directly to India, something Megale said makes Bethania Kids different from some other charities. Its board of directors supports operation expenses and salaries themselves. Megale, who started in December, said he and Kathy Henry, who began at the Winchester office in 2007, are the only two paid employees in the U.S.
"We built the homes," Megale said, "and the donor help is what supports it." Donations come mostly from the United States and Canada, he said, and child sponsorship ranges from $20 to $100 a month.
Magale said the people they help have "aspirations for higher goals" and he said Bethania's goal is to help them achieve theirs.
"We believe that there is no caste system with God," he said. "To him every person is just as valuable as anyone else."
For more information about Bethania Kids, call 540-450-2729 or visit www.bethaniakids.org.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com