Another worldPhoto Courtesy of Andrew Cunningham
Andrew Cunningham, 20, of Rutland stands amid the shacks of Calcutta, India, during a summerlong work study program at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.
College student Andrew Cunningham figured his summer-long work-study at Mother Teresa’s orphanages in New York, Calcutta and Nairobi would yield a few surprises. But he didn’t expect to be thrown from the start.
It began this May, just after the 20-year-old Vermonter approached the gate of the Missionaries of Charity house in the Bronx. The soon-to-be junior braced for an outpouring of children. Then a nun opened the door to reveal dozens of hungry, homeless adults.
“It turns out that the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx is not an orphanage — rather, it is a men’s shelter and soup kitchen,” he wrote in a blog message to friends and family back in Rutland.
Cunningham didn’t have time to react. He immediately was put to work slicing 16 hams and 1,000 grapes before heading out with a shopping list — 250 onions, 200 bananas, 100 pounds of chicken, 12 cases of instant coffee — and returning three hours later with a $1,355 receipt.
Then the diminutive Sister Vandetta, 4 feet 4 inches tall, had a bright idea.
How many people does it take to screw in a light bulb in a convent where no nun can reach them?
One, if you’re a 6-foot-5-inch student willing to try anything.
This isn’t your typical “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” story. Then again, Cunningham isn’t your typical student.
Born to a mother who’s a professor and a father who’s a psychologist, Cunningham racked up such a resume at Rutland High School — co-president and salutatorian of his class, tenor saxophonist, track-team hurdler and one of Vermont’s two representatives to Boys Nation — USA Today named him the state’s “Academic All-Star” when he graduated in 2004.
Now attending Duke University, he’s double-majoring in Chinese and international relations as one of 38 Robertson merit scholars who receive free tuition, a laptop computer and travel opportunities for summer work-study.
Last year Cunningham worked with inner-city sixth-graders in New Orleans, then raised $120,000 for them after Hurricane Katrina through a series of concerts, T-shirt sales and collections.
This summer, curious about his Catholic upbringing and the church’s worldwide charitable efforts, he decided to visit Mother Teresa’s orphanages and write an online diary for people at home and school.
He started in the Bronx, where Mother Teresa opened the first U.S. branch of her worldwide order in 1971. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun welcomed Princess Diana to the New York Missionaries of Charity in 1997. But since then, “not too many volunteers stop through the area, as compared to many of the other missions,” Cunningham says.
And so he spent his first week preparing meals for as many as 100 people before washing dishes, mopping floors, cleaning windows (“Again, I think it had something to do with my height”) and watching over two dozen men in the overnight shelter.
“Excited?” he wrote home. “Of course, I was thrilled to be invited to have the responsibility. Nervous? That just goes without saying. Experienced? Not at all.”
He began at 4 p.m. by frisking the men for contraband such as drugs, alcohol, weapons or condoms.
“I had never actually frisked anyone before. And, to be honest, I never want to do it again. Having to ask a guy who was about my age to make sure his pockets were empty and then patting him down — I just could not help but think, ‘Why do I have the right to be patting someone down?’”
‘What are you doing?’
At 6:30, Cunningham served up beef, broccoli and 25 boxes of macaroni and cheese. There wasn’t much time to unwind after that. He’d have to wake at 4:30 the next morning to spoon out breakfast by 6.
Cunningham slept in the same room as his charges. He soon heard snoring. Then he heard footsteps.
Someone headed to the bathroom, he figured.
Then he heard the rustling of a wrapper.
Candy, he figured.
Then he watched a silhouette lift a cup and swallow.
“I have never seen anyone take M&Ms with water,” he thought.
He’d never seen anyone drop his pants and plunge a needle into his side, either.
“Pal, what are you doing?” Cunningham asked.
Everyone else, now awake, wanted to know, too.
“I knew I had to get this guy out of the house, although it killed me. But the sisters said for the safety of them, the volunteers and, most importantly, the other men, rules had to be followed.”
And so Cunningham pointed the man into the darkness before shutting the door.
“Had I just put a high man out on the streets or made 26 other men safer in the shelter?”
He heard a soft round of applause as he climbed back into bed.
Only five more hours to sleep.
Entering the furnace
A week later, Cunningham sat alongside his next-door neighbor, Caitlin McKane, a 21-year-old nursing student from Rutland, as they flew half a day to India.
“We were ushered out the front door,” he wrote home, “and that’s when we entered the furnace.”
Calcutta bubbled like a 107-degree curry. Buses raced rickshaws. Street kids played cricket. Monkeys swung from palm trees. A Catholic choir sang inside a church as Muslim clerics prayed on outdoor megaphones.
“Caitlin and I began to roast as we pushed through the thick shower curtain known as India’s humid summers. The streets of Calcutta seem more like the set of an Indiana Jones film than real life. Maybe I’m just a film critic more than an international traveler.”
Unlike in the Bronx, Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity sees many volunteers from around the world. This is where Mother Teresa began her order in 1950 and is buried today in a simple tomb.
“Strangely, the tomb is in a room where you can see and probably, if you wished, reach out the window and touch a passing taxi or bus. A woman of such international stature, acclaim and influence, now buried in one of the most public and ordinary places.”McKane, a junior at the University of Vermont in Burlington, joined a few Japanese volunteers to help Indian women with severe injures or mental disabilities.
Cunningham, for his part, figured he’d finally see an orphanage. Then Sister Corina handed him a dishrag.
“The fans, Andrew. The fans.”
