For 17-year-old Bethany Atwood, a childhood spent listening to her father’s stories and then experiencing them first hand has left her with a passion to work with the Untouchables in India.
A dedicated and determined student, Atwood is in the Running Start program and her second quarter at Pierce College Puyallup. She hopes to complete her associate’s degree in 2013. After that, her plans include transferring to Northwest University to major in international studies (with a possible double major in education).
Throughout the entirety of the discourse about her life and ideas—past, present and future—a single purpose and passion surfaced again and again: a heart that had been broken for the broken in India.
This purpose started early in her life and was prompted by a visit her father, Dan Atwood, made to India in 2002.
“My dad went to India when I was seven and he came back with stories of people who were just so diverse and beautiful and a culture that was controlled and consumed by a caste system that made people inhuman,” Atwood said. “And even at 7 years old I knew that I wanted to see it for myself.”
The caste system is a racially based institution that separates people based on their karma and reincarnation. The system is at the center of Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, and is important to every aspect of life. It has been officially illegal in India since 1950, but that has not stopped the practice nor a deep-rooted prejudice from continuing. The literally named Untouchables are considered unclean and they live in poverty and disease.
“Untouchables are not considered human,” Atwood said. “They have to survive outside of society.”
When she was 11, she got to see it for herself when she first traveled to India in 2006. She says that, because of her age, it was really more a tourist trip that introduced her to the people and culture of India.
Although Atwood was young, her original visit to India prepared her for her return in 2010 when she was 16 years old. She better understood what to expect in India, from the language and clothing to the transportation and food. She also understood what the daily lives of the people were like.
“Coming in with previous knowledge, I felt more prepared to make an impact and to really work in the culture,” she explained. “Having seen the previous oppression, I came prepared to really minister aggressively.”
Atwood’s strong personal faith is the driving force in her life. She said that working with the Untouchables has helped to strengthen her own beliefs.
“They have the joy of the Lord,” Atwood said. “They take a situation that appears to be intolerable to the average American and they have a new outlook on it with incredible joy and contentment—even in terrible circumstances because they know that this is their home.”
Atwood has worked at orphanages in different regions of India: in New Delhi and in Punjab. When she’s at the orphanages, she helps to manage special programs for more than 300 kids at a time. Assisting the team nurse in doing health screenings on all the children is another one of her duties. She is strongly committed to the orphanages and has built relationships with the children there.
“Relationships come from the small things, like playing games and doing art projects. They love it when you learn their name,” Atwood said. “Kids are the same in every country. You just have to get through the barriers of language.”
Her involvement at the orphanages continues even back in Washington. She has organized book drives for the students and stays in regular contact with the leader at Faith Home, the school she regularly works with.
Atwood’s status as a home school student was partially responsible for her ability to stay focused on India, even back in the United States. Being home schooled was a positive experience for Atwood and she dismisses the common stereotypes associated with it.
“My parents had the wisdom to not shelter me entirely from the outside world,” Atwood said. “I was involved in the public school activities throughout junior high.”
Her older brother was also home schooled, as are her two younger siblings. She thinks that being home schooled prepared her for college.
“Compared to being home schooled, college has been a breeze,” she said with a laugh.
Getting an education in India though, she explained, can be very difficult and is usually mediocre unless parents can pay for their children to attend a private school.
Everything about Bethany Atwood seems to relate to India somehow – even her red hair and freckles.
“The kids tried to rub off my freckles because they thought I had a dirty face. They love playing with my hair. Everywhere you go you stand out.”
When she describes India, her face lights up and she begins to rush over her words exuberantly.
“I love the people, I love the culture, I love the food,” she said, mentioning that chai tea is her personal favorite, admitting to being a “complete chai snob” and declaring that she refuses to drink anything that isn’t true chai—made with water buffalo milk.
“India is warm, it’s colorful. People are incredibly generous and welcoming. The people are beautiful,” she slowed her words down thoughtfully. “But, I have seen the pain, the hurt caused by the oppression in the caste system.
Atwood is determined to use all the opportunities and experiences in her life to make a difference. In the future, she hopes to live in an Untouchable village or at the Faith Home school.
Atwood’s love for the country and its people and her desire to show them that they are loved and respected is what compels her.
“India is a beautiful heartbreak. It’s a beautiful country full of people leading heartbreaking lives. The caste system and the Untouchables are large problems that I feel like I can influence in a small way.”
The Puyallup Post is the award-winning student news of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2017. Twitter/Instagram @puyalluppost