By: Martha Anne Tudor with Jayaseelan Enos   |   Posted: May 09, 2017

A look back on our work in India: Forced to quit school at age 10, Masilamani seemed destined to become a low-paid buffalo herder.

Poverty to Ph.D.

A look back on our work in India: Forced to quit school at age 10, Masilamani seemed destined to become a low-paid buffalo herder.

Written by Martha Anne Tudor with Jayaseelan Enos
Photography by Jayaseelan Enos
Vedhanayagam Masilamani is a University Professor
When Vedhanayagam Masilamani wants to teach his two young sons about God’s power to transform a hopeless situation, the story of his own life tells it best.

Now 42 and a professor at one of India’s premier universities, Masilamani came from a poverty-stricken village in southern India. His childhood was defined by a mud hut where rain came through the roof, and simply getting enough food was a daily struggle.

When Masilamani was 10, his father told him that five years of school was enough and put the boy to work full time herding water buffalo and doing hard labor. His sister, Nallathai, like other girls in the village, wasn’t allowed to attend school at all.

“I was not taught to think about the future,” Masilamani says, sitting in his office at the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Design and Manufacturing in Chennai, where he teaches computer science and engineering. “I was very dejected.”

One of Masilamani’s former teachers, however, could not forget him and his desire to stay in school. She eventually convinced his father to enroll him in Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program at a child development center nine miles from their home. She assured the child’s father that his son’s education at the school there, along with his daily needs at the hostel, would be provided at no cost. In some rural areas that lack schools, Compassion partnered with local churches to run hostels where children could live during the school year.

Masilamani remembers feeling relieved that, though he was a child, he no longer had to worry about food, clothes, medical care and shelter.

His sponsors, Ron and Karen Rohne Todd of New Jersey, were university professors themselves. “I was amazed when I learned that my childhood photo was pasted on [the Todds’] refrigerator … which shows the love and compassion they have for me,” says Masilamani.

Compassion staffers at that time described his progress in school as unstoppable, and Masilamani says that his sponsors’ support and his increasing awareness of God’s love motivated him to succeed. He finished high school and then college, becoming the first person in his home village to have ever done so. He went on to earn two master’s degrees in math and a Ph.D. in computer science, dedicating his thesis to the Todds.

Masilamani says the difference the Compassion program made in his life is the difference between a job herding buffalo and a career educating future computer engineers.

But the biggest change Compassion made in Masilamani’s life, he says, was making his relationship with God a personal one.

It was through his involvement with Compassion that God’s love for him became real. And it is only because of God’s intervention in his life, he says, that he can even think about a future for his sons — Joel Suvisesha Muthu, 13, and Josh Jothimani, 6.

“Otherwise, I would have no thought or processing about the future at all, as I would have been fighting for [a] daily living as my parents did.”

Masilamani’s parents now live in Chennai with Masilamani, his wife, Lily Chithra, and their children. He returns to his home village every summer and Christmas, expressing love for his home and sadness for those who did not get the opportunities he received. He encourages the children of friends and former neighbors to pursue education and reports the rate of those finishing high school is increasing significantly.

Masilamani’s sister never attended school, but he paid for the education of her eldest son, Selva Kumar, now 29 and a business professional. Masilamani and his wife, who has a master’s degree, encourage their sons to love God, read Scripture and study hard. Their eighth-grader has been named the top student in his class many times.

Such are the far-reaching results of a 10-year-old buffalo herder joining Compassion’s sponsorship program.

“Sponsorship transformed my life completely,” Masilamani says. “I have told my elder son all my stories: how I ran behind the buffaloes, how I studied through Compassion.”


Knowledge Spreads

“We get emotional about it,” Karen says. “To make such a difference in people’s lives across the world, it’s really something.”

Retired university professors, the Todds run an education consulting business from their home in Lambertville, N.J. What attracts them to the field of education is what attracts them to Compassion sponsorship — reaching individuals who will in turn reach many more.

They are not surprised that research by a University of San Francisco professor of economics shows that sponsored children have increased self-expectations and improved lives.

“There’s somebody who cares. It makes a difference,” says Karen. She and Ron currently sponsor a young man in Tanzania. And they had been sponsoring a girl in India until Compassion had to end its program there in March. They keep those individuals’ pictures on their refrigerator, as low as possible so their four young grandchildren can see them.

“Our 6-year-old granddaughter, Cassidy, said the other day, ‘You have other grandchildren, too — like the one in India,’’’ Karen says. “So she has a sense that she’s connected to a family larger than hers.”

As one of more than 40 children who have been sponsored by the Todds, Vedhanayagam Masilamani can hardly contain his gratitude. “As sponsors, they are transforming not just individuals but the whole society,” Masilamani says. When the Todds learned that Masilamani had dedicated his doctoral thesis to them, they say they were at first “dumbfounded” and then moved to tears to be honored in such a way.

“We hadn’t been in touch with him since he was a teenager,” Karen says. “We couldn’t believe it.”

Ron and Karen each grew up in struggling rural families, Ron in Ohio and Karen in Texas. So the needs of children in developing countries resonate with them. But they were most compelled to sponsor children because Compassion helps support the education of each child.

“It’s so important,” Karen says. “Education opened up the whole world to me.”

Updated and reposted from an earlier version of Compassion Magazine.