Paige Byrne Shortal, Union, is seeking American sponsors for children to attend school in India through a new nonprofit organization, One Child at a Time (www.ocatusa.org).

Shortal is serving on the board of OCAT, which was co-founded in 2014 by a friend she made during a visit to Hyderabad, India, nearly 10 years ago, Suresh Singareddy.

During her January 2008 trip to India, Shortal  visited a program for sponsored children in Hyderabad and came home with folders of photos and descriptions of children needing sponsorship. A good number of Franklin County families signed up as sponsors for a child or two in India, but now most of those children are all grown up.

“It was my intention to return to Hyderabad a couple of years later to visit those sponsored children and provide an update, but life happens,” said Shortal. “Our three grandchildren moved in with us and there was no time to think about traveling anywhere without them.

“But now we’re planning another trip. In January 2018 my granddaughter, Sakura, who will be 15, and I will travel to Hyderabad to visit with Suresh Singareddy, the project leader I met 10 years ago.” 

Singareddy and his American counterpart, Bethany Knight, formed OCAT in order to narrow their scope while broadening the support they could offer. 

“Their desire to begin something new wasn’t due to any malfeasance on the part of CFCA — now called UNBOUND,” said Shortal. “Rather, they wanted to go both smaller and deeper, providing help for siblings and other family members which larger organizations can’t offer. With the larger organizations only one child per family is sponsored and it can become a heartbreaking ‘Sophie’s Choice’ for the parents — choosing only one child to receive education.

“OCAT finds sponsors for children attending just one school, Fr. Francis School in Hyderabad, which serves a small population of children, said Shortal. “There is more of an opportunity for our family to relate to theirs.

“Before being brought to the school and given uniforms, notebooks and textbooks, these children were picking up rags at the dump,” Shortal said. “That’s where Suresh found them and recruited them and their families to take a chance on education. 

“The children don’t have to be coaxed to school or bribed to study. They love it. They know they are privileged for having been chosen, and they work hard,” she said. 

The school is as ecumenical as India is, serving children who are Christian, Hindu and Muslim. 

Learning English is a major priority. India’s national languages are English and Hindi, but the poor too often only speak their state language. 

“Imagine if our children only spoke Missourian and could not communicate with those who speak Illinoisian,” said Shortal. “To get a decent job English is necessary.”

OCAT has almost zero dollars overhead or administrative costs. No one takes a stipend, Shortal noted. The legal work to incorporate OCAT was donated, and other small costs like mailings are covered out-of-pocket. 

The board meets every few months via conference call. 

“The last board meeting phone call included a woman in Vermont, another in California, a guy walking the Appalachian Trail, a woman in Hyderabad, and me proudly representing the Midwest,” said Shortal.

The Shortal family sponsors three OCAT children, ages 8, 9 and 11, who write them letters in amazingly good English. 

“Each one of our grandchildren identifies with one of these sponsored kids, and it’s a wonderful learning experience for them,” said Shortal. “Sakura and I are looking forward to meeting them in person.”

Fr. Francis School currently has 35 sponsored children and needs sponsors for 23 more. Byrne Shortal has information with photos of seven of those children — four little girls and three little boys, ages 7 to 9 years old. 

“It is my hope that I can find them sponsors right here in Franklin County with the promise that in January, Sakura and I will meet these children and take them your greeting,” she said. 

“I’ll close with a few lines written by the poet, Gabriela Mistral: 

“ ‘Many things we need can wait, but the child cannot. Right now is the time: His bones are being formed, his senses are being developed, his blood is being made.  To him, we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ His name is ‘Today.’ ”

The cost of sponsoring a child is $360 a year, payable monthly, quarterly, or all at once. 

For more information or to sign up as a sponsor, people should contact Byrne Shortal at 314-583-1522 or paige.byrne.shortal@gmail.com.