Shelley Seale is one of the most amazing and inspiring person I have interviewed till date. Her manta for life is “travel with a purpose” and she lives to it. Shelley is an extraordinary writer and has embraced the less-privileged children around the world with open arms.
Her new book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows her journey into orphanages and through the streets and slums of India where millions of innocent children live without families, telling their real-life stories that captivated audiences worldwide in the film Slumdog Millionaire. All five star rating on Amazon say it all about this remarkable book and the extraordinary job Shelley has done unraveling the complex issues faced by the children of India.
Let’s talk to Shelley to know about her book and experience in India.
Tell us a bit about yourself – your background, profession and organizations/initiatives you are involved with?
I am a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas; but I vagabond in any part of the world whenever I get a chance. I have written for National Geographic, Globe Pequote Press, InfoChange India, Austin Woman, the Seattle Times, Washington Magazine and Andrew Harper Traveler among others. My mantra is “travel with a purpose.” My recent book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, tells the true stories of some of the millions of children living on the streets or in orphanages in India. They are the real-life kids behind those such as in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
I have been involved in nonprofit work and social activism almost all my life – particularly around child advocacy. When I was a young teenager my mother began fostering babies for the Edna Gladney Home in Fort Worth, and through the years we were a foster home to over 50 children. My sister, Katie, was adopted during that time – as she says, she’s always known she was special! So at a young age I was aware of child rights and advocacy issues. It must run in the family because both of my sisters, Amy and Katie, work at nonprofit agencies working with children and families.
As an adult I began doing a lot of volunteer work here in Texas, with abused and neglected children. I participated in a mentoring program for at-risk teens for several years, and worked with Child Protective Services. In Austin I have been a Guardian Ad Litem through CASA for almost 5 years, in which I act as a court-appointed advocate for children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, and have been involved with The Heart Gallery to find forever families for such children.
When did you first go to India? What’s so great about India?
In 2004 I read a story in Tribeza magazine about Caroline Boudreaux’s incredible journey that became The Miracle Foundation. After a trip to India caused Caroline to come face to face with hundreds of children living in hunger and filth in an orphanage, she turned her life upside-down and started the foundation that today supports five orphanages in India. I began sponsoring a child, and in March 2005 traveled with Caroline to India for the first time, to work in the orphanage and meet the children. As trite as it sounds, the experience changed me, too.
I soon came to realize that most of the children living in the homes were not orphaned due to death, but due to poverty. India is home to more than 25 million children living without parental care, and three million more are added each year. As I learned more about the complex, intertwining issues that make children vulnerable to orphanhood, the sex trade, child labor, HIV, or a life on the streets, I began to come up with the idea for my book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India. My simple goal is to help give a voice to these invisible children.
I didn’t choose India particularly; in fact, I often say that it chose me. It just happened to be where I landed, through personal connections, and from the moment I did the country and its people wrapped around me and refused to let go. The very existence of these children forever altered both the person I am and my view of the world. In some ways I feel more familiar to myself there, like I am now the person I was brought to India to become. I didn’t go to India to change anything about it; instead, it worked a transformational change in me.
Tell us about your book “Weight of Silence”?
By now, everyone has either seen, or at least heard of, the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about the lives of two brothers who come from the slums of Mumbai – made even more desperate after they are orphaned. What many don’t know, however, is that for 25 million children in India, the harsh world depicted in the movie is their everyday reality. Yes, that’s 25 million kids who have been orphaned, abandoned or trafficked. My book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows my journey over the past four years into the streets, orphanages and slums of India where these children live without families or homes of their own. I became immersed in their world, a witness to their struggles – but also their joys, their incredible hope and resilience that amazed me time and time again. The ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspired me. My sole purpose in writing this book was to give these millions of children a voice that could be heard by others in the world who, I was convinced, would be as moved by their plights as I was.
What led you to write this book?
When I arrived that first time, I assumed all the kids there were orphans in the true sense of the word – their parents had died. Instead I was shocked by how many of them had been “orphaned” by poverty; their parents had left them at the Miracle Foundation home because they were too poor to feed them, which in some ways seemed an even greater tragedy. I wondered when each of them had stopped wanting to go back home, or if they ever had. Many of them had also been affected by other issues such as disease or child labor and trafficking; some had been found living on the streets.
As I bore witness to the harm that lay in each of them because of their pasts, as I discovered the stories behind the faces and the names, there was simply no way to go on with my life afterwards as if they did not exist. So I embarked on a three-year journey researching the issues, traveling throughout India and talking to many professionals and those working in the trenches to uphold these children’s rights and improve their futures. I could see that they were “invisible” children, without a real voice of their own.
What is the best and the worst part of being a writer?
Best: Doing what I love to do – what doesn’t feel like work to me.
Worst: How hard it is to get work and get published sometimes, and how easy it is to constantly keep working to do so. Writing is all-consuming. Although I would be miserable in a regular 9-to-5 job, I sometimes envy those who can go home and leave their work behind at the end of the day.
What are you doing now? What’s up for you in the future?
Right now I am writing a new guidebook about Seattle, for Globe Pequot Press’s Insiders’ Guide series. In 2008 and some of 2009 I lived mostly in Seattle and split my time between there and Austin, and I really love the Pacific Northwest. I also continued to stay very involved with children’s issues, of course, and promoting The Weight of Silence so that more people can hear their stories.
As far as the future, later this year I would like to begin a new book, which will profile 25 people who are truly changing the world with one big idea. I have met so many people, like Caroline Boudreaux, who didn’t sit back and wait for others to do something – but who decided THEY needed to do something. These people are so inspiring to me, and I want to share the hope that change is possible through their stories.
And lastly, how do you keep inspired and motivated?
Lots of ways. First of all, I have to stay focused on what is truly important in life. Having friends and family who care about you, health, enough money to eat and have the basics in life – we really don’t need more than this. I am so blessed simply because I can turn on a faucet and clean water comes out, and I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from.
Mentally and physically, yoga and meditation are really important to me in achieving a mind/body/spirit balance. Without them I am sure I would become far more stressed!
Also, in a huge way I am inspired by readers who contact me to share how the book and these children’s stories touched them. They often share stories of their own, such as adopting a child or changing their own travel plans to India to include volunteer work. I have featured many of their stories on my blog. It’s always SUCH an inspiration and reward to me to get such an email or letter; to know that what I’ve done resonates with someone else and creates some meaning in the world, and affects change for these children. That keeps me going.
Shelley, thank you so much for your time and for the wonderful book.
Shelley’s social profiles:
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