At Home in the World

Author: Gita Pullapilly ’99


It’s 3 in the morning on Christmas Day, and I’m at the Bangor International Airport in Maine, waiting for an incoming flight of troops from Iraq. I’m here filming a documentary on the Maine Troop Greeters, a group of elderly men and women and of veterans who come day and night to greet troops heading to or returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our film is about the incredible sacrifices the greeters have made to welcome every single service member coming through Bangor. It is also a social issue story about the treatment of the elderly in the United States.

As much as I love seeing the greeters, this has been a difficult day for me. It is the first time I’ve been apart from my family on Christmas. Even during my years as a television reporter, I was able to spend at least part of the holidays with my family. This year, however, we’re spread out over the globe—my father and mother are in England as he finishes a Cambridge Fellowship, my sister is in Ukraine completing her Peace Corps service and my brother just left his volunteer work in an orphanage in India. As I look at the clock, it’s only 3:17 a.m. Time moves at a snail’s pace when you’re missing those you love.

Finally, I see the greeters preparing for action. It’s 3:45 a.m., and the troops have just landed back on U.S. soil. As I watch the soldiers coming off the plane, it gives me chills. Here is a group of young men and women willing to die for their country, regardless of their personal beliefs. My family has always made choices based on principle—whether we’re right or wrong. All of us started out in different spheres (academics, TV journalism, finance, computer management) but have gravitated toward humanitarian work. Although our overlying missions are the same, our journeys are different. But it all comes from a desire, passion and drive within each of us.

Tough love

Before Vatican II, the rule in the Catholic Church was that one should not take any food or liquids after midnight if he or she were to receive holy communion the following day. In the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala, India, this rule was even stricter, as the prospective communicants were prohibited even to swallow their own saliva. When my father was 5 years old, the local priests granted him special permission to receive his first Holy Communion. What my grandmother didn’t realize was that her little son would become a slave to his growling stomach and break this rule. The night before his first Communion, Dad just couldn’t sleep because his stomach was growling. He went outside and climbed the banana tree and ate as many little bananas as he could. Once he stuffed himself, he went back into the house and went to bed.

The next morning, the church was filled with people. My grandmother was so proud of her son—the youngest Indian boy in the village to participate in the ceremony. As my father reached out to receive Communion, he threw up all over the priest. My grandmother picked up my father and gave him a good spanking. Needless to say, his first Holy Communion was postponed.

As my father sat alone, contemplating his spanking, a kindly priest gave him a book about Saint John Bosco, the founder of the Salesian Society that helped orphan children in India. It was Saint John Bosco who inspired my father, who could read at the age of 5, to become a priest, a theologian and an advocate for children around the world.

As an Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Catholic priest, my father was active in public life, including politics. He used his writings to help change policy in the state government in Kerala. He helped fight against the Communist Party and wrote a number of books in his native language, Malayalam, in order to bring peace and equality to the state. He ran an orphanage and started libraries for Indian school children.

After my father married my mother, he dedicated his life to educating college students. As a history professor at Saint Mary’s College, my father teaches his students about the world. Through the Semester Around the World program, which he founded, he also can inspire college students to help the poor in developing countries.

My mother was a strong-willed little girl who had plenty of mouth for her size. Mother Teresa was her teacher—and as my mother tells this story, she was not quite the saint we all venerate. My mother had a habit of chewing her bottom lip during Mass. This irritated Mother Teresa so much that after Mass one day, she came up to my mother and slapped her mouth. But it was this tough love that also drove my mother to help others.

My mother became a school teacher in India and spent her days working with poor children—hoping that through an education they could find the tools to make a living for themselves rather than live on the streets. In America, she spent 30 years teaching math to children in the South Bend public schools. She opened an Indian restaurant in South Bend to educate the community on the culture and foods of India. She now works with inner-city children and spends much of her time working on humanitarian programs.

My parents believe that if you show children a problem, they will spend their time working toward a solution. This is without a doubt what has taken their own children to various parts of the world.

It’s hard being the oldest
My sister, Kavita ’94, is a perfectionist. It comes from being the oldest in an Indian family. I never envied her because she had to be the responsible one.

The first 30 years of her life were filled with responsible choices. She was the perfect child to talk about at Indian functions—she had a great corporate job and graduated at the top of her class at Notre Dame and later at Northwestern. Still, I knew my sister wasn’t happy. She never felt as though she was making a difference in the world. She had always dreamed of joining the Peace Corps when she was younger but never really considered it a realistic option. Then one day as she sat in an interview, she looked at her potential manager and knew her life was not supposed to be like this. That same day, she decided to apply for the Peace Corps.

