One Life to Love: Changing the World One Child at A Time
By Caitlyn Bahrenburg
Walking through the gullies of an Indian slum, Courtney Lalotra was a world away from the life she knew in Brick, New Jersey, and yet, she was exactly where she was meant to be.
Like a flower grows through a crack in the concrete, determined to survive, the slum grew from al illegal dumping ground on the border of Dehli and Uttar Pradesh.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people. The smell you can imagine, its 120 degrees out and there’s garbage everywhere. They’re living in the garbage,” Lalotra said, recalling the putrid conditions of the community.
Lalotra was struck by the sheer poverty that surrounded her like the thick, burning odor of the slum, the likes of which she had only ever encountered in films. The flimsy structures the residents called home were stark contrasts to the living conditions Lalotra had known growing up. But the most shocking sight was that of a young boy, standing amongst the trash.
“You’re walking through sewage and garbage, and I see this little boy he had his arm was stuck [bent upward] because he had an injury and it never healed properly. He was a little three-year-old boy, and he’s barefoot and barely wearing any clothes, standing in the garbage, and it was just so shocking to me, the poverty. There are kids everywhere, but he really stuck out to me because the condition of his arm was awful,” Lalotra said.
“I asked what happened … and the mother said he fell down, he broke his arm and some doctor tied it up and left it like that and now his arm is stuck like that his whole life. Something so simple, just a broken arm, it could have been fixed and it would be fine.”
The scene Lalotra encountered in the slum is the harsh reality many Indian men, women, and children face on a daily basis. In the National Capitol Territory of Delhi, 3.9 million of the 16.8 million residents live in slums, according to India’s 2011 census. Independent reports estimate that the number is closer to 8 million.
However, this reality is changing for the children who have come into Lalotra’s care. Through her New Dehli-based non-profit organization One Life to Love, Lalotra and her husband Yogesh Lalotra are giving children a second chance at life, rescuing them from the streets and providing them with the love, nurturing, and safety they have always deserved yet often lacked.
“The one thing that I realized when I first went to India and I was living in the slum … was that all of these children, hundreds of thousands of children in the slum, were so talented. They had so much potential. They could be doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists. But they had no support system. They had no one at home waiting for them after school to ask them what’s going on. They had no opportunity, they were ostracized from society. They just needed someone to care, to love them,” Lalotra said.
Today, for dozens of children, Lalotra is that someone.
“The whole idea [of] One Life to Love … [is] we have only one life and when you live that life loving, and loving unconditionally, you really are changing the world and you’re making an impact and you’re leaving a legacy behind. When you love one [child], you’re changing the world for that one person, but it’s a ripple effect. We’re changing the world one child at a time,” she said.
When You’re Lost, Come Home
Lalotra made her first voyage to India in 2010 on a two-month research trip to study nomadic tribes in Cashmere. Rather than returning home with her cohort, however, Courtney chose to remain in India, over 7,300 miles from her hometown and the life she had built in the fashion industry, to volunteer with orphanages throughout the country.
“What I say is when I first moved to India, the first welcome I got was from the mosquitos,” she said. Almost immediately, Laltora contracted malaria, dangu, chicagonia, and typhoid — daily realities in the slum.
“I just felt the poverty, I felt the struggle and the reality of their conditions. It’s a hard life,” she said.
While recovering from her barrage of illnesses, Lalotra was nursed back to health by a 10-year-old orphan girl named Farida.
“I’m telling you she saved my life. I probably … never would have thought to drink water because you just feel awful. Most people who get these things they die from dehydration. I got better thanks to her, honestly,” Lalotra said. “She said, ‘No one cared for me when I was sick so I want to do it for others.’”
Farida, who was abandoned by her parents and raised in an orphanage, continued to visit Lalotra neraly every day. With each visit, their bond deepened.
Despite her slum-school education, Farida spoke excellent English and took her education into her own hands, watching English television shows to improve her language skills. But her brilliance and determination did not shield her from the trauma of the life of an orphan raised in a slum.
“She would cry and she would lay her head in my lap and just cry and say she doesn’t understand what the purpose of her life is. No one loves her, no one cares, she has no money, no opportunity and she’s a girl in a country that is not a place for women, especially single women. She would tell me she wanted to end her life. Anyone else you can tell them, it will be fine, but her, I was really worried. What is going to come of her life?” Lalotra said.
So, she started small and did what she knew.
“I decided I would wait for her every day after school and I would have snacks and stuff because she loved to eat. She was such a foodie, and my mom loved to do that with us and ask us what happened today,” Lalotra said.
