The Journey of Mother MiracleTHE STORY OF A WOMAN FROM SAN FRANCISCO WHO GAVE UP EVERYTHING TO SERVE
The Story of How my Life Changed
My journey started in December of 1995 when I was traveling in India as a tourist with a group of friends. On our way from the holy city of Varanasi to the State of Bihar, I saw heaps of trash for miles through my car window. I saw families living in huts made of plastic, mothers milking their newborns, and so many poor children scavenging through the trash for anything they could eat, use or sell. Smells of rotten garbage and urine filled the air, and the sound of car horns was so loud it was almost unbearable. While I covered my mouth and nose, I remember feeling disgusted and uncomfortable and I complained non-stop about the smell, the car horns, and the flies and mosquitos.
It was winter time in Bihar, a State known for it’s freezing cold temperatures. We decided to stop for some hot tea at an Indian chai stall that happened to look out over this massive trash scene. I was sitting in my black Eddie Bauer down ski suit with a matching hat and gloves enjoying my chai when through the door, a very thin 3-year-old girl entered wearing a short-sleeved dress with a broken zip in the back and no shoes. Her hair was knotted and matted to her head. She had a beautiful face and her big black eyes radiated innocence. She came right up to me and pointed to my chai. I thought she wanted to drink the chai, so I gave it to her. But she didn’t drink; she just held the cup close to her body for warmth. Then she sat on the floor right next to my feet and snuggled up to my legs to share my body heat. My motherly instinct kicked in as I felt her shivering, and I bent down to hold her in my arms and give her tiny naked body relief from the cold.
That was it. With my eyes closed and my arms still around the girl, I entered into a tunnel with a bright white light at the end. Scenes from my entire life of priviledge flashed all around me in the tunnel. I saw myself skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland, then on a yacht in Nice, France, then shopping in Paris, and eating at a casino in London. Even though I was a single woman, I saw the image of my 3-story, 4-bedroom house located outside of San Francisco, with its 4 walk-in closets full of my designer clothes and shoes, many with the tags still attached because I never had time to wear them.
Through these flashing images, I suddenly woke up to the realization that I had been carelessly wasting my money on jet-set traveling, partying every night, drinking and shopping! One question came to my mind: why should I have so much money that I can waste it, and one child should be so freezing cold to need my cup of tea to warm her fragile body? After I saw all of these things in the tunnel, I started to cry and didn’t let go of the child. I wanted to take her with me to America. I began to argue with my friends, who told me I couldn’t take her, that she must have a father and mother nearby. But I wouldn’t let go. I wanted to take her to my big house to give her the same opportunities that I had received growing up.
While holding her in my arms, my paradigm shifted and I was able to empathize with poverty for the first time in my life. Of course I had known that poverty was everywhere, but I had chosen to turn my head away – it wasn’t my problem and I didn’t want to look at it. It was in the brief moments I shared with that little girl that my consciousness expanded in every direction and I found myself in a new world of compassion. I deeply questioned how there could be such a difference in the world between the rich and poor? What if I had used all the money I had spent in my life doing something good to help these children and families living in such poverty?
As the car was driving away, I looked back and saw her standing in the middle of the road waving goodbye. For the rest of the trip, the sounds of the car horns no longer registered in my ears and the rotten smells that had disgusted me so much at the start of the trip, became absent from my nostrils. Not one more complaint was uttered from my lips. Day and night, silent tears of remorse continuously streamed down my face as I reflected on how I had lived my life and who I had become. My tears were melting me into the culture of Mother India and her warm and loving arms.
Our group traveled on to the holy sites in Asam and Arunachal Pradesh, but my thoughts stayed with that girl and the immense disparity between the rich and poor. I knew that my tears would never stop unless I made a decision to change my lifestyle. It was at a temple in Asam that I vowed to come back to India and dedicate the rest of my life to helping poor children and families, especially women.
My previous self had died in the arms of that little girl, and I emerged as if in a second life. When I returned to San Francisco, I stopped shopping or spending money on luxuries; instead, I wore simple clothes. I stopped drinking alochol and became a vegetarian. I began practicing yoga and attending Green Gulch Buddhist monastary more often for meditation and classes. Nearly every other day I was attending spiritual seminars from people like Deepak Chopra, Mirianne Williamson, and Chris Griscom. My friends stopped inviting me to their parties because I “no longer belonged,” and my father worried that I was going to leave forever and follow a guru to India. My days skiing in Gstaad had become memories far away.
