Tag: Parenting

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

Empowering Motherhood

A growing trend in international development is to invest in women and girls. This is a smart strategy and reaps impressive rewards for women, families and entire communities as those women invest in those they care for. More and more girls and women are being supported in receiving education, micro-finance, family planning and other services. All of these are great, we are in full support! The international development field uses measures like delayed marriage and birth and fewer children and these are powerful indicators for the success this woman will have – again we are in full support. However, how about empowering women in one of their most important roles in their lives, that of being mothers?

Being a mother is an almost certain role a woman will have and being a mother in most societies earns a woman a new level of respect, praise and status, it is a role most communities celebrate. So, it can be limited when a woman in a remote village in Bangladesh is celebrated by her community for becoming a mother, while the international development community groans a collective sigh of defeat. Isn’t it possible to empower women in their role as mothers?


Hands to Hearts embraces a full circle of women’s empowerment. Education, marriage, childbirth, and parenthood mark a natural course of life. HHI believes motherhood can and should be celebrated. We recognize and are now working to fill the gap in women’s empowerment, and the gap that goes with this in the healthy development of children. HHI provides mothers with practical and applicable education about early childhood development (ECD) and we let women know their own power in creating their child’s lifetime foundation for health, learning and societal participation. According to a 2006 UNFPA study, one-quarter to one-half of the world’s girls will become mothers before reaching the age of 18 – who supports them as they cross the threshold of motherhood? New, holistic approaches of addressing motherhood are needed.

If parenting workshops were a standardized within development agendas, women’s empowerment would progress in full circle by targeting women at every stage of life. The role and responsibility of motherhood should not be disregarded in the exploration of female entrepreneurship, innovation, and empowerment. In fact, commemoration of this powerful capacity of motherhood could further magnify the acknowledgement of women’s potential in the economic, social, and domestic sphere.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan most aptly stated, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, or improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and eventually, whole countries.”

To embrace an encompassing empowerment model, Hands to Hearts International is striving to supplement international projects surrounding health, education and micro-finance programs with early childhood development workshops for the communities of caregivers and mothers. The mothers and the babies are eager and enthusiastic recipients of HHI’s education. The outcomes are empowered mothers, who are then able to better their children’s health, development and relationships for a lifetime. HHI believes these benefits ripple to us all.

"They received a healing"

It is Hands to Hearts’ goal to serve the most disadvantaged people, living in the most dire of circumstances. With this always at the forefront of my mind, when we recently needed to conduct some practice HHI trainings in the northern city of Lira, Uganda, I asked if we could train within the women’s prison. We drove past this prison everyday on our way to work with our colleagues at Medical Teams International and after learning that a number of the women here have their babies in the prison with them, I became slightly obsessed with making HHI available to them.

Since HHI only shows up by invitation, we began by letting the prison management know who we were and that we would make ourselves available to the women and children in their care. The officials were very enthusiastic and quickly extended an invitation for HHI to show up to lead a short training for the mothers.

Our national Master Trainer, Mukisa Lydia, led a small training team to the prison, where we expected to work with the 10 mothers who had their babies with them. But, as often happens, more of the women wanted to participate. What began as one training for only 10 women, quickly transformed into two trainings for all of the inmates and even the guards showed up and asked to participate. The women almost desperate for information, they were eager learners and asked lots of great questions. The women were so interested in the lessons that they convinced the guards to postpone lunch and extend the time the HHI Trainers were allowed to stay.

The end result of that first day was that over 40 women and 10 babies participated in several HHI lessons. The outcome was that the local HHI Trainers, via Medical Teams International, will continue to go to the prison regularly to meet the request to provide the entirety of HHI’s lessons.

Lydia put it beautifully as she described, “they received a healing”. I can only imagine the babies felt the same way.

Teaching & Learning with the Mothers

A few weeks ago I introduced you to the amazing women of Locan Rebe, in Kampala, Uganda (see 2 entries down, Uganda ~ Courage, Survival & Inspiration ). Their history would give them labels such as “victims” and then “survivors” – of war, of refugee camps, of rape, terror and poverty, or they could have the labels of “slum dwellers” or “HIV+”… but I now feel I know them and these are not the words that come to my mind to describe any of them. (And just as a side note, I do not think I have ever seen anyone “dwell” in a slum, I have seen them work tirelessly, struggle, overcome unthinkable daily obstacles, unite, battle, collapse and rise again, and yes, I see them “survive”, but never have I seen them “dwell”).

Last week, HHI led our trainings about early childhood development in Kampala, teaching the mothers of Locan Rebe about how every day they can and do make a dramatic difference in their child’s health, nutrition and development. As usual the women reveled in the opportunity to learn, to listen, talk and interact. They soaked up the information and engaged deeply in learning how to observe and understand what the babies were communicating.

It was fascinating to see that some of the mothers, and the grandmothers, who have raised over 10 children, initially were not able to identify the different body language of a happy/snugly baby, versus the slightly annoyed, upset baby. Many of us think these signs would be obvious. In the US we are flooded with baby books, baby DVDs and shows, and most US parents are hyper-attentive, potentially even obsessive, to every nose scrunch and wiggle, but this is not the case in many places of the world. Consider an environment where there are no book stores, let alone bookstores with entire baby sections. Environments where schooling is a privilege that is hard to come by, hours of everyday are consumed by a long walk to a community water pump where you stand in line under the scorching sun, to then turn back around and haul this precious, though extremely heavy treasure back to your home. These are places where hunger is a daily issue and being able to serve your children one meal a day is a triumph, while at night you wrap your children’s group bed with a mosquito net (if you have one), which make the night even more hot and stifling, but keeps them alive. By now you might have a slightly better understanding of why theses mothers may not have spent their time taking careful notes about their baby’s moods and communication.

It turns out that the component Hands to Hearts’ teaches about understanding a baby’s communication is one of our most popular and life altering. It gives mothers a whole new insight into what their baby wants and needs and it then allows them to better meet these needs, thus improving their ability to care, soothe and nurture their children – the bonds of trust and love grow stronger, in both directions. As one mother from this training group put it, “this has reminded us of what we have forgotten as being the best of mothers to our children.” Another reported in her training evaluation, “this has changed my life, I will never be the same.”

This returns me to how I now describe these women. The words that come to mind are “inspiring”, “loving”, “committed”, “tenacious” and overwhelmingly “generous”. They left HHI’s trainings with powerful new insights into themselves and their babies, and they left me humbled, inspired and more determined than ever to bring Hands to Hearts to mothers and caregivers around the world!

And, lastly, I will echo the same sentiments, “this experience changed me, I will never the be the same”.

See all the pictures from these trainings on our FaceBook page – click

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!