In 2004, she arrived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps economic development volunteer. She was assigned to the town of Kolomiya in western Ukraine. Over the next three years, she worked on social and economic development projects that brought more than $200,000 of technical aid to this small town of 60,000. But her work with the kids of Kolomiya was what brought her the greatest joy and closer to understanding God’s purpose for her. In February 2006, my sister opened the Kolomiya Youth Center with the support of the European Commission in Ukraine and a local nongovernmental agency. The center has become an institution in the community and a place where children know they can be safe. More than 2,500 kids come there to play, to learn and to find support.

When my sister joined the Peace Corps, her friends and our relatives thought she was crazy. It wasn’t what the oldest Indian child would typically do. But as my sister says, “Your past is a learning experience, a way for you to understand yourself and find your true direction in life, if you choose to listen.” Kavita is now the assistant country director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines.

The prodigal son
If anyone in our family had the potential to do the greatest good, I would have put my last dollar on Anand. Unfortunately, over the years, my brother lost his way. My sister and I would always talk about the Biblical story of the prodigal son. We never understood why the father would throw such a feast for the son who abandoned him. Now, as part of a family that expects a lot from each other, I have come to understand the importance of this story.

Anand has made mistakes in his life but it is through these missteps that our family has been brought closer together. As a student at Notre Dame, Anand was determined to go into business. After he graduated in 2002, he became a portfolio manager at an investment firm that works only with high-end clients. It was a time filled with money, fast cars and parties. As a stockbroker in Florida, he was surrounded by beautiful, rich clients, and the more money he made, the more friends he thought he had. However, Anand always had this feeling that he wasn’t moving in the path God had chosen for him. For years, however, he avoided any type of introspection; after all, he was making money.

Then my father visited Anand in Florida and saw the empty lifestyle he was living. He introduced him to Father Joseph Koshy, a Salesian priest who had started an orphanage in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India, that takes in runaway children. Many of these kids have endured traumatic experiences. Anand took the first step in following his path by moving to India and living at the orphanage. There, he helped raise funds and manage the orphanage. He lived on his minimal savings.

When people ask him about this radical change, he tells the story of little Anju, a 6-year-old boy who lived under a Vijayawada railway car at the train station. Anju was abused as a child and is HIV positive. Father Koshy and Anand convinced him to come to the orphanage, and he is now attending school. It’s these small steps that can change a person’s life—both Anand’s and Anju’s. Since leaving the orphanage, Anand’s journey has led him to medical school. He plans on becoming a pediatric oncologist.

Walking blindly
As the youngest child in the family, I always had a vivid imagination and a big mouth. My sister and brother were shy as children, but not me. I was the person at my parents’ dinner parties doing a song and dance, telling a joke or acting out a play.

When I was about 5 years old, I decided I wanted to help the blind. To know what it was like to be blind, I would close my eyes and try to walk around the house. The stairs to the basement were right next to the kitchen. I would always forget about those 15 perilous steps and would tumble down the stairs and into the basement. I learned two valuable lessons from this test—1) don’t close your eyes near stairs, and 2) despite the constant fear of falling, I had to force myself to feel what others felt, to walk in their footsteps, in order to tell their story.

As I grew older, I realized my one true talent is storytelling. In graduate school at Northwestern University, I broke a story on an autistic Pakistani child filing for asylum in Chicago. After the story aired, it was picked up by the networks and other national media. Because of all of the media attention, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in an unprecedented move, decided to grant the child asylum based on medical issues. At that moment, I realized this was my path.

Soon after, I started my first job as a television reporter. Forget thoughts of glamour. I covered traffic, bad weather, city council meetings, fires, murders and car accidents. Colleagues nicknamed me the “death reporter” because I was frequently assigned to talk to victims’ families after a tragedy. These families touched me more than they could have ever imagined. I learned how they grieved and coped and how a piece of them also died the instant their loved ones did. I trained myself as a reporter to deal with these inconceivable tragedies and to help those in their suffering.

A few years ago, I met a film director who was looking for a film producer to make documentaries with him. Fortunately, I took the chance, and we started a production company, Dungby Productions. It has since changed my life and those we have come in contact with. We have traveled around the world producing documentaries on HIV/AIDS street children in India, Palestinian refugees in Jordan and the plight of the elderly in the United States. We choose stories that have not been told and have a social significance.

Many people ask how I get access to the subjects in my films. I tell them you have to have an open heart and prepare it for heartbreak. Only then can you sit down during the most intimate interviews and fight back tears and leave wanting to fight for them. This is something I have been training for all of my life, but I am only now realizing it. I had to open my heart and learn how to find compelling stories in the least compelling places. I had to leave behind the idea of “being on TV” and learn to love being behind the scenes. This career is my true calling from God.

To this day, I am pretty good at walking down staircases—blindfolded.

_The Pullapilly family has started a foundation to support its social projects around the world, including the Kolomiya Youth Center, the Vijayawada Orphanage and social issue documentaries. For information about The Pullapilly Foundation and how you can help, contact Kavita Pullapilly at _.