Inside LIFT in India Through the eyes of Bernadette Birt

Bernadette Birt and her husband, Jim Kaczkowski, purchased a LIFT benefit auction item to visit LIFT in India.  In January 2024, they took the journey of a lifetime.  Take a look at her real-life experiences with the LIFT students and the impact they had on her—and our supporters have had on the students.  

The time has finally arrived!  Jim and I landed in Madurai late on the evening of January 12th. Fr. Jamels and grad student, Selva Shakila, met our flight and brought us to Tirunelveli to kick off our LIFT visit and adventure.  Our timing was now perfect! The Pongal (harvest) celebrations provided an opportunity for us to spend wonderful time with many more students since they had all gathered for celebrations and a retreat with fellow LIFT students and guests.

We were excited to finally meet the LIFT family of students in person! We visited St. Xavier’s College where a number of the students are studying for degrees in commerce, mathematics, English Literature, and physics. LIFT students work toward counseling and MBA degrees at other colleges. Excitement was in the air as music played and we made our way through the crowds of students gathered to compete in competitions for making Pongal creating beautiful sand art. Back at the LIFT house, we met more of the students; it was so exciting, but so hard to remember everyone’s name and what each student was studying!

Sunday was a whirlwind of activity. Students were already at the Training Center at a farm working together on projects, practicing dances, teaching each other, and learning from one another.

Jim and I were honored to spend a little time visiting the homes of some or our students. We met Kanaga Jothi, her Mom and her sister. We learned a little more about Jothi’s story and her reasons for joining LIFT. We traveled on with Fr. Jamels and Shaki to visit Leo with his Mom and Dad at their home followed by a visit to the home of twin brothers, Selvan and Rajan, and their Mom. We had a sobering visit to the burnt-out remnants of the home of Ananth. He is a brave young man who sees a bright future ahead as he continues his studies towards his Bachelor of Pharmacy degree.  Saraswathi warmly greeted us at her grandmother’s home where she introduced us to her grandmother.

All of these students have come to LIFT in an effort to create a better life through education, self-study and healing.  All have been through challenges in their home lives and LIFT has given them hope, opportunity and support to rise above the pain they faced at young ages. Each of the students at LIFT have overcome incredible adversity, and LIFT has created a path forward and a family to help them on their journey. I was incredibly moved by these home visits and after many years of knowing about the students and supporting LIFT, we were now able to see the impact and the outcomes of the work that LIFT does.

We arrived at the Training Center at the farm and took our front row seats. We were entertained by the incredible talent of the students.  We were so impressed by the leadership skills exhibited through the emcee and hosts and the dance routines by various student groups of young men and women. They also showed us their skills through ad Silambam (martial arts) exhibition, and yoga. The highlight of the evening was the sharing of light, candle by candle, person to person and, then, a truly joyful celebration in a dance circle with all the kids.  We dined under the stars and then slowly the students disappeared to start their preparations for the early morning revelry and awakening for the cooking of the pongol on Monday morning.

Under a still moonlit sky, Fr. Jamels picked Jim and me up from our lodging at 5 am on Monday morning. We made our way back to the camp where students were finishing their sand art decorations and were well on the way to building a robust campfire.  The school cook, Pappammal , brought the pot of Pongal out to cook over the flames and we were honored to add handfuls of grain to the bubbling pot in hopes of more prosperity for the coming year.

The celebrations continued with Fr. Michael and Fr. Jamels celebrating mass and leading the way to a day of fun games, competitions and some wonderful silliness. The students were on mixed teams of girls and boys of varying ages, and they competed in relays and team races.  The goal was always about teamwork and cooperation over winning.  It was also fun to see Fr. Jamels, his brother – Quentin, and JIm – blindfolded while trying to knock down a water balloon strung from a tree…kind of like a pinata filled with water.

As the day went on, I had time to sit with some of the students and learn more about their hopes and goals. Jim was also busy chatting with and advising some of the students. They were curious and excited to learn more about our lives, our family and life in the U.S. These young adults are working so hard towards making life better, not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. They know that with success in school followed by productive careers, that they can change the quality of life for their parents, siblings and for the generations to follow.

I couldn’t imagine what a huge impact our visit would have on how I feel about these young people and LIFT. Being provided with an opportunity to learn is a life changing path, but without care, love, personal support and financial support, these dreams can easily fall away. Everything we aspire to do in LIFT reaches the whole person and helps the students overcome challenges in their past so that they reach new heights in their studies and in their future. The core of LIFT is our dedication to developing leadership excellence among motivated and talented youth in Tamil Nadu, India.

On our final day with the students, we once again saw student leaders manage and run every part of the program. Ananth was the MC, our deejay, Sentamil, managed the music, Shaki shared her most recently edited video. The various dance teams were prepped and ready to celebrate the close of this wonderful in person experience.

In between dances from the various groups, we were honored to listen to the stories of a dozen of the students. These are the stories of why LIFT has become another home and family to the students. With each telling my heart broke a little and I just wanted to hug and support the child in front of me. Each has overcome pain and loss that as a mother brings me to tears, and yet here they are telling their story so that it no longer holds power of who they can become. Part of the LIFT program includes courses on Psychology and counseling. This allows the students to see their story as a part of their life which can’t be changed, and allows them to heal the inner child, while reaching for the opportunities ahead. All of this is possible because of LIFT.

There was such beauty in this story telling. Some of the students speak and write quite well in English and there also some who have joined LIFT more recently are still more comfortable writing and speaking in Tamil. Each of the less fluent ESL students worked with an older student who translated their words into beautifully written narratives on pink scrolls. Each student told his/her life story in the language in which they were most comfortable. A second student would be by their side for moral support or to repeat their story in English. It was so moving to watch as the translator’s voice quivered in pain as they shared the words, as if it were their own story. For one young woman, speaking in Tamil, she crumbled to the floor as she spoke of the loss of her mother. Every head in the room dropped in tears and in reverence for their classmate, their friend, their sister.  Her pain was their pain.  As each student finished telling us about their life story, they presented Jim and I with their beautiful scroll. I collected each of these scrolls and carefully re-rolled them and packed them with love and care, as these were the most precious souvenirs I was carrying home from India. We are so honored that these are now a part of our home and our life.  Each of these scrolls is now in a large portfolio along with all of the beautiful art pieces that the students created for us.

There were at least 80 stories to be shared in that room; and I hope in our next visits I learn more about the journey of each of our students.

I don’t know that I have captured the true essence of what this trip meant to me and to Jim. We see how much has been accomplished by LIFT over these past 20 years, but I know that there are so many more really smart young people who need access to all that LIFT can provide. I will continue engaging with and supporting these young people who have touched my heart. I want to be a part of their journey and the loop of success which brings them back to support the next generation of LIFT. I hope those of us who continue to engage with LIFT can help plan for the next phase of LIFT. The next generation of LIFT can accomplish more of our current goals while building bold audacious goals for the future of these amazing young people.
~Bernadette Birt

Thank you to Bernadette for sharing her insight and experiences. To continue to empower lives, please donate any amount today.