It was in 2001, six years after my trip to India, that I began to seriously think about my retirement and following through on the vow I had made to serve the poor in India. It was a good time because my son had graduated from college and had a secure job with Cisco since 1999. Right as I am getting ready to leave, I was given a once in a lifetime opportunity to expand my art business and the love of my life wanted to get more serious. I felt torn between two loves — one for my potential future husband and one for the little girl in the chai stall in whose eyes I had seen God. My love for her proved stronger and I knew I had to leave immediately.
“When we first met Shahla, we knew we had met a deeply devoted and passionate individual. Someone who was going to realize her dreams, not just for herself but for hundreds, perhaps thousands of young, underprivileged children in India. After years of persistent struggle, incredible obstacles, many floods that would have dampened the enthusiasm of most anyone else, she has created a school that stands on its own as an example of what just one person can do with a focused mind, huge heart and constant service to her fellow man.”
Durga & Vidura Smallen, Head of Ananda Meditation Center in Nevada California, Child Sponsors since 2005
“Sometimes when I look back, I think about where I would be if I had not met Shahla Ma’am. I would be going to a Hindi Government School, not speaking a word of English and after graduating 12th grade, I would be working in my father’s tea stall with a lost dream. I have two families, one who gave me birth and the other who helped me pursue my goal.”
Shubham Chauhan, Former Mother Miracle student and sponsored child since 2007 by Russel Rolfe, Santa Cruz, California
I became fearlessly focused on getting to India. Within one year, I sold my clothes, my shoe collection, all of my personal belongings and furniture, my successful interior art business, and my house. I said goodbye to my son, family, friends and the love of my life. I even ripped up all my photo albums and love letters to avoid the temptation of returning, and I moved permanently to India with just a suitcase.
In 2002, I arrived to Rishikesh, India, located at the green-forested foothill mountains of the Himalayas, with the Holy River Ganges running through it. From dawn until dusk, sacred bells and chanting could be heard echoing throughout the valley. As a single woman completely unfamiliar with the local culture and without knowing anyone in town. I faced countless challenges and obstacles, like government bureaucracy, all-day electricity blackouts, no running water, old and cramped classrooms, and flooding during monsoon season. Yet, not even for a moment did it cross my mind to give up. I was inspired by a greater purpose and felt determined to build an extraordinary project for the children of the slums. Every challenge that crossed my path, every time I failed and made mistakes, I knew I was only getting stronger. My thoughts broke their boundaries and my mind transcended limitation.
It took me years of perseverance and unconditional love to build Mother Miracle into what it is today: a registered non-profit organization in India and the United States educating hundreds of highly intelligent youth and offering complimentary vocational programs for thousands of adults, especially women. In April 2016, we celebrated the completion of the third flood-free school building with the capacity to serve 516 students. I built this school with the belief that if you provide the children with the best, they will deliver the best. Each success story from our students reinforces this claim. Our graduates have gone on to pursue neurosurgery, engineering, and doctorate and master’s-level programs in the United States and India. Once they become employed, I have seen each child selflessly deliver their earnings to their needy families. Through our transformative model, not only are we helping one child, but the impact ripples out to each child’s mother, father, brother and sister to break the cycle of poverty for a much larger community. Additionally, each Mother Miracle graduate is required to pay it forward by sponsoring a new student at Mother Miracle, which completes the cycle and ensures a sustainable future for the school. Since 2002, 365 days a year, I thank God for the opportunity to serve these kids.
Through the evolution of this project, I find myself in a new, wonderful and magical world where all of my dreams are coming true and all of my talents are alive. I’ve been able to apply my 7 years of Master’s studies in Architecture to build a 41,300sqft. school to help create a future for the smartest children among the poorest families in Rishikesh. My path has connected me to very special, generous and kind people who believe in me and who are attracted to helping the project. From my children, staff, sponsors and volunteers, I have learned to be a loving, giving and forgiving person with a bigger heart than I could have ever imagined for myself. I have been transformed from a selfish spender who would turn my head from the poor into a selfless person who is living to serve with unconditional love. I now believe that miracles really do happen. What a wonderful place to be.
My Journey from 2002
Shahla moved to India and personally funded the construction of a dormitory and primary school with playground. After she completed construction a local Indian man took advantage of her generosity, threatened her, and kicked her out of the premises.
Shahla started a school in her apartment with 9 children who were living in a plastic shed below her apartment building. Soon there were many more children coming to her door to learn English, computers and art at her free home school.
Shahla rented a dilapidated two-room building connected to a nearby school to run an after-school program. After funding renovations, more than 100 kids began attending. The school administration became jealous of her success and kicked her out.
Shahla moved to a slum area and rented a non-livable, run-down guest house. She renovated it and continued the after-school program with 250 kids grades K-12, offering English, math, science, computers, karate, yoga, dance, and art.