‘But he smiled’
Cunningham was assigned again to a men’s shelter. First he hauled 200-pound sacks of lentils and powdered milk. Then he washed the laundry. His assignment: “Smack it on the brick, rinse it once, twice, throw it into the bucket, run it up the stairs and lay it out on the roof.”
He did this for 250 men, each who gave him a T-shirt, pair of shorts, handkerchief, pillowcase and sheet.
One day Cunningham was presented a straight razor, an old man in a wheelchair and a request: Shave him.
The student eyed the razor as if it was a prop in a horror movie.
“I was terrified I was going to cut one of these men’s faces right off.”
Another volunteer showed him how to lather soap with a brush, swab it around a mouth and wield the sharp razor with short, gentle, downward strokes.
Cunningham eyed the old man’s beard. Twelve minutes later, he saw a clean-shaven face and a smile.
“Three teeth on the top and six on the bottom. But he smiled.”
Eleven more beards waited. Cunningham rinsed the same blade, over and over. One young man shook with seizures. He begged for a shave to beat the heat.
Cunningham took a deep breath.
“I wrapped my arm around his head, putting him in the same headlock you give your friends in fifth grade at recess.”
The man thrashed as the razor slid to the right, to the left, down his neck.
“Well, that wasn’t too bad now, was it?” Cunningham finally said.
But the student knew otherwise.
“To be honest, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. To be still is not something to be taken for granted. And yet, for those of us who are always moving, always wanting to go, always on a fast pace, we forget that we do have the option to be still.”
‘Over my head’
Cunningham told Sister Immaculata his first-aid training was limited to what he learned in Boy Scouts. But he was soon promoted from dealing with bedpans and wash buckets to donning a surgical mask and gloves alongside the nun.
They eyed a man whose shin was torn open from knee to ankle. Cunningham saw the bone, broken. Worse, he watched the maggots swimming around it.
Sister Immaculata apologized.
“I’m sorry, Andrew. This is a very painful first wound for you.”
Cunningham followed orders to pick up the man and place him in a plastic lawn chair. He then fetched two pairs of tweezers, some boiled water and several packages of gauze.
The nun grabbed one set of tweezers and showed him how to remove a maggot. She made it seem like the children’s board game “Operation.” But Cunningham, trying not to gag, knew they weren’t playing with sterile white plastic.
The two poked and prodded for an hour and half. The nun said more maggots would appear over the next several days. And so they returned to play the ghoulish game for almost a week.
The others who needed care looked at the student.
“They knew I was tired. They knew I was over my head. I needed a breather. I needed a break. I needed to think about what just happened. I needed time. I needed more practice.”
But the others needed care.
Blink of an eye
Cunningham remembers one man in particular who clasped his left hand.
“Yes, Baba, what do you need?”
The man didn’t respond. Cunningham repeated his question. A priest answered for him: “Andrew, he is dying.”
Cunningham stood up for a moment, then looked down to see the man’s chest rise with his breath.
“I thought, ‘He’s not dead, but, yes, he is dying.’ What do I do?”
He moved back toward the man.
“As I walked over I looked at his chest. It wasn’t moving anymore. He was still. He wasn’t breathing. I could not believe this, but I did what every movie has taught me to do. I placed my fingers on his neck to check a pulse. Nothing. I checked his wrists to make sure. Nothing.”
The man had died in the blink of an eye.
A nun asked Cunningham if he was OK.
“Yeah, I’m fine, Sister.”
“Good,” he remembers her saying. “Can you help with his body?”
Cunningham removed the man’s clothing, leaving just a necklace and a rosary. He then found soap and a washcloth and bathed the man in bed.
“I picked up the man’s hand, the same one that had held mine a few moments ago, and washed the fingers and fingernails.”
He then wrapped the body in a sheet, put it on a stretcher and whispered a final prayer: “Peace be with you.”
The nun heard him.
“And also with you,” she said.
‘Just too much?’
After seven weeks in India, Cunningham waved goodbye to his hometown friend and flew to Kenya. Without a speedy Internet connection, he couldn’t e-mail how he was greeted in Nairobi by Sister Alexandria — amazingly, the same nun who met him at the door in New York — and how he finally was overrun by orphans, most of whose parents had died of AIDS.
And so he simply witnessed what he couldn’t write about.
Back home after five weeks in Africa, he shares it all today. He remembers spoon-feeding lunch to a Calcutta man who couldn’t move his hands. Cunningham told his charge he really enjoyed working with him.
“And we really enjoy working with you,” the man replied.
Cunningham was reminded what they taught him. How to think past his paranoia of contracting tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria and AIDS. How to wash 250 street children with a basin of water, a plastic pitcher and a bar of soap. How to remain patient and compassionate when you’d rather just run away.
Cunningham remembers the end of one particularly long day.
“I began to think, ‘For all those hands you do touch, there are a thousand more left empty-handed. For all the men inside these walls, there are always three times the number still outside of them. And for all the students who do come to school, a dozen more remain on the street. So is our mission impossible? Is it just too much?”
Then he remembered one Calcutta boy who wore a too-big baseball cap. Many of the street children often begged for food or money. This one, however, just wanted to hang off the tall student’s right arm and take a sip from his water bottle.
“The boy in the baseball cap taught me to enjoy the process of improvement rather than perfection. I cannot give the boy a home, an education or a new life. But I could give him a bottle of water. And for a moment, his living condition improved. After a few days, I showed him where to get more from the Sisters. And now he drinks water. Not perfect, but better. That is what he has taught me.”
Contact Kevin O’Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org
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