I got an unexpected invitation from Rahul Brown a while back, “Richard, someone is coming over in tweny minutes who has been involved with Mother Teresa’s work in Kolkata for years. Why don’t you come over and we’ll interview her together?”
A couple of minutes later, I was hustling out the door. When I got to Rahul’s place in Berkeley he was just finishing a task.
It was a pleasant day, so I took a seat in a lawn chair, when shortly, a woman came in through the gate. It was Rosalie Giffoniello. Soon we were chatting. “How long have you known Rahul?” I asked.
“Two minutes,” she answered.
Instantly, I thought, "New York." Close, but it was New Jersey. “This is going to be fun,” I thought, already relaxed - so much is communicated so quickly.
It was only a couple of minutes before Rahul came out and joined us. After a little more chatting, we got down to business
Rahul Brown: You were drawn to India quite a while ago, as I understand. Was it 1993 that you first went out?
Rosalie Giffoniello: Well, I’d gone to India in 1982, the first time. My ex-husband and I taught at the Tibetan monastery in Bylakuppe, outside of Mysore. We were there for seven months teaching the monks English, then the Indian government kicked us out of the country, because our visas expired and they wouldn’t extend them. So then we traveled in Eastern Europe. We’d taken a year leave of absence from our jobs.
Rahul: What were you guys doing back then?
Rosalie: I was a learning disability consultant and he was a special ed teacher. I have to think back to 1982.
Rahul: A lifetime ago.
Rosalie: A lifetime ago. Then in 1994, I went up to Dharamsala, and was teaching the nuns English. The first time it was the monks, the second time it was the nuns. The first time it was in the south, the second time it was in the north. First time it was with my ex-husband, the second time I was alone.
Rahul: Okay. Why did you feel drawn to this kind of work?
Rosalie: We were studying Tibetan Buddhism with Geshe Lobsang Tharchin in New Jersey, so that was the connection.
Rahul: Did you grow up with a particular tradition?
Rosalie: I grew up Jewish, and a disproportionate number of Jewish people study Buddhism. In those days, I was working in the school system. I was a special educator in the school system. It was March of 1999 and I was lying on the bed in the downstairs bedroom—just lying on the bed and thinking, “What should I do this summer? Just absently thinking like that, and all of a sudden, I heard, “bumpety, bumpety, bump!”
I lived alone. I had no pets. What was that?
I got up and went into the living room and saw that a book had fallen down the entire flight of stairs from an upstairs bookcase. Go figure.
Richard Whittaker: Oh, my gosh. So, what was the book?
Rosalie: The book was, Something Beautiful for God.
It was about the life of Mother Teresa. And inside the book was a letter that Mother Teresa had written to me six years earlier. I’d written to her asking if I should come to Calcutta to volunteer in the orphanages? Were there any special need students there?
And she had written back, “Yes. There are many special need students here. Please come. God Bless You. Mother Teresa, MC.” Her letter was written on this old typewriter where some of the letters are lighter and some are darker, and I had that letter. I’d put it in that book in the upstairs bookcase, but I never went.
Now you might think I'm exaggerating, but my husband was a scholar he had thousands of books. I don’t collect books. If I like a book, I give it away. He kept his books. To this day, we’re still best friends. I had just one
book on that shelf and, because it had the letter of Mother Teresa in it, I never gave it away. That’s the book that fell off the shelf, down the entire flight of stairs, and into the living room. So I went to Calcutta. What was I supposed to do?
Richard: What a story.
Rosalie: Yeah. Did I have a choice?
Rahul: I suppose it’s not often that you get the instant reply to the question that’s happening in your mind.
Rosalie: Like you wouldn’t believe how many instant replies I got! I wrote a book called Reclaiming Lives,
and I explain all the synchronistic things that happened every step along the way—like I thought, “I'm not going to go to Calcutta unless I rent out my house.” Then five minutes later
, someone wants to rent my house! So, the Universe was saying, “You’re not getting off the hook! You’re going to Calcutta!”
