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L u n c h

w i t h


F r i e n d

Microsaving the World

By Dana Sachs

“Golf is the stupidest game in the world,”

Paul Wilkes told me over lunch one day at Brasserie du Soleil, “at least to this guy.” We were talking about how, back in 2006, he found himself facing retirement. He had spent his career as a journalist, publishing nearly two dozen books, hosting documentaries on PBS, and contributing to The New York Times and The New Yorker. At 67 years old, he was turning away from journalism, however, and golf and other hobbies held no interest for him. So, he asked himself, “What next?” Then Paul’s wife, Tracy, who runs DREAMS of Wilmington, the awardwinning after-school arts program for low-income kids, received a grant to take time off and “refresh” herself. “Let’s have an experience, outside our comfort zone, ” Paul said. They went to India and Sri Lanka. Both Paul and Tracy are Catholic, and Paul’s writing has long focused on religion. They built their itinerary around visits to two great sites, the Buddhist shrine Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and the Hindu-influenced Trappist monastery of Kurisumala in the South Indian state of Kerala. In Kerala’s capital city of Kochi, one day, they found themselves with a few unscheduled hours. “Amidst the beauty of India, the poverty gets you,” Paul explained, so when their guide asked them what they’d like to do with their extra time, Paul said, “I’d like to see what my church is doing for children here.” Their guide took them to a Catholic-run orphanage. That visit changed Paul’s life and, as it turned out, settled the question of what he’d do with his “retirement.” During the first few minutes at the orphanage, he told me, “it didn’t look that bad.” The building, which housed seventy girls, was clean and the children seemed happy. The place was overcrowded, however, because girls kept arriving and the nuns, members of the Salesian Sisters of St. Don Bosco, never turned anyone away. “The


Salt • November 2013

stories were just horrible. This one had been raped. This one was left on the street at eight years old. This one was beaten by her father with a stick,” says Paul. Hearing the stories, he was ready to pull out his wallet and do what any well-meaning visitor would do when confronted with such need, “give money and go back to my air-conditioned life.” And then he met Reena, a little girl wearing sunglasses to protect a damaged eye. As a small child, she had been abducted by a criminal gang. Knowing that deformities make a person a “better beggar,” as Paul explained it, the gang used a darning needle to put out Reena’s eye. Eventually, the Salesian sisters rescued her and brought her into their orphanage. Before Paul explained the effect that Reena had on him, he made sure I didn’t consider him a bleeding heart or just another softie. “Look, I don’t even like my own kids,” he told me, with a smile. “But something happened when I saw that face. It was beatific. I thought, ‘If not me, who is going to help this kid? What can I do to make the rest of her life better?’” When Paul and Tracy returned home, he took a close look at his life. His Social Security checks had just begun to arrive. “I thought, ‘I can live on this.’” He resigned from his teaching position at UNCW and told himself, “This is my new job.” With that, he founded Homes of Hope India, with the specific goal of making life better for Reena and girls like her. He started with the goal of building the Salesian sisters in Kochi a new orphanage. Over the past seven years, though, his organization, and the large group of donors it now counts on, has managed to do much more than that. The organization has raised $2 million, enough to build four orphanages and support thirty sites, schools, hostels and empowerment centers. Homes of Hope also offers micro-loans and counseling to poor women in towns and villages in three states across Southern India. As Paul and I were talking, his organization was caring for 500 girls. I have to say that it’s hard to get your head around numbers like that, which basically tell the story of one human being helping thousands of others over many years. For Paul, though, these are now the facts of his daily life, so he was better able to turn his attention to our food than I was. As you can tell by the restaurant’s name, Brasserie du Soleil has the flair of a French bistro, but the menu has a broad range of other flavors, too. We tried a tuna tartare first. “The last time I had any kind of ‘tartare’ dish,” Paul told me, “I had steak tartare with Betty Friedan for an article for The Art & Soul of Wilmington

Photographs by james stefiuk

For Paul Wilkes, retirement was just the beginning

November 2013 Salt  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

November 2013 Salt  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington