A woman from New Jersey who moved to India to look after orphans with special needs has told how she took in four children during the height of the country’s coronavirus crisis.
Courtney Lalotra, 34, and her husband Yogesh, 37, are now parents of 12 with one biological son, Adi, five, and 11 adopted kids, Dipu, 17, Raju, 11, Shivam, 11, Shiva, 10, Shivam, 10, Piyush, nine, Jai, seven, Satyam, five, Roshit, five, Sialesh, four, and Piyush, three.
The fashion graduate from Brick, New Jersey, lives with her vast family in the National Capital Territory of Delhi and took in four children affected by the pandemic which is engulfing the country.
Courtney and Yogesh adopted Satya and Shivam after their mother was killed by their father – their next of kin was a 17-year-old uncle who was unable to look after the kids.
The couple also took in Piyush, nine, whose father lost his job as a rickshaw driver in the pandemic, and Krishna, four, whose single mother lost her work due to the COVID-19 crisis.
However Krishna’s mother was able to find work again and so he returned to his mother after six months with Courtney.
Courtney said that the pandemic is not just a disaster for the people who catch the deadly virus.
“With COVID, it’s not just people who are getting sick and dying.
“There is a ripple effect – the whole of society is suffering.
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of children being orphaned every day in India, especially now during the pandemic.”
Courtney first visited India in 2010 on a project to research fabrics as a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan.
She was immediately shocked by the poverty she saw.
“What stuck with me was the first moments of stepping off the plane and being faced with poverty like that – children begging on the streets, women holding crying babies in their arms.”
She volunteered in a slum in North East Delhi and realized that her calling was to help orphans in India.
“I was volunteering at an orphanage for boys and girls in the middle of the slum.
“The despair and hopelessness was so thick and you could feel it.
“These children didn’t have anyone who really cared about them, asking them about how their day was and the past tragedies they had faced.
“I couldn’t even grasp the language at that point. I would get girls who would cry into my shoulder and we were somehow able to communicate.”
Courtney was convinced to return to India when an orphan called Fatima told her that none of the volunteers usually returned.
“My visa was expiring and I said I would be back and Fatima said: ‘no one comes back here.’
“At that moment, I thought I don’t want to be that person – I really do want to give it all up and do something different.”
Courtney returned to the US and sold her car and all her possessions.
She raised $15,000 which was enough to rent a home for six months and buy linen, furniture and food for the children she intended to help.
She returned to India in March 2011 and worked for a non-profit before settling up her own home for children with special needs in 2012.
Despite initial reservations, her parents were supportive with her father even donating three paychecks to help her start her home.
She fell in love with Yogesh and the pair married in 2014 and had their son Adi the next year.
Courtney admitted that at the height of the coronavirus, she was jealous of her friends and family back in the US.
“They were walking around the block, they were walking around the park.
“We couldn’t do that – we were stuck in the house.
“The Indians were very disciplined about the lockdown rules.”
She added that the lockdown was terrible for migrant workers who live hand to mouth.
“The need here is so much greater.
“We have a daycare center for the children of migrant families.
“When the lockdown happened, those families were stranded.
“They couldn’t make money and these are people who live hand to mouth.
“There was complete panic.
“We started giving them rations – we had hundreds of people on our doorstep asking for food.
“We started ordering truckloads of rations like lentils and rice and distributing it to everyone who was in need.
“We have helped more than 2,000 families during this entire crisis.”
Courtney adopted four children during the pandemic but said she has heard of many more who need help.
“I get messages every day from people who know of families where both parents have passed away.
“It is a race to find the next of kin because you want to avoid children entering the system.
“A lot of the children in our home are either completely orphaned or have lost one parent and their next of kin is not able to care for them.”
Courtney added that she was even supposed to fly back to the US to see her family in April but opted to stay in India to help as the virus spread.
“The US embassy contacted all US citizens and told us to book our flights as the borders were about to be locked down.
“I thought this was my chance to see my family again and I got a seat on the last flight out.
“But I had to get a pass from the district magistrate here as it is a containment zone and he knew me because of my COVID relief work.
“He said: ‘We would urge you to stay because the need is so great’.
“I decided to stay because I felt I wouldn’t have any peace of mind in the US.”
Courtney added that despite the severity of the COVID pandemic in India, she still has hope.
“At this point, fear and panic gripped the nation but without hope, what is the point?
“We were meant for service, each one of us, if we are not serving in some way we are missing out on life.”