Cape Fear Community College’s Wilma W. Daniels Gallery will open Arrow Ross’ latest photography exhibit, “Girls Thriving: The Homes of Hope Story in India,” as part of downtown’s Fourth Friday Gallery Walk this week. Homes of Hope founder Paul Wilkes asked Ross to photograph and capture the story of impoverished Indian village girls. The nonprofit has been working since 2006 to help orphaned, abandoned and neglected girls in India, by building facilities for the girls to live in, while providing an education, food and other resources to guide them toward living productive lives.
Known for his evocative fine-art photography, Ross has made two trips to India. He first visited villages to document young girls living in grinding poverty, with $1.50 daily wages, early marriages and pregnancies, backed by no education or training. His second trip portrays girls diligently studying their books and learning to live amongst one another. Ross shows them mastering computers, sewing and engaging in fashion design, and doing other skills to help assure them higher wages.
“What really struck me was the eagerness these girls had to learn,” Ross once observed to Wilkes. “They were like hungry people given a wonderful meal. I saw hope gleaming in their eyes. The Homes of Hope are exactly that!”
For Wilkes, renowned writer of theology (14 books, including “Holding God in My Hands”), and his equally contributing wife, Tracy (founder of DREAMS of Wilmington), Homes of Hope India began with an innocent vacation trip to the country 11 year ago.
“We saw poor children in the streets and asked our taxi driver what the Catholic church was doing to help,” Wilkes said. “He took us by an orphanage and the building was not in good shape. The nuns could barely scrape together enough food to feed the girls, whose arms were like sticks.”
Wilkes took out all the cash he had and handed it to one of the sisters. He thought he could then leave with a clear conscience. But he saw a small child named Reena in sunglasses, and thought it strange that she would be wearing them when there wasn’t even enough money for rice. When she took them off, Wilkes flinched. One eye was beautiful, but the other eye had been gouged out with a darning needle to make her seem more pitiable as she begged on the streets. Reena returned the Wilkes’ look of horror with a trusting smile. Homes of Hope was born because of Reena’s smile, and the Wilkes vowed to create a better life for her and her friends.
Back in the United States, Wilkes began recruiting volunteers, businesses and clubs. General Electric and the Wilmington Downtown Rotary Club sent dozens of water purifiers to the nuns. Physician Brian Gilmore volunteered his services. One photo in “Girls Thriving” shows him smiling at a child as she examines him with his own stethoscope.
Eleven years later, with orphanages six, seven and eight in various stages of construction (and number nine on the drawing board, specifically for HIV-positive girls), some 800 children will soon be served. There is a meditation room at one of the cites. After the girls attend morning mass, they are encouraged to meditate. In the same room are three books: The Bible, Quran and Bhagavad Gita; the girls can read whichever they prefer.
Wilkes is the unpaid executive director and major fundraiser for his 501(c)(3). Ninety-two percent of monies earned go directly to Home of Hope orphanages. So it makes sense how in December 2016 Wilkes won Star News’ Lifetime Achievement Award. This month the Wilmington’s Downtown Rotary Club made him a Paul Harris Fellow. His parish priest, the Very Reverend Robert Kus, known as “Father Bob” at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, said Wilkes is always crediting others for what they give to Homes of Hope.
Wilkes wants to see new faces at the formal opening for Ross’s “Girls Thriving” on Feb. 24. The show will run through the end of March. Photographs by Ross are also featured in the new 2017 Homes of Hope India calendar. For more information, call Paul Wilkes at 910-538-4544 or go to www.homeofhopeindia.org.