So, I went to Mother Teresa’s orphanage and was there for the summer. I was working with the disabled children, and they all made a lot of progress because my background is special education and this is what I know how to do. Then the eight weeks were over and I had to go home. Then on the plane home, I was thinking. “If they made that much progress in eight weeks, how much more progress could they make if I stayed?” So, I went home and called the pensions department—that was another synchronistic thing. They told me I couldn’t get an appointment because they were so backed up, and then within three minutes, they called back and said they had a cancellation! I swear to God, this is all true. I mean, the Universe is like, “You’re going there!”
So I turned around and went back, and that was in February 2000,18 years ago.
Rahul: And you’ve been there since? [yes] Do you feel that the Universe is always responding to people this way, and it’s just that we usually can’t hear it, or did you do some sort of preparatory work to allow that?
Rosalie: I didn’t do any preparatory work. I never meditated in my life. I think the Universe does guide us all. This is like a perfect example, but the thing is that people are not always willing to take the risk. I had to leave my job. I took an early retirement, so they cut my pension. People are not willing to do that. It’s too hard or too scary—and for some reason, I didn’t find it scary. It was just hard work, you know?
Rahul: Yes. It also feels like you didn’t have a sense of attachment around what was happening in life.
Rosalie: You know something? I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing, but I don’t have strong attachments. It’s incredible.
Rahul: Maybe that’s the lifting of the anchor that allows the wind of grace to come in.
Rosalie: That’s true though; it’s really true. I hardly own anything. I live in four places a year, so how much can I own? I mean, I have friends—very, very good friends. My ex-husband and I are best friends. I have a sister. But I don’t think I have strong attachments. So, maybe the Universe said, “Well, she’s a perfect candidate.” I don’t know what the Universe was thinking.
Richard: In your Jewish life, what relationship did you have with Judaism?
Rosalie: We weren’t very religious, although my mother kept a kosher home. We went to the synagogue only on the high holidays. We ate Chinese food, pizza, everything.
Richard: So, when you started to study Buddhism, now how did that affect you?
Rosalie: That affected me. I feel very connected to Buddhism. It really feels like a path to me somehow.
Richard: So, did you feel some special connection with did Geshe Tharchin?
Rosalie: No. Maybe I felt a special connection to the Dalai Lama, like I'm always saying, “The Dalai Lama said this, the Dalai Lama said that. Geshe Tharchin was a very good teacher, but I didn’t feel a special connection to him.
Richard: Were there other synchronicities earlier in your life?
Rosalie: I think so. In Yiddish, there’s a word bashert
. It means, “meant to be.” I just think of every synchronistic thing, so that’s why I try not to worry about things. I figure, “Let the Universe take care of it.” I work hard, but I can’t take care of everything. I take care of the kids in Calcutta, and the Universe takes care of the rest. What can I say?
Rahul: Looking back, do you feel there are any pieces that haven’t fit? Things where there’s still a question mark around why did that happen, or what was going on there?
Rosalie: Well, it’s interesting. My ex-husband and I were very well-suited to each other, and everybody said, “Well, if your marriage fell apart, there’s no hope for anybody’s marriage.” We traveled all over the world; we enjoyed the same things. Why were we getting a divorce? No one could understand it, but of course we had to get divorced so I could go to Calcutta. Does this make any sense? You must think I'm totally weird, though. Right? My God.
Richard: It doesn’t sound weird. Maybe we’re weird, too, you know?
Rosalie: I’m not the least bit weird. I'm like a totally normal person.
Rahul: The weirder thing, I think, is that Richard and I have both had experiences like that in our lives of just complete synchronicity. But for whatever reason, maybe the anchor hasn’t lifted. So, we only go so far before we kind of don’t have any more rope, you know, to keep riding that wind of grace. Like, if you knew your whole ride could be a gift on the winds of grace, why would you bother anchoring into something? I think that your example is so inspiring, because it’s simultaneously a listening and a surrender, but not a passive one, and that’s pretty remarkable.
