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Child of Destiny

By Steve Cunliffe

Twenty years ago, Mother Teresa traveled to Calcutta's Alipore Jail to collect a group of women who were being released and entrusted to her care. When she arrived the women seemed troubled. Although they wanted very much to leave with her, they were hesitant and reluctant to depart from the prison.

Julie Brown at work

Julie Brown is hard at work entering data from CRS' food program into her laptop computer provided by CRS. Photo by Steve Cunliffe for CRS

When Mother Teresa asked them why they no longer wished to go with her, they replied that there was a baby, an orphaned girl, they had been caring for since her mother died in the prison. They were concerned about what would happen to the child if they left. Without hesitation Mother Teresa decided to take the orphan as well.

Though Julie Brown is only 20 years old, she has already lived a remarkable life. Born in Alipore Jail to a mother who died of tuberculosis shortly after giving birth, Julie never knew her parents. The story of her rescue by Mother Teresa is legendary among the sisters. Julie was transferred from the jail to a CRS-assisted Missionaries of Charity home for women called Shanti Dan, which means "peace-giving."

With one kind gesture from Mother Teresa, the infant suddenly had not only a shot at surviving past her first birthday, but also a chance to make a real future for herself. It was an opportunity that the tenacious young woman would grab with both hands, as she worked hard at school and strove to chase her grand dreams.

Catholic Relief Services has been involved with the Missionaries of Charity and its work from our humble beginnings in 1943. Through partner organizations, CRS has supported 230 Sishu Bhawan (children's centers) and 121 food distribution sites with food from U.S. government programs. This food has provided countless orphans like Julie, along with hundreds of thousands of desperately poor children, with meals during their formative years.

Julie's school career began when a generous Australian woman, Mary Helen Brown, sponsored her to attend Loreto Convent Kolkata: the same school that Mother Teresa had been principal of five decades before. Subsequently, Mary went on to formally adopt Julie. Three times Mary offered the young girl the chance to immigrate to Australia and embark on a new life of opportunity. However, three times Julie declined as she steadfastly refused to abandon her many "mothers" and the only home she had ever known.

In April 2010, Julie's studies culminated with her graduation from the prestigious Loreto College. While she has been a part-time employee of a CRS-supported food program since October 2009, she will become a full-time employee upon successful completion of her studies. Her new job will take advantage of her fluency in English, Hindi and Bangla (the local Bengali language), as she oversees the program's many food distribution sites across West Bengal.

Rajshree Das, CRS representative in Kolkata, shares her impression of Julie. "She is a calm, quiet girl and very intelligent; a keen observer and quick learner. She is an excellent employee and we are extremely happy to have her working with CRS."

Julie talks about her new job in her soft-spoken voice. "It is very nice getting to work in a CRS office and at the same time being able to work for the Missionaries of Charity.

"CRS has provided me with a laptop computer and a cell phone for my work, which involves tracking, reviewing and verifying data as part of overseeing the food distribution program," she says.

Another benefit of Julie's new job is that she will get to travel extensively among the food distribution sites scattered throughout India. Ultimately, she hopes that her work will allow her to travel overseas. "I am very grateful to CRS for these opportunities," she says.

When asked where she wants to travel outside of India in the future, her answer reveals a youthful sense of adventure. "It is my desire to travel all over the world and see everywhere! Everyone tells me I should go to Africa first. I realize that there is need there, but, before I go anywhere else, I want to visit America and see Disneyland!"

As the longstanding U.S. government-supported food program in India comes to an end in September 2011, CRS will shift away from food aid to projects that help people become more self-sufficient.

When asked what she thinks about this shift, Julie replies, "When I was small, all my breakfasts and many dinners came from the food CRS provided. Although that program is finishing, over time I hope to become more involved with assisting and training under the new CRS Early Childhood Development program."

For Julie Brown, the prison orphan, the tables have certainly turned.

Steve Cunliffe is a freelance writer and photographer in India.

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