When I was asked to travel to India and Myanmar last year, to report on the work World Vision is doing within the communities there, I knew it would be a challenging experience.
I knew I would meet people who had endured horrors beyond my worst nightmares and children who were living lives without choices and without hope.
I hoped that I would be able to do them justice – to tell their stories as authentically as I could. What I really wasn't prepared for was that after spending time with these families, after accepting their hospitality, after having my heart break listening to their stories – I had to walk away.
I had to walk away and leave Sapna, a bright 14-year-old girl who'd had to leave school to weld clasps onto anklets for up to 14 hours a day because her dad was unable to work.
I had to leave Riya, whose mum was barely getting by as a prostitute in Kolkata, knowing that what few clients Latika had were sniffing around Riya, asking for the daughter and not the mother.
I knew it wouldn't take much in the way of money to liberate them from their situations and I couldn't understand why I couldn't just go to a bank, withdraw the money required and save these two girls. It doesn't work like that.
World Vision told me that there were all sorts of protocols and checks and balances needed before I could make a donation that would allow these girls the opportunity of a different life. (I interviewed other girls but these two were the only girls whose situation was dire.)
World Vision New Zealand promised that it would work with its counterparts in India to ensure that something would be done for Riya and Sapna.
But things move so slowly.
And I suppose I can understand that. World Vision India is dealing with hundreds of thousands of communities. To put dedicated staff on two families would take resources out of other areas where they could be working.
It had to ensure that the parents of both families learned basic business skills so they could use the money to establish a sustainable income. It had to work out what was best for the girls – putting them back into school or sending them to a vocational guidance institution.
The stories were published in the Herald and we got amazing feedback – and also a number of emails asking why I'd done nothing for the girls I'd interviewed. How cruel, one emailer said, to use their tragedy for clickbait and then turn my back on them. I wanted to explain, but I couldn't, really. I HAD just left the girls. I had no way of knowing if they were OK. And no, I couldn't save everyone, of course I couldn't, but I felt I had an obligation to the girls I had met.
I also struggled with the whole concept of the great white benefactor swooping in and waving a magic wand and making everything OK.
That's precisely what World Vision doesn't want to do. It wants to empower communities to change their own lives and their own destinies.
But when the team from World Vision India tried to explain that to me gently, I told them they'd brought me to these girls. I had listened to their stories, I had looked into eyes that were limpid pools of misery, I had cried with them and I simply couldn't go back to New Zealand and leave them to it and hope that eventually, in a couple of years, things would improve for them.
So I was delighted – 11 months after we produced the Not For Sale series – to receive an email from WV letting me know Sapna and Riya and their families are on a new path.
Sapna is now enrolled at a beauty therapy school, learning to be a beautician, a long-held dream of hers, apparently. Her mum and dad have set up a vegetable cart and have, thus far, made a success of their vegetable selling business that is bringing in enough income to provide for them, Sapna, and their other three children. They're doing well.
And Latika, our former prostitute, has gone back to her village and has set herself up with a food cart selling street food – Riya said she was a good cook. Riya is going to the local school and after she's finished her homework, she helps her mama out with the roadside eatery. They're doing incredibly well, too.
World Vision has supported both families through their transitions and has set them up to succeed and I am so very grateful. Giving each family the chance of a new life cost about $775.
It will be a very small price to pay for the privilege visiting Sapna at her salon for a blow wave and enjoying a roti from Latika's food cart when I return to India.