Shahla funded the purchase of 4 adjacent houses to use them as classrooms. High floods began occurring 3 times a years during monsoon season, causing exreme damage to the school property, especially the computer lab. That’s when she decided to build a flood-free school.
Shahla used her background in architecture to design a 7,600sqft. building to house classrooms and her Computer Institute, which was completed in 2012. She moved 100 of her students and 800 of the Computer Institute students from their previously flooded classrooms to this new building.
Immediately upon finishing the Computer Institute, Shahla started construction of a second building (8,700sqft.) to house a kindergarten, bakery, and a free Women’s Empowerment Program to teach knitting and sewing to local women and help them market their products in a connected handicraft shop.
Shahla began construction of a flood-free 25,000sqft. school building for students grades 1-12. It took 365 days to complete construction and have the kids move into the classrooms. 300 exceptionally intelligent children from the slums were selected to attend. By 2020, the school will expand to serve 516 students.
My Personal Growth
India takes everything you have ever known, turns it upside down, shakes it a few times, and throws it back to you.
- Whenever challenges come my way, I view them as opportunities for growth.
- All of my mind is for others and for this project. I wake up with this feeling of joy that I’m going to do something for someone else. So I don’t need anything. I don’t need to buy anything. What do I need? I also decided that instead of being a taker, I wanted to be a giver.
- I’m not attached to anything. Not even my real family. I detached from my love, my wealth, my memories. I ripped up my photos and I sold my house. I sold my favorite shoes and I had a shoe fetish! Right now, I’m only attached to the result of my children at Mother Miracle School. I want them to be successful and I can’t let go. So this is my growth now, the last attachment.
- Every day in my meditation I pray to God to open my heart to serve more kids, and to open the heart of more people to donate so that this school can grow.
- I love these kids. I love them unconditionally, and so everything is okay. I beg everyday for $25 from people I don’t know to keep sponsoring these kids. My father used to tell me, “Shahla, you are going to go to heaven not because of what you do, but because you are begging for others, not for yourself.”
- Discipline is essential to progress. If you change your behavior based on circumstances, emotions, or conditions, you will never get anywhere. You must be consistent no matter what. It’s not about the environment, it’s about the commitment that you make to yourself. Discipline requires daily struggle, but eventually things become easy. You have to have a vision and understand why you are doing what you’re doing, why you are willing to sacrifice. For me, it is all about the school.
- God will send many distractions when you are on the path to try and test your love for him. Notice the temptations and identify them as tests. They will be the things you always wanted that never came true. But you have to tell God, I will not surrender to this temptation because I love you more, and I will serve you. When he is satisfied that you’re love is real, he will give you all the joy and gifts you can ever imagine.
- These children are my God. I bow to them, I wake up for them, I serve them, I work all day for them. I live for them. When I am serving these children, it feels like I am serving God.
- From my children, staff, sponsors and volunteers, I have learned to be a loving, giving and forgiving person with a bigger heart than I could have ever imagined for myself. I have been transformed from a selfish spender who would turn my head from the poor into a selfless person who is living to serve with unconditional love. I now believe that miracles really do happen. What a wonderful place to be.
Shahla Ettefagh in Daily Action
Sponsor a Child
I took this photo of my neighbor’s baby. Every underprivileged child needs education, and no child should sleep hungry.
Mother Miracle School
Every year at Mother Miracle School’s Admission Day, I cry my eyes out because there are so many poor families who see our school as the only opportunity for their kids, and we can only select the top 2% from thousands of applicants.
Few Government Schools in India serve school meals. If they do it’s rice and dhal. We serve vegetables and our lunch is “all you can eat.”
Volunteers have been essential to the growth of Mother Miracle. They come and teach yoga or play with the kids and it makes such a difference. One volunteer came for 1 month, stayed 3.5 years and ended up marrying an Indian man.
Mother Miracle Bakery
I built a bakery to make baked goods for my kids, and also in the hope that someday, the bakery would support the school.
Women’s Empowerment Program
I took the women from our Empowerment Program out to lunch and it was their first experience at a restaurant. They borrowed clothes to look their best.
Connect with Shahla Ettefagh
Shahla welcomes invitations for speaking engagements and press inquiries. She is an inspiring role model and visionary leader, whose personal story is both captivating and powerful. In telling her story, Shahla brings to life the countless obstacles that stood in her way and her unwaivering commitment to serving the poorest children in India. She is also available to talk about the philosophy and model that has enabled Mother Miracle School to be so successful in fighting poverty and her vision for future growth. You can get in touch with Shahla directly by filling out this brief contact form.