Domini and Peaches Kemp have become two of Ireland’s leading food entrepreneurs after opening the popular Itsa café on Abbey Street in 1999. The company has now expanded to include seven branches of Itsa stores and six Itsa cafés, an outdoor catering company and speciality coffee outlet, Joe’s.

Peaches took her entrepreneurial skills to Kolkata in 2018. In this piece Peaches talks about her volunteering experience and her renewed faith in kindness.

For years I had been toying with the idea of volunteering with a charity. Africa or Haiti were both on my radar, but I couldn’t find something that truly resonated with me. “What about India?” someone said. “No way!” was my response. I went to Mumbai 7 years ago and swore I’d never go back. “Ah,” said my friend, “you haven’t been to Kolkata which is India’s soul. And do you know about The Hope Foundation and what they do?” she said. I had to plead ignorance. So, I looked into it a little more and I loved what I saw. Here was a charity whose work and ethos finally resonated with me. At long last, I started my journey towards volunteering.The first thing you notice is that traffic lanes don’t exist

In January this year I arrived at a noisy, bustling city blanketed with an unusual winter smog. The first thing you notice is that traffic lanes don’t exist. The constant tooting of horns is done more as a signal to say “hey I’m here” than as an aggressive act. Eithne, HOPE’s International Development Co-ordinator, collected me at the airport and as we weaved our way into the centre of the city, she pointed out that there are no street names, so I needed to get to know landmarks in order to navigate my way around my new home for the next 3 weeks.

Peaches pictured with staff from HOPE Café
Peaches pictured with staff from HOPE Café

HOPE waste no time in getting you started and a few hours after landing I join a group of visiting fundraisers from the UK and head out to the city dump. As we leave the centre of town, the poverty starts to reveal itself in spades. Open sewers, dogs and children aimlessly roaming the streets while buses, trucks, taxis and tuk-tuks hurtle by with inches to spare. We park in a vacant lot beside the slum that surrounds the dump and are greeted by smiling slum children caked in dirt who all want to say hi and shake our hands. We enter a HOPE school that is located out here, and squeals of delight greet us. I have only been here a few hours but already I can see the incredible joy that these children get from seeing visitors come to their homes and schools. But I can also see the chance they are being given by HOPE and their teachers to be educated and to make better lives for themselves.

Ganga and Noor at HOPE Cafe

After several days of induction where I visit many of the protection homes and start to understand the work that is being done and how the program works, I start my volunteering experience. As a chef and as someone who runs a catering company, HOPE place me in their café which is meticulously run by Renu, an elegant woman whose energy defies her 69 years. This is a vocational training school where teenagers and young adults from the HOPE protection homes are placed and trained so that they have a life skill and can venture forth and earn themselves a living. It is just one of many Life Skills Centres run by HOPE. The kitchen is ably run by the head chef Ganga, and beside her are two commis chefs, one of whom is called Imran, a charming young man who uses every opportunity to practise his English with me. He is engaging and eager to learn, his food prep skills meticulous and worthy of any western kitchen. I wonder if I am needed at all! And I would never have guessed that he was rescued by HOPE from one of the train stations, a lost teenager who was constantly high from sniffing glue, a habit used by the poor and malnourished to kill hunger pains. His rehabilitation and emergence from his dark and painful past is remarkable.

Each day I walk from the staff apartment to the café, navigating the busy streets and street vendors in their colourful stalls. I always feel safe. And every day when I walk into the café, I am greeted by beaming smiles and warmth. What I come to realise is these wonderful children and young adults are genuinely grateful that someone has taken the time to teach them a skill, to engage with them and maybe teach a few words of English. Going to “work” every day is an absolute joy.I witness generations of the same family sleeping on the streets.

Another part of the volunteering experience is a session on the night watch ambulance. On the evening I go out with the doctor, nurse and social worker, I witness generations of the same family sleeping on the streets. They welcome me into their “homes” for a chat and a photo, a handshake, a hug, a smile. A story to the social worker who accompanies us is never far away, while the doctor and nurse tend to those who are ill. All their worldly possessions surround them – blankets, cooking equipment, shawls, clothes, teddy bears and toys – like any family residence, but with no roof, no running water, no electricity, no security. Yet they do not complain, and they greet you as a guest to their home. The medical service that HOPE provides to these families is invaluable and once again I am reminded that the work this foundation does really makes a difference.

Peaches out with the Night Watch Ambulance
Peaches out with the Night Watch Ambulance
Girls at Bhagar school

India is a culture full of contradictions – immense wealth and extreme poverty. I didn’t really know what to expect from my trip. Yes, there is squalor, poverty and awful realities that would be far easier to ignore than to face. Those are things we cannot change. But what I saw and what has stayed with me is a city of hope and joy – people who are friendly and full of dignity, entrepreneurial and hard working in the face of what most of us would see as insurmountable odds. Kolkata is a city with soul.

I also saw an inspiring Irish charity that has been doing the most immensely constructive and beneficial work. With an iron will to make a difference and to try and give children a chance, Maureen Forrest and The Hope Foundation have created a sustainable charity that works – against all odds, children, young adults and mothers are rescued, protected, cared for, rehabilitated and educated. They are given a chance to make a better future for themselves and for their families. It is a lesson in humility, kindness and compassion. A lesson that through sheer will, commitment and determination, we can make a difference to the lives of others, no matter how small that difference may seem.

I returned from Kolkata with a renewed belief in the kindness of others, as a new sponsor of a young boy recently rescued from poverty and given a second chance, and with a firm belief that even the smallest effort can make a difference to the lives of others.

-Peaches Kemp