Location: india

Imagine… You Are This Young Mother

A story of Hands to Hearts International….

Imagine… you are a young mother, filled with love, excitement and pride at having your first child. You want the very best for your baby, for him/her to grow up healthy, educated and ready to be a positive member of your family, your community and our world. But, you yourself have never had more than a few years of education and you don’t even know how to read, though even if you did, there are no books available. Motherhood is supposed to be something women just know how to do, it is not given much thought, it is just done. On a day to day basis you struggle for basic subsistence, you live in a developing country, in an extremely compromised environment where food, water, and safety are a daily challenge.

You hear of a local woman who will soon come to your village to lead a Hands to Hearts International Mommy Training, and you have the chance participate. You join other mommies, and some daddies, and you all share in learning about the importance of early childhood development – cognitive, language, physical and social/emotional development. You learn with your baby, and the trainer uses your local songs, stories, games and dance to teach you these lessons. You also learn about health issues like hygiene, sanitation, breastfeeding, immunizations and your favorite lesson of baby massage! You begin to recognize that your baby is communicating with you all the time, even before they talk and when you notice this you become more and more successful in responding to your baby’s needs.

You leave the training empowered with the knowledge that the most important person in your baby’s life if you! And, that you have the power and the resources to support her to be more healthy – emotionally and physically – your everyday actions can build greater brain development, preparing your child for a lifetime of success! And most important of all, you learn that the most powerful tool of all is your LOVE.

One of the most powerful forces in the world has now been unleashed! And it is self-reinforcing, every time you love on your baby, they love you back – a positive self-reinforcement loop that grows stronger and richer, providing you both with greater emotional support and preparing your child to be a positive contributing member of a global society.

Voices From The Field: Part 2, The Trainer

A three-part series highlighting different perspectives of women involved with Hands to Hearts International.

Part 2: From orphanage caregivers to mothers in the most remote villages in India, HHI Master Trainer, Sujatha Balaje, educates and inspires.

By Laura Barker

HHI Master Trainer Sujatha Balaje is a natural with children—she has been working with them all her life. Her mother runs a school and orphanage in Sujatha’s hometown of Chennai, India, a city of over four million people and the capital of Tamil Nadu State on the southeastern coast. Growing up, she helped care for the babies and worked part time in the kindergarten class. Her husband’s family also operated an orphanage in Chennai and it was through her work at this orphanage that Sujatha first became involved with Hands to Hearts International. When executive director Laura Peterson came to oversee HHI’s first training program at the orphanage in 2006, it was Sujatha who translated. More than her language skills, Laura immediately recognized the instinctual way Sujatha interacted with the children and her gift for working with people. She knew Sujatha was the type of person she wanted on HHI’s team.

Since February of 2006, Sujatha has been enriching the lives of hundreds of Indian women and caregivers and thousands of children through her dynamic training sessions on early childhood development. In her first year, she trained all the caregivers at the local orphanages and now leads four training sessions a month in rural villages in the remote Theni district. Because the women she serves live in extremely isolated areas, she is required to take several buses and sometimes walk several more kilometers to reach them. Trainings take place over two days and normally involve about 20 women at a time.

HHI’s program is designed to educate parents and caretakers on early childhood development and includes curriculum on cognitive, language, social, emotional, and physical development, responding to baby cues such as facial expressions and verbal sounds, and therapeutic baby massage. Sujatha masterfully weaves local songs, dances, and traditions into her agenda. “The purpose of the training,” she says, “is to educate mothers to understand the value of early childhood development . . . and to help them find the physical, emotional, and mental changes in their children.” She says her favorite parts of the trainings are the baby massage, songs and dance, and the focus on health and hygiene, an element of the program she herself designed. Sujatha is the star of HHI’s Baby Massage DVD in which demonstrates the massage techniques she teaches the women.

Traditional beliefs about education are slowly changing in India. While it was once common practice for parents to educate only their sons, now they are much more likely to send all their children to school. Sujatha praises the educational system in Chennai saying it is “considered one of the best in India” and also credits the Indian government with helping to change opinions on equal access to schooling by improving education across the board. Despite this progress, however, ancient practices still exist, though they differ from state to state, community to community and caste to caste. Mothers in rural places in particular have a tough time bringing up their children due to deeply ingrained gender bias for boys, a lack of education and health services, difficult environmental conditions, and bleak financial situations. It is Sujatha’s job to develop innovative and culturally appropriate lessons to give caregivers effective strategies for how best to nurture their children.

In the over four years she has worked for Hands to Hearts, Sujatha has had incredible success. Her effectiveness in the orphanages in particular is beyond compare. Despite the good intentions of staff members, the conditions in many Indian orphanages are tough. Most are overflowing with abandoned children who are still disproportionately female. Many of the children have disabilities or suffer from health problems. Staff members are poorly paid and receive little to no support and education. The combination of these factors can cause a deadly spiral, where sick children get sicker and overworked caregivers feel less and less competent.

Sujatha’s work teaching HHI’s program to the orphanage staff members, however, has had profound impacts. Children begin to grow and thrive and the staff begins to feel empowered, even bragging to each other about whose babies are gaining the most weight. Several months after facilitating training workshops there, several orphanages reported this astounding statistic: not a single baby had died since the training.

Even in very rural areas, word has spread of the program’s success. Once, Sujatha trained a group of tribal women with no prior education who had moved out of their cave dwellings only a few years before. Another time, a group of gypsy women requested training. The men in their group, although not actively participating, sat outside the circle to listen, prompting the local paper to write a story about this unusual event. In another tiny village, when more than 30 women showed up, Sujatha realized there was not enough room for all of them to gather in the small space provided, and talk began of canceling the session. The women were so excited about it, however, that they scrambled to find another option. The only solution seemed to be to move outside, so Sujatha ended up conducting her training right there in the middle of the street!

Sujatha has been an invaluable staff member at Hands to Hearts. She is so highly regarded that when HHI began a sister program in Uganda, Sujatha was invited to lead the pilot training sessions in Kampala. She praises the techniques employed by HHI saying, “The activities of HHI are different, more effective and more personalized for the babies and I am lucky that I was trained by HHI as I gained more knowledge about caregiving for babies and training the mothers to give care for their babies.” In just less than five years of training parents and caretakers, she has touched the lives of thousands of women and children, giving them practical skills to use in their daily lives as well as inspiration for the future. Although her job is one of service to others, her own life has been enriched through the process as well. She has an elevated status in her family and has earned enormous respect throughout the region, as community after community benefit from her work as an HHI Master Trainer.


Review Voices from the Field, Part 1 – The Donor

Coming Soon:

Part 3: Ugandan community leaders Florence Okun and Norah Awio use the skills they learned during the HHI training when caring for their own families

The Gift of Love

Last week HHI led caregiver trainings at an orphanage for disabled children. This is some of the most important work HHI does, as it is common in India for disabled children to be a source of shame or fear, either kept hidden (and therefore neglected) in the backs of homes, or abandoned to orphanages to be raised by strangers. Regardless of where these children live though, they are rarely touched, no one wants to hurt them, or worse they may be viewed with some disgust or shame, as they are not “normal” and may only be seen as an incredible strain on meager resources. But, they are children, and therefore HHI knows they need love and they likely need touch to help ease their physical pain more than anyone who is not challenged by a disability.

Since our training is very active, the children are a critical part of the experience, they are our best teachers. But last week, these children were very shy, they were not quick to jump into the games or activities and they did not want to get the baby massage. I don’t think they were used to playing or getting involved with their nannies. But, slowly, with lots of coaxing and encouragement, a few brave little ones stepped forward and somewhat reluctantly they assumed the “please massage me position”. Quickly they realized they had just made a brilliant move!

These previously untouched children were now soaking up the smiles, eye contact, love and connection of baby massage! And, they found that the massage helped ease some of their physical discomfort. And the previously shy, insecure and over-worked caregivers were reveling in the shared joy too! They saw that their love was being soaked up and reflected right back to them.  Now, everyday at this orphanage, all work stops from 11 to noon each day and the children all assume the PLEASE massage me positions! They lie down with their friends and wait patiently to receive their daily gift of love.

This is why HHI was created! This simple change is anything but simple to these women and children – their lives will never be the same.

If you want to share HHI’s baby massage with your own child, or a new parent, your purchase of HHI’s instructional Baby Massage DVD for $25 will not only support you, but it will assist in funding the important work that HHI is up to for tens-of-thousands of babies in need. See a preview and Buy one today!

Taking it to the street – literally!

In the last few weeks Sujatha led a record number of HHI parenting classes, all of these were in small and very remote villages in southern India. However what made me these particular trainings amazing — beyond the usual witnessing of young mothers discover their own power in building their baby’s brain development, and all the loving-goodness — was that these trainings were held in the middle of a street. Yes, a street.


When Sujatha arrived to lead the trainings, the local organizers led her to a small community room, which must have been really, really small, as she reported that the room would have held about 6-8 women. Gathering behind Sujatha, as she walked to and then viewed this tiny space were the mothers, lots of mothers! In total 28 mothers, all with babies and children in tow, were following her to make sure that they would have a space in the Hands to Hearts training, and it seemed they knew space was limited.

Seeing all of the women, and turning back to look at the training space, it was clear that this was not going to work. The women talked and quickly concluded that there was plenty of space outside the tiny room and the women all agreed that they would happily sit in the middle of the street as long as they could participate. The village leaders offered a shady street to be turned into HHI’s classroom. The village vendors, pulling their carts would come upon the street only to see it filled with mothers and children conducting puppet shows, singing songs and dancing, and they would find another way to get to the market. Men, women, grandmas, grandpas and kids all walking, biking or driving through the village came upon the same scene, and often before they would go to find a way around this training, they would sit and become a part of the training themselves.

I have always claimed that HHI Trainings could really happen anywhere in the world, but I had never considered a street.Bravo to these women for not letting anything get in the way of their learning, and kudos to Sujatha for her endless creativity, flexibility and tenacity in giving!

In The Most Remote Corners of India

Moorthynayakanpatti is an isolated village situated 85 kilometers away from the nearest city in the Theni District in South India. This area is so remote that it only has a few buses that come anywhere near it, which is significant, as this is not an area where people own their own cars. So, when travel is required, it begins with a 1k. walk to the main road, where the bus will pass… at some point in time.

So it has been no small feat for Sujatha, HHI’s Master Trainer, to reach this village to train 32 mothers how to nurture and best care for their babies. Over the last year Sujatha’s work with HHI has become well known throughout this far-flung region, where news travels via word of mouth from one person to the next. This was how a small local NGO, called “NEWS” came to learn of HHI and then tracked down Sujatha, inviting her to come to their village to support their women and children.

The mothers had never heard how critical the early years are for a lifetime of health, relationships and learning. When they learn that 80% of brain development happens by age 5, and that they can influence this with their everyday actions they become very excited. The women quickly embrace the concepts and begin to make eye contact more often, hold their babies more gently, sing to them more, give them massage, and feed them a broader array of nutrients.

The women enjoy Sujatha and the lessons of HHI are simple and make sense to them. They are now building stronger bonds with their babies and children and building their health with love and nurturing. Another success story from the front lines of HHI, and one that is surely being talked about from mother to mother, friend to friend, from village to village… and the goodness grows on in South India!