It was the vacation of a lifetime for Paul Wilkes and his wife, Tracy, when they booked a four-week trip to India in 2006. They were simply looking for “something a little different.” Their two boys were grown. Tracy ran a home for underprivileged kids in Wilmington, North Carolina. Paul was a successful author and freelance writer for such notable publications as The Atlantic and the New York Times and had taught journalism at Columbia and Notre Dame.
A side trip on their way to visit a Trappist monastery, however, became the detour of their very lives. That fateful trip resulted in Paul founding the Home of Hope in India with the mission to build homes for orphaned and abandoned girls.
After breakfast at their hotel in the city of Kochi, a personal driver picked up Paul and Tracy for some sightseeing. The driver talked proudly of Kochi’s past and present. Paul was very distracted by the many crippled and maimed children—mostly girls— begging on the streets.
The Wilkes planned to visit a Trappist monastery later that afternoon but at two o’clock, the driver said they had more time so was there anything else they would like to see? “I’m Catholic,” Paul said. “There are so many sick and bedraggled kids begging on the street. What is my Church doing about this?”
“I could tell you,” the driver said, “but, if you don’t mind, sir, I’ll show you.”
Soon, they entered the gates of Prathyasha Bhavan—which translates as Home of Hope— an orphanage that housed 75 girls run by the Salesian Sisters. The gates swung open and a group of girls came running out, smiling and waving at the visitors.
Sisters Sophie and Thresia showed Paul and Tracy around, then offered them some tea. The sisters had asked for nothing, but Paul was ready to offer a donation when he noticed a little girl wearing sunglasses standing near Sister Sophie. It seemed out of place. They can’t even afford rice, Paul thought recalling the meager pantry he had just seen. “Why is she wearing sunglasses?” he asked.
Sister took off the glasses. One of Reena’s eyes was dark and clear, but the other was scarred and dull. “Sister told me that six-year-old Reena was begging on the street with her mother who was mentally ill, when they were separated in the crowd,” Paul said. “Reena was kidnapped by the ‘beggar Mafia,’ who routinely do this sort of thing. They held her down and gouged her eye to make her a “better beggar”. It made her more pitiful, so people would give more money, which the beggar Mafia would immediately take.
“I grimaced in horror,” Paul said. “And she returned my look of horror with the most beautiful and trusting smile I had ever seen.”
Paul and Tracy continued on to the Trappist monastery, but their minds and hearts remained at the Home of Hope. It is mostly girls that beg since boys in India are more valued and expected to work to help support their families. Although the Salesian Sisters gave loving care to the girls, they lived in deplorable conditions and slept on a concrete floor at night.
Before leaving Kochi, Paul felt compelled to see the Home of Hope again and made a silent commitment: Reena, somehow, some way, I want to — I AM – going to make your future better than your horrible past.
Back at home, Reena’s smile stayed with Paul just as the words of his third-grade teacher, Sr. Mary at St. Benedict’s in Cleveland, Ohio, had done. “Does it matter that you were alive? Will this world be a better place because of you?” she had asked them.
Paul’s grandparents immigrated from Slovakia. His parents had only sixth-grade educations and his dad worked in a coal mine, but there was always room for more at the dinner table. The lessons of his childhood never left Paul; charity was a constant alongside his successful journalism career.
Paul’s first thought was to raise money for foam mattresses. He succeeded but the mattresses failed. There was no room to store them and they quickly became dirty on the floor. At that point at 68 years old, working on another book [he has 20 in all now] and teaching part-time at the University of North Carolina, Paul had just begun receiving Social Security. The check amount was about the same as his teaching job.
Paul considered that those girls in India did not need mattresses; they needed a respectable home with beds. He decided to live simply on just Social Security and his mission began. Rather than try to repair a dilapidated structure, Paul started raising money for a new home. “I started speaking in parishes and Rotary Clubs and anywhere I could,” Paul said. “I had no administrative experience, but there’s a thing called faith.”
Paul raised enough money and let the Salesian Sisters supervise building the home. Once that was complete, knowing there were 500,000 other girls on the streets of India, Paul kept going. Thirteen years later, 12 homes have been funded and 4,000 girls have been helped. “Some only stayed a few days or weeks until we could figure out their situation and return them to responsible relatives,” Paul said. “Other girls stayed and have gone on to school and/ or married. There are 1,000 girls currently in residence.”
LEGATE BUILDS 12TH HOME
Legates John Clegg and his wife Clare met Paul years ago when he came to speak at their parish, Our Lady of the Star, in Ponte Vedra Beach. The Cleggs are among the founding members of the Jacksonville, Florida Chapter, and John served as president from 2014-2015. “I found Paul’s story in dropping everything to do this remarkable,” John said. “I would call Paul four or five times a year to keep in touch.”
Six months ago, after construction on the 11th home began, John surprised Paul with an offer to completely pay for home number 12. That home, called The Little Flower in Imphal, India, is now under construction.
John explained that supporting the Homes of Hope mission is a natural extension of his years in pro-life work. He appreciates that around 95 percent of all donations go directly to building homes. Paul takes no salary.
“What he does is so simple,” John said. “He finds nuns from the orders of Salesians, Carmelites, and Franciscan Clarists who are already caring for abandoned children, and he builds them a home. It costs around $300,000 and once it’s built, the sisters are self-sufficient. I am hoping this [funding an entire home] will set a trend which will make Paul’s life easier. If money were no object, he could build more homes.”
John writes back and forth with the sisters of The Little Flower home who call him “Uncle” and send their heartfelt thanks. “When the new home is ready, I will go out for the dedication,” he said.
Today, at age 80, Paul sometimes visits during construction and makes a final visit at the time of dedication, frequently accompanied with his wife. “When I go to India, my feet never touch the ground,” he said. “The feeling of those little hands grabbing your hand and the back of your shirt—it doesn’t get any better than that.”
For more information, visit HomeofHopeIndia.org
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.