Through that one simple act of love and kindness, the trajectory of Farida’s life altered completely. Farida now works as a makeup artist in a mall in Dehli, has a home of her own, and a supportive network of friends. She has found purpose, love, and community — a life she never could have dreamed of living in an orphanage as a distraught and lonely child. And it all started with a snack.
Just as Lalotra helped Farida find purpose in her life, Farida helped Lalotra discover hers.
“I saw as she was finding her purpose in life, I was also finding mine. I felt like maybe this is so much better than working in the fashion industry. I can be there with snacks after school for kids that have nobody. It seems so silly and simple and such a small act but it made a difference in her life,” she said.
While Farida may have planted the seed for what One Life to Love is today, the organization did not truly begin to take root until a boy named Beautiful stumbled into Lalotra’s life.
A Boy Named Beautiful
During her time volunteering with orphanages throughout the country, Lalotra met a 13-year-old who was discovered lying naked in the streets in the middle of the harsh Indian winter. When the boy arrived at the orphanage, he was just barely clinging to life. He could not walk on his own, was non-verbal, and had experienced significant trauma.
“We thought that he would just die there,” Lalotra said of his condition.
However, there was clearly another plan in place for the young man, and Lalotra was there to make sure of that.
“We just kind of surrounded him with love,” Lalotra said. “We loved him, cleaned him up and he couldn’t do anything on his own, couldn’t go to the bathroom on his own, we did everything for him.”
Soon, both the staff and the children grew attached to the young boy, who had yet to say a word.
“Everyone wanted to hear him speak something. So every day all day they would ask him, ‘What’s your name, what’s your name, what’s your name,’” Lalotra said.
“Then finally he said it and his name was Surendra, which means ‘Beautiful.’”
With the utterance of that first word, Surendra began to emerge from the lonely shell in which he had remained for most of his life.
“We just saw him coming out. He started to walk on his own. He started to kick a soccer ball in the park with us. The kids embraced him,” Lalotra said.
Surrounded by love, Surendra flourished. He had finally been given the life of safety, simplicity, and sanctuary he had always deserved.
However, Surendra’s story ended as tragically as it began. According to Lalotra, the majority of orphanages in India do not accept children with physical or mental disabilities, and the organization caring for Surendra was no exception.
“What they told me was there is no return investment on these kinds of children because at least the children that they’re helping now they might go to high school and get a job one day and that’s a success story for the books. That’s how they raise money. But a child like this, he’ll always need diapers, he’ll always need medical attention, he’ll always need a caretaker. He’ll probably die young. He’ll need a lot of medical care. It’s not something they’re willing to do,” Lalotra said of the grim reality of children’s homes in India.
Surendra was subsequently placed in a government-run facility, which was the only facility accepting special needs children. At the time, Lalotra said, the facility housed over 1,000 children — it only had the capacity for 400.
“It’s overrun. It’s notorious for mistreating the children. The staff use the children as servants, they hose them down, they don’t give them baths. Every month they have 10 to 15 children who just die there,” she said.
After visiting Surendra, her beautiful boy, Lalotra was distraught.
“I just cried the whole way home. He was just drugged, completely drugged. He smelled like urine. When I tried to go back a few months later I learned he had passed away there,” Lalotra said.
After learning of the young man’s fate, Lalotra was determined to ensure no child would suffer like Surendra.
“If I can help one [child] in this world, it’s worth it,” she said.
Home of Hope
Today, Lalotra has fulfilled that dream tenfold. Through One Life to Love, Lalotra intentionally set out to provide a home for those with nowhere else to go. While children with physical and mental disorders are rejected from orphanages in India, Lalotra welcomes these children with open arms. In fact, all of the children Lalotra cares for in her home have some degree of physical or mental disorder, including attention deficit disorder (ADD), cerebral palsy, autism, and neurological complications from illnesses, among others.
“We’re just a home for the lost, the unwanted, the broken,” Lalotra said.
Currently, One Life to Love currently cares for 10 boys full time through the children’s home and supports two girls through the daycare program.
“It’s a home and we also use it as a daycare center and an education center. The daycare is for girls who have special needs because we can’t keep girls overnight so we decided we would take them in for daycare,” Lalotra explained.
As One Life to Love continues to evolve, Lalotra plans to build a separate campus specifically to house girls, who are among the most vulnerable of India’s orphan children.
“The thing with girls who are special needs, the parents usually hide them. They’re scared. Girls are usually more vulnerable. They’re considered unsafe in India. They’re just hidden away,” Lalotra said.
By providing them with a home, Lalotra said, she can provide them with opportunities. For too many young girls, marriage is the only option for bettering their lives. With One Life to Love, a world of opportunities opens for these young women, just like Farida, who realized anything was possible with just a bit of love and support.
