Remembering Mother Teresa: Inspiration as a teenager in Kolkata

On the eve of Mother Teresa’s canonisation, World Vision’s Tracy Shields reflects on how her own experiences in Kolkata and with this amazing lady, helped inspire her to do the work she does today.

In the spirit of Mother Teresa's work, a World Vision special treatment centre helps eight-year-old Abjeet (right) cope with a disability stemming from an accident.

By Tracy Shields, Child Protection Specialist, World Vision UK

When I was 17 my parents moved to Kolkata, India. My dad had switched from private healthcare management to the international development sector a few years earlier and my parents were excited for a new adventure. I however, had just started university, and was majoring in Psychology with no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

While my mum and dad headed off, I stayed behind in Perth, Australia, waiting for the first holidays I could get out there to see this new city. My parents loved Kolkata and in those first few weeks we exchanged phone calls and emails to swap news.

A letter from Mother Teresa

Then one day that autumn, a phone call came from my dad with the rather unexpected line “I got a letter from Mother Teresa today!”

It transpired that Mother Teresa had heard of my dad arriving into Kolkata, and was writing to him with a reference for a gentleman called Amos* who had worked with her for many years. She explained in the letter that Amos was looking for a new job and was wondering if he might be a help to my Mum and Dad. Amos quickly joined our family, working with mum and dad every day, and became a fast friend to us all. Mother Teresa died just three months later.

My parents stayed in Kolkata for another three years, and since then, both my parents and I have made many moves, as is the nature of international development. That letter though, typed out on what you can tell was probably a rickety old type writer, and with this wonderful scrawled signature at the bottom, has remained a feature in every family home we’ve had over the last 20 years.

While my parents were living in Kolkata, I spent nearly every holiday visiting. I often spoke to Amos about this beautiful woman who had made such a difference to - from his point of view - his city - and from mine - the world. He spoke about her humility, her faith and her love. That everything she did was in her faith and for others. My mum volunteered at the Mother Teresa Centre during their time in Kolkata too, helping make sure that orphaned children and babies were looked after.

After Kolkata: a new trajectory

Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s incredible story and the connection my family had with her have all combined to put me on the trajectory that has led me to where I am now, working on child protection issues with World Vision UK. This week, as the anniversary of her death looms and her canonisation approaches, I have been reflecting on that journey.

It was Kolkata where I first saw abject poverty and understood that for so many in this world, life is a daily struggle to survive. Coming from Australia, the experience was a real shock. In Kolkata, I began to understand why my dad was drawn to this work, with the opportunity to feel you are making a small difference to the world. When I spoke to Amos about the shocking levels of poverty I saw, he told me that Mother Teresa had felt that same sense of poverty in the city, but also how much she loved Kolkata.

I began to look for the beauty in the city and to fall in love with it as well. The flash of a bright coloured sari running around a corner, the easy-going physical affection among children as they ran around, the cheers all around at the makeshift cricket grounds when a team won a match. At the same time, my experiences there helped me feel a closeness and return to the Catholic faith of my childhood that I hadn’t felt in years. I took a simple pleasure in my daily chats and prayers with ‘Himself,’ always ending with a word of thanks that I got to experience this wonderful city.

Full circle

Two years ago I returned to Kolkata, this time in my role with World Vision UK. While I was there I returned to the Mother Teresa Centre, where my mum had worked and where Mother Teresa had once done so much. Nothing had changed and at the same time, everything had changed.

I was there with my dream job, and actually back in a city where I had once dreamed of being able to make a difference. This time I was working on our child protection programmes, meeting with vulnerable children and their communities. My daily chats with ‘Himself’ during that trip were a simple thanks – a thanks that I had been brought back to the city and the woman who sowed the seeds for this work all those years ago.

On the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death this weekend I’m going to be remembering that scrappy piece of paper with her scrawl, and I will remember my mum coming home from the centre and telling me about her day. I will remember Amos talking to me about his many years working with this incredible woman and I will remember the city that stole her heart and gave her a mission, just as it has for me.

Today, Tracy leads on child protection issues at World Vision UK, and helps to shape our work around the world - keeping children free from child marriage, FGM, and other forms of abuse. World Vision is working with over 6000 communities across India, helping keep children safe, improving families’ incomes and access to basics like water and education. You can find out more about child sponsorship and how you can get involved here»

* Amos’ name has been changed to protect his privacy

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