March 9, 2013

Three Coral Gables friends build a home for orphaned children in India

Lynn Bauer doesn’t just write a check to help a cause.

Lynn Bauer doesn’t just write a check to help a cause.

As the owner of Bauer Financial, a Coral Gables bank-rating firm, Bauer, 64, has spent a good part of her professional life doing research. And she put those skills to work after a business associate told her about a couple who were caring for 23 orphaned children in a church in Samisragudem, a small village in southern India.

Bauer started sending money to Sunil Kumar, 32, and his wife, Kittu, 27, but it didn’t feel right.

“I don’t do anything that I can’t be personally involved with,” she said. “I have to meet the people, see their faces. I don’t do middlemen.”

Kumar, who had been raised as an orphan himself in the same church, began sending Bauer pictures of the boys and girls, ages 4 to 12. They talked via Skype. She noticed the children were sleeping on mats on the floor, and paid $1,400 for wooden beds to be made for them.

At dinner one evening on Miracle Mile, she told two old friends, Matthew Meeham and Rod Hildebrant, that she was planning a trip to India to meet the children.

“Do you mind if Matt and I go?” asked Hildebrant, who owns a group of hospice and palliative care centers.

The couple joined Bauer on her first journey to Samisragudem at the end of 2006.

“For me, it was to do my homework,” said Bauer, who took over the bank-rating firm after her husband, Paul, died in 2001. “I don’t do anything without researching it.”

The children greeted them with hugs and kisses, and vied to hold their hands.

“They just climbed onto my heart strings,” said Bauer, who has no children. “I remember them just curling into my lap and falling asleep.”

The Americans stayed for a week. On their next trip, they bought a one-acre parcel within walking distance of the church that became the site of a 3,200-square foot house they christened Sunil’s Home.

“When they asked me if I wanted to create a real orphanage, I was deeply moved,” Kumar said. “I always dreamed of something like this, but never thought it could happen.”

The orphanage has doubled in size since its 2008 opening, and is now home to 62 children ages 5 to 17. The property includes an organic garden and volleyball court, and is populated by geese, turkeys and a golden lab called Puppy. (The turkeys keep the snakes away.)

“It looks like Sunnybrook Farm,” Bauer said. “We have hibiscus, bougainvilla, desert roses.”

Bauer, Hildebrant and Meeham initially traveled to India four times a year. They now go about twice a year, and keep up with their charges via email and Skype. The children attend an English-based private school and take part in sports, music and arts at Sunil’s Home.

The nurturing home is in stark contrast to the youngsters’ previous environment.

“Living like an orphan is very hard emotionally, physically, mentally,” Kumar said. “When children find their way to Sunil’s Home, their spirits are very broken. When I hear the story behind a new orphaned child, it breaks my heart and it takes me back to my childhood.”

Raraju, 11, lived with his mother in the streets until she was hit by a truck. She died when he was 5. He then lived with another child in a field, where he had to fight with street dogs for food. His friend died after one of the dogs bit him, and Raraju arrived at the orphanage two years ago.

“All of our children have a different story, but this is a good example of what happens with children in India,” Maheen said.

Initial funding came from the three friends’ pockets. About five years ago, they began fundraising, and partnered with area schools. Blue Lakes Elementary students helped raise money for the volleyball court at Sunil’s Home. Through lemonade drives, bake sales and proceeds from a school garden, Miami Christian School students funded a computer lab.

“It’s good for people to learn in early age that there are people in this world that have real needs and they should be a part of that,” said Teri Logan, associate head of Miami Christian.

Today, the three Coral Gables friends are working with the schools on a clothing drive, with the goal of filling a 30-foot container.

“It has been a great kid-to-kid effort,” Bauer said.

They also host A Night in Bollywood, a gala fundraiser complete with elephant at Hildebrant’s historic Coral Gables home.

“We really want the community to get involved,” Meehan said.

Photos of the children fill the walls of Bauer’s Coral Gables office, where one of her five employees knitted the children scarves for Christmas and another sent over a big batch of books.

The Indian children have taken to calling Bauer Mom Lynn.

“Once I get involved in something, it becomes my family,” she said. “I carry pictures of all of them. I know all their names and sizes. They climb into your heart strings and they are yours forever.”

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