In addition to providing the children with a safe place to live and play, Lalotra is also passionate about education. True to One Life to Love’s origins, the education initiative was inspired by a young woman from the streets of Dehli named Ruchi.
Lalotra first met Ruchi while playing with her son Adi in a local park. The stunning child was carrying her youngest brother on her hip while another held her hand.
“I asked her why she wasn’t studying and she said her parents are here for work and she wants to go to school, she really wants to study. So I said, ‘Come to my house one day and you can study there, I’ll teach you some things,’” Lalotra.
Ruchi arrived at One Life to Love the next morning at 7 a.m., eager to learn. Soon, she began bringing other children from the street with her, sharing her love of learning with her community.
“She would show up every day with more kids. It really started with her. She started our education center,” Lalotra said.
Today, One Life to Love’s education center primarily educates migrant children whose parents traveled to New Dehli seeking work.
“Normally the kids are just playing in the dirt the whole day or playing in the street in and they’re vulnerable to human traffickers, drugs, violence or just accidents. You see them everywhere these kids,” Lalotra said. “So we started talking to the parents saying we have this home just send them. They get a uniform, they get shoes, meals, and they get an education.” It can be heartbreaking working with migrant children. Without notice, these children often disappear.
“We might have a kid for three months and then they just leave without any notice. Or you might have a kid for four years and they just leave,” Lalotra said, adding that this was the case for Ruchi. One day, she and her brothers simply stopped showing up at the school. To this day, Lalotra still does not know what has come of Ruchi and her brothers.
Living with the reality that the students at One Life to Love may disappear at any moment is challenging to say the least. However, the heartbreak and worry have never held Lalotra and her staff back. They have built the education program from one determined young student to a class of 20 to 25 students every day.
At One Life to Love, children have the opportunity to simply be students — to laugh, to play, to learn, to be children. The general population students spend their days learning basic math, science, and reading, while the special needs students enjoy swings, vibration massagers, weighted vests, and sensory toys in the therapy room. The children dance, play soccer, meditate, and learn yoga. Within the walls of One Life to Love, they can shed the defenses that have served them well in the streets of New Dehli and simply enjoy their time as children.
The Future of One Life to Love
One Life to Love has evolved from a humble dream to a home that has changed the lives of countless children, and Lalotra does not plan to stop there.
In addition to constructing a girls’ home, Lalotra dreams of building a campus with an aftercare facility to ensure that children who age out of the children’s home will always have a place to do.
“Everyone has to have a place for life in our home,” Lalotra said. “That’s one of the things when I started I can’t ever abandon these children because I’ve seen so many children get abandoned by organizations.”
Through the aftercare center, Lalotra and her team would provide residences and job placement for the One Life to Love children as they get older.
“You have kids like Dipu who are getting older. We’re teaching him some vocational things. But we also want a campus so we can hire our kids. Why can’t Dipu our gardener or work in the office? That’s our goal,” she said.
However, with lofty goals comes a hefty price tag.
“We need money basically,” Lalotra said. “If we can get large donations to build the campus it would be so helpful.”
While Lalotra plans to develop the campus to be self-sustaining, complete with farming, a guest-house, a store, and a new school for the community, One Life to Love is in need of support in order to get it off the ground.
“That’s what we depend on, kind hearts and passionate people,” Lalotra said.
By donating just $30 to www.onelife2love.org, you can feed a child for a year. A donation of $180 ensures a girl receives a quality education for an entire year. With zero administrative costs — Lalotra refuses to take a salary — all donations go directly to the care of the children and the expansion of the home.
Those interested in supporting One Life to Love are also encouraged to host a fundraiser. Generous supporters have hosted a myriad of events in support of One Life to Love, ranging from galas to photoshoots, goat yoga to music festivals.
Since officially opening the doors of One Life to Love, Lalotra has made an indelible impact on the orphans of Dehli. In simply showing them love, offering them support, and continuing to show up for children who have known nothing but abandonment, Lalotra has changed the lives of every child she has encountered. But the innocent children who have been saved by One Life to Love are not the only ones who have been changed.
Reflecting on where she came from, Lalotra acknowledged just how much her time in India has remolded her as a woman. She began her journey as a young, single jewelry designer on a research trip. But her first time in India quickly evolved into a life-changing journey. Now, as a mother and wife, a philanthropist and to many, a savior, Lalotra has grown into exactly who she was always meant to be.
“From where I came, where I was going and where I am now. I think I am exactly where I was meant to be,” Lalotra said. “I used to be a little lost and unsure. I am exactly where I was supposed to be.”