Rosalie: People say to me, “Well, what would have happened if a different book fell off the shelf?” I say, “Well, I guess I would have been in another place than Calcutta.” But it was Calcutta.
Richard: Are you still connected to Mother Teresa’s organization?
Rosalie: No. I worked there for two years. I set up educational programs in two orphanages there, and then we had a little falling out—the Missionaries of Charity and I—because I wanted the kids to get out of the orphanage and go to school.
They thought that was a little bit too progressive. Anyway, I left there after two years and I created “Empower The Children,” which is my nonprofit. There I was in Calcutta, and figured I might as well stay. I was only 54. So I opened up a tutorial center for girls who were going to school, but whose parents were illiterate and they had no support at home. That worked out very well. So, I thought, “Hmm, what else can we do?” Then I opened up a small school called Praroyna 1 School. Praroyna
in Bengali, means “inspiration.” I wanted these children to be inspired to study hard and rise up out of poverty. I also wanted the teachers to be inspired. That worked out really well, so I thought, what else can we do? So we started Praroyna 2 School. Now there’s a Praroyna 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.
We were getting more and more donations, so we could spend a little bit more money, and we started supporting these three priest schools, now it’s four, but initially, it was three. Then we opened up a tutorial center in a village. Then the mothers came to us and said, “You’re educating our children, but what about us?” So, we asked, “What do you want?”
They told us they wanted to learn; they want a vocational training program. So, we started vocational training for women, and now we have three programs for vocational training for women.
Richard: How many people, all together, are connected with your nonprofit?
Rosalie: We have thirty employees. We have educational centers at ten different sites. One in a tribal area, one in a village, the rest of them are in Kolkata, and we have a program for disabled children in another village outside of Kolkata.
Richard: How was your experience with Mother Teresa important to you in everything that’s followed for you in India?
Rosalie: My experience with Mother Teresa started out very positive, but it deteriorated. What I wanted was more improvement for the children, and the Missionaries of Charity wanted to put the brakes on. Mother Teresa was already gone. She died in 1997.
Richard: Did you actually ever spend time with Mother Teresa?
Richard: I see. The institutional Roman Catholic institution was a little rigid.
Rosalie: Right. The nuns in the homes were happy with what I was doing, because they saw the children progress, but Motherhouse was unhappy with the programs. They thought we were going too far with the children. We enrolled them in school, maybe eight kids. These were disabled children, don’t forget. When I got there, they weren’t even walking, they were just lying on the floor.
So we enrolled them in a school for the mentally and physically challenged. We had three in a school for the blind. We had two or three in the school for the deaf, and the Motherhouse was freaked out. They took all the kids back out of school.
Richard: There must be something very personal and intimate in you that can connect with these kids.
Rosalie: Do you know what it is? I see their potential
. Even though they’re disabled, every single child has potential, and you just have to recognize it. If you do, then somehow, you’re going to foster it.
Richard: How do you recognize it?
Rosalie: I don’t know. I just do.
Richard: There’s a child, and you just feel something?
Rosalie: I mean, I love them, initially. That’s the thing. You have to love them.
I always tell my teachers in Kolkata, “First you love them. Then you teach them.”
That’s not easy for them, because it’s not the Indian way. The Indian way is very rigid. My schools try to make it a little bit more loving. I'm not criticizing them. The teacher is here; the kids are there.. I want them all to be kind united. Anyway, I guess it works. We have kids who were small fifteen years ago and now they’re in college.
Rahul: Do you ever have any challenges loving any of the kids? Like some kid are harder to love than others?
Rosalie: It’s funny. I really, really love all
the kids. But the last time I was there, there was this new kid there. It’s so funny that you should mention that. We started a program for twenty disabled kids in a village, because the local school wouldn’t take them.
So there was this kid. I walked in and reached down to say hello to him and he smacked my iPad out of my hand, and it fell on the floor. I’d never seen this kid before.
Rahul: Did it break?
Rosalie: It did not break; it was a miracle. But I have to say that, at that moment, I did not love that kid. But you know, the kids are innocent. He was maybe five. I'm going down to greet him, and that was his greeting to me—boom! It was like, “Thanks, nice to meet you, too.” It wasn’t funny at the moment, but afterwards, it was funny.
Rahul: So, was loving the kids a sort of a muscle you had to develop, or was it already fully developed because of your earlier work?
Rosalie: I think it was already developed. Kids are sweet—especially Indian kids. I mean, I only work with kids in the slums. They’re very sweet; they’re appreciative. They look at you with stars in their eyes, you know. They’re so adorable. You want to kiss them all day long.
Rahul: I can relate. I've got two kids: a five-and-a-half-year-old and a two-and-a-half. I was just telling my wife the other day—I was questioning my parenting ability, because I really just want to hug and cuddle with them, and chase them around and say nonsense little sweet things with them. Even when they misbehave, they’re just so adorable, I just want to hug them.
Rosalie: You know the Fred Rogers movie? Will You Be My Neighbor?
Rahul: Someone was just telling me about that.
Rosalie: It’s excellent! Every teacher in the world should watch that movie. He says, “First love them; then teach them.”
Richard: Boy, that’s a beautiful principle.
Rosalie: Yeah, and he did it!
Rahul: I'm curious what that first transition process was like for you when you first arrived in Kolkata.
Rosalie: It was fine. I adjust to wherever I am. It’s one of the things I can do. I live in four different places a year now. When I'm in Sri Lanka, I'm in Sri Lanka. When I'm in Kolkata, I'm in Kolkata. When I'm in New Jersey, I’m in New Jersey. Whenever I'm here, I'm here. So, I don’t know, that’s what I do.
Rahul: Tell me about what the anchor is in these other places—like what about Sri Lanka?
Rosalie: In Sri Lanka, I teach disabled children. So, the anchor is them. In New Jersey, I do fundraising, and here, I try to relax
Richard: “Here” is in Berkeley?
Rosalie: I'm actually with my friend in Walnut Creek.
Richard: So, how long do you spend out here in California?
Rosalie: I'll be here ten weeks. But I'll be back in New Jersey two weeks, then I fly.
Rahul: I heard that part of this trip was around taking care of your friend out here. Did I hear correctly?
Rosalie: Yeah. She’s got Stage IV cancer. But in years before, I’d spend time here to just relax—and I’d do a little bit of fundraising here, too. Actually, in the past, I actually did very well on the West Coast. Our budget is $53,000, and it seems to come in every year. I'm going to Orange County on Friday where I'm going to meet two donors, but it’s not the kind of fundraising that I used to do. Oh, my God, it was a lot of work! There was no time to relax, and now, I want to have at least some time to relax.
Rahul: Yeah. I’m curious about what that inflection point was in your work. It’s easy when people are driven by a mission, or feel called, or feel like the winds of grace are driving them in a direction to just work, work, work—and constantly be doing instead of being. Was there an experience that got you back to recognizing the importance of just unplugging and recharging, and being?
Rosalie: The thing that got me back was that we have been getting enough money without me constantly fundraising. Otherwise, I’d have to start fundraising again because, what can I do? You can’t close a school. It’s would be like giving a kid a wheelchair and taking it away. Once you open a school and the kids are progressing, you have to keep the schools going. We have ten different educational sites and three vocational training centers. And now, money is coming in. I guess the Universe is saying, “Well, you’re 72 years old. We’ll let you take it a easy for two months in California.”
Rahul: How long did it take to get to this stage?
Rosalie: I haven’t been doing that much fundraising for maybe three years.
Richard: That’s an interesting term, fundraising—like, “Sure, fundraising.” But how do you fundraise? I mean, yeah, what are your…
Rosalie: What do we do? I give talks and I ask people to donate.
Richard: So, where do you give talks?
Rosalie: Wherever I'm invited. I used to go constantly. If somebody would have 20 people in their house, then 20 people would write a check. If I was invited by a church, the church members would give something at the end. Or I was invited to a school, the teachers would all put something in, because the kids were occupied with my talk for an hour.
Richard: Have you given a Ted talk?
Rosalie: What’s that?
Richard: That’s great. [to Rahul] She doesn’t know what a Ted talk is.
Rahul: I mean, since you’ve been so busy with the work in Kolkata these digital platforms haven’t reached you. TED talks have become quite a popular and prolific platform. The tagline is, “Ideas worth spreading.”
Rosalie: I don’t know. It’s so nice to look at the people you’re talking to. I guess that if the Universe wants that to happen, it will happen. I tell you, I give more and more up to the Universe these days.
Rahul: Tell me about that. I'm curious about how you experience the difference between personal will and the Universe’s will.
Rosalie: Do you know how I do that? It’s very interesting. Yesterday I saw a movie, The Three Identical Strangers
. This may not be related, but triplets who were separated at birth, but it was done intentionally by the adoption agency. One went into a wealthy home, another a middle-class, and lower-income home. So, is it nature or is it nurture?
The way I look at it is this—it’s my nature; it’s my job to do it. Does that make sense? In other words, how much free will do I have? I have the amount of free will I need to do the job that the Universe gave me to do. That’s my free will. I might not have free will to do something the Universe doesn’t want me to do, like there might be obstacles. Does that make sense?
Rahul: It does. But I'm curious. Haven’t you run into obstacles with the work you’ve been doing?
Rosalie: I have run into tremendous obstacles. Oh, my God, are you kidding me? I ran into so many obstacles. But I have the perseverance gene. I don’t know where I got it from, but I just won’t give up. I will keep trying and trying and trying and until I'm three-quarters dead. So, but the obstacles in Kolkata, are you kidding me? It’s very tough living there. It’s very tough getting anything done there because there’s so much bureaucracy. But if you want to do something, you have to stick with it until, you know.
Rahul: So, how do you distinguish between the job the Universe gave you that you are able to have the free will to do inside of grace versus, “Here’s an obstacle. Gosh, it just really seems like I can’t get over it. Maybe it’s not my job to do?”
Rosalie: It depends on what the obstacle is. If the obstacle is bureaucracy, then you just have to stick with it. You can’t give up. You know it’s going to be like slogging through quicksand. Not just in India, but here too—or anywhere in the world. I think most things you can accomplish if you stick with it. That’s what I think.
Rahul: How would you know, “Here’s an obstacle that maybe I’m not going to be able to overcome.”
Rosalie: Maybe there’s an obstacle in my way, and I maybe should say, “Okay. The Universe doesn’t want me to open this school because it’s so complicated; everything is going wrong, and everything is messed up. Maybe the Universe is saying don’t open this school.” You mean like that?
Rosalie: But then I look at the kids and I go, “How can I not
open this school?” The Dalai Lama says, “Always check your motivation.” So, I think that if your motivation is correct, then it will work out. If I'm doing it for aggrandizement or for money, probably it wouldn’t work out. But if your motivation is good, I think things do work out.
Richard: That’s very good.
Rahul: Words to live by.
Richard: I'm curious. You must speak some of the language?
Rosalie: Nope. I don’t speak a word of Hindi or Bengali.
Richard: Oh, my goodness, that’s amazing.
Rosalie: I know. It’s not good. I don’t catch onto language easily, so I teach in English and I have somebody translate into the local language, Hindi or Bengali. It would be good if I spoke those languages, but everything flies out of my head.
Richard: Well, it’s a huge being moved by the children; that’s what really fuels you.
Rosalie: You have to feel for them. They’re living in slums and horrible conditions. How could you not feel for them?
Richard: Really, this is wonderful listening to you. You make it sound like nothing special, but it is special. I don’t know if you can say anything more about the power of being moved by them, by seeing them and their situation.
Rosalie: I think it has something to do with gratitude. People in India say to me they’re very grateful to me for doing this work, because I could be living a luxury life in America. I gave up my luxury life in America—not that I really had a luxury life, but in comparison. I think that it goes both ways. I'm grateful that I had a luxury in life in America, so to speak, so how can I not try to help the children rise up out of poverty? Why should I be the only one to have a “luxury” life?
Rahul: And you’ve been doing this for a long time. You mentioned that some of the kids are…
Rosalie: In college now. There’s a college fund.
Rahul: So, tell me about some of those first students and where they’re at today. Are there still connections with some of them?
Rosalie: Some of them, yes. They come back and visit. Interestingly, when we started the vocational training program, all the students wanted to go into that. Now, we’re actually thinking of closing one of those vocational training centers because the kids want to go to college. That makes me happy, because that’s like one step higher for them.
Rahul: Is there a story that jumps out as one of the more memorable kids you worked with over the years?
Rosalie: To tell you the truth, no. Each and every child is memorable in his or her own way. They really are wonderful kids. They need opportunity; they need a chance. What we do is give them the opportunity to study. If they study, they study. If not, then not.
You can’t have attachment to the result. The Dalai Lama said don’t have attachment to the result, just give the the opportunity; that’s on your side. On their side, it’s to use it or not, and some kids don’t use it.
We had one girl, who I thought would definitely be going to college. She was smart. She was motivated. She was also very social. She was a natural leader. What did she do? She graduated high school, got married, and had a baby. She was the last one on earth who I thought would do that. Maybe she’ll go to college after the baby’s grown. One thing I've learned in life is to do what’s on my side. What they do on their side is their business.
Rahul: Have a lot of these kids worked with you from kindergarten through high school?
Rosalie: It varies. because there are different programs. Preschools are in one part of the city and they go to the government school afterwards. We have non-formal schools with kids from four to like fourteen. Then we have tutorial centers. Kids can go to the government school and then go to the tutorial center to get help. So it varies. Some kids do go straight through, depending on which program they’re in. But any kid, who’s our kid, who wants to go to college—we take that responsibility.
Richard: I bet you can pick at least one long-term relationship you’ve had with a student of yours that you can share, because people like to hear stories like that.
Rosalie: Well, it probably would have been that girl who got married, Anita. She starred in each and every one of our dramas. We have a drama every year, where the disabled students perform with the non-disabled students. We call it “Celebration of Diversity” and it’s a fantastic thing. The public is invited and they come and see the disabled students performing with the non-disabled students, and hopefully, it’s changing their perception of the potential of people with disabilities. She always starred, like I said, this one girl. She didn’t go to college, so I don’t know—was it a happy ending? She’s happy with her baby.
Richard: Maybe the story is just beginning?
Rosalie: Yeah. I guess I have to just practice non-attachment. Her journey could end up being surprisingly amazing. I did what I needed to do. Maybe she’ll become an actress later in life, right?
Rahul: Is there a story of someone who exceeded your expectations?
Rosalie: I teach once a week at an orphanage for disabled adults. They grew up there and now they’re all adults. There was one girl there who taught herself English by watching TV. This is a disabled individual. She taught herself English by watching TV
. I lost my translator and she started translating for me, from English to Bengali, right? She actually became good enough in English to do this.
Richard: That’s amazing.
Rosalie: That’s not easy, because my lessons are not babyish lessons. I do lessons on Gandhi, Martin Luther King—I mean, those types of lessons: currency, events in the world; they’re not babyish lessons. She translated for me for years, and then she left the orphanage and got married. So, wow! She exceeded my expectation, I must say. Amazing, right?
Rahul: Absolutely. It sounds like you still do a lot of the teaching, like hands-on.
Rosalie: I teach every day when I'm there. I like to teach, otherwise, what would I do there? I don’t want to be an administrator, write proposals, do paperwork and budget. It’s so boring, Well, I have no choice. But I teach every day. It’s being with the kids that inspires me to continue doing this work
Why don’t you both come to Kolkata? I get volunteers from all over the world. In the fall, I'm in Sri Lanka. In the winter and spring, I'm in Kolkata. In the summer, New Jersey. I change with the seasons.
To learn more about Rosalie's work visit Empower the Children