Anyone who knows the history of the Latika Roy Foundation knows about Paula.
In those early, early days, when all we knew was that we wanted to start a school for Moy Moy, we went in search of someone who could make it happen for us. I had toyed briefly with the idea of training in special education myself, but Ravi talked me out of it. “Find someone who’s already qualified,” he insisted. “You’ll save years.”
That someone was Paula.
A British organization called Volunteers in Service Overseas found her for us and the match was perfect. We had doubts in the beginning as we read her application (she had only recently qualified as a special educator, though she was already nearly 50; she had no experience as a professional, having spent her working life thus far as a teaching assistant in a special school; and she had never trained anyone, let alone people who didn’t speak her language or share her culture), but something told us to take a chance.
It was, simply, the best decision we’ve made thus far in the Foundation’s long history of good decisions.
As a VSO volunteer, Paula contracted to work with us for two years. She stayed for twelve. During that time, all the things we worried about when hiring her transformed themselves into her greatest strengths and became the cornerstone of our own training philosophy. Paula in action – a teaching assistant who metamorphosed before our eyes into a school leader – made us realize that the only limits on a person’s potential are the arbitrary ones we ourselves impose. People are capable of almost anything. It was a revelation and Paula just never stopped amazing us.
Along the way, she taught us to be equally amazed by the ordinary people around us: the drivers, helpers, malis and assistants who – in most organizations – are taken for granted as background furnishing. With Paula guiding us, their immense capacities emerged. She taught us to see them as the treasures they are and that knowledge and belief became the backbone of the Foundation.
Paula returned to England in 2007 because it was time for her to go home. Her mother, two daughters and two grandchildren all needed her. We had been acutely aware of the sacrifices they had made for her to be with us for so long and we couldn’t begrudge her wanting to be with them now. It was a wrench and it was painful, but it was true. It was time.
In the intervening years, Paula and I met many times (including a totally incredible visit to the US where I treated her to the hot-air balloon ride she’d been dreaming of since childhood), and corresponded frequently. Paula’s focus was now almost entirely her family and, as time went on, that focus narrowed to her mother, who needed more and more of her attention. Paula’s devotion to her Mum didn’t surprise me in the least – but it did move and inspire me. She gave up all of her free time to care for her without question or complaint. Her mother was – without question – worthy of it.
Her mother was also an amazing woman. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Widowed young (her husband was a doctor – the kind who made house calls and went out at 2 AM when his patients needed him), she brought up three children on her own by working from home as a seamstress when they were small; later she was a teacher, a librarian and a housekeeper at the parish rectory. All the while she maintained her intellectual life as well as her dignity and self-esteem. Think about that. She was married to the town doctor and she fully anticipated a life of genteel respectability. Everything changed when he passed away at 36.
But in all the essential ways, nothing changed a bit. She valued faith, education and character above all and she was definitely not afraid of hard work. Not only did she work her regular jobs while managing her family single-handedly, but she also found time to volunteer for an array of good causes and to donate from her slim resources to many organizations like ours. She had a heart of gold, a quick wit and a spirit of adventure and fun. She even came to India in her 70s and again in her 80s to visit her intrepid daughter. Each time I met her, I understood more clearly why Paula was so special.
Kathleen Coleman died on Easter Sunday, a coincidence that must have absolutely delighted her loving, faithful heart. While both Paula and I have had our ups and downs with the Catholic Church, Kathleen remained steadfast throughout her life – clear about its flaws and failings, but ultimately a believer till the end. She would have loved the rich gift implied by God’s taking her back to Him on our happiest, most triumphant of days.
If anyone deserved it, it was she.