Providing children with their basic human right for a good night’s sleep



By Debbie Dryden
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sleeping Children Around the World received a 2011 ASMF Humanitarian Projects Award. SCAW’s Debbie Dryden provides this personal update.

“I know who you are - you are the lady who gave me my blankets!”

This simple statement, chirped by a beaming little girl in the dusty schoolyard of the Belapur Primary School, reaffirmed my purpose as a Sleeping Children Around the World volunteer. The girl with the smile as bright as her mother’s sari had received a bedkit last year when we were working in her remote village in India.

The American Sleep Medicine Foundation recognizes the importance of sleep for children. Their mission is to enhance sleep health for all through research, education, and humanitarian aid. Through their Grant to Sleeping Children Around the World, I was back in the villages one year later to see the impact of the bedkit, to talk with the kids, and the parents, and the teachers.

What I heard from these individuals did not surprise me; it was what I have heard over many years in different locations and in different languages as a volunteer for SCAW. The feedback is good, we’re getting it right - the children are sleeping well, their health is good, they are attending school and learning. I shift my questions, trying to pry out new answers; how could it be that a simple bedkit be this good? How much would you pay at the market for this item (more than what our overseas partners have negotiated)? Is there anything you would sell from the bedkit in order to help with other family needs (a vehement “no” to that one). Rephrased, reconfigured, the answers are the same “everything is helpful, everything is good.”

Do they wish for more? Sometimes no, sometimes yes. It makes me happy when there are requests for more. A stronger backpack, more school supplies, a laptop, could we move the medical center closer to their home please? These are not the requests of people who are ungrateful, there is an overwhelming abundance of gratitude expressed; rather, these are the requests of people who are starting to dream big dreams. It seems to me that people are able to dream big when their basic needs are covered, are blanketed in this case. So when I hear the requests for more, it tells me again that we are getting it right by providing the children with their basic human right for a good night’s sleep. The bedkit donations are allowing people to dream in more ways than one.

How do we quantify the effects of the bedkit that ASMF has given to the children of Badgi and area? Does better sleep result in better school attendance? Hard to tell when, as we discovered, most of the teachers report over 90% attendance of students monthly. Did the attendance change before and after the bedkit distribution? Not in a statistically significant manner. We know anecdotally that the children love their bedding, the parents love the bedding for their children, they all love the mosquito net. There are many interviews, the stories from the kids and the opinions of their parents, all which support the importance of the bedkit items, the comfort created through sleep.

Sometimes, almost inadvertently, our focus shifts to education. It’s what the parents want for their kids, it’s what the kids need. From our Western, education-oriented perspective, we assume that education is the key to India’s future, that the education of their children will, as we heard time and again, “lead the country to superpower status by 2050.” But the kids in the village are still only on the cusp of educational greatness. Before educational greatness, there comes the need for a good night’s sleep, the need for a soft quilt and a mosquito net and a waterproof mat on which to garner good health through rest.

It is only then, after the basic need for sleep is attended to, that these children will be able to engage in their schooling. In the hierarchy of needs, sleep is of great importance for these children.

In our Western world it seems we best understand the importance of sleep when we are deprived of it. Our norm is good sleep; it is an unfortunate problem only for those who struggle with getting quality rest. In other parts of the world, this norm is shifted - the norm is a broken sleep, only a few have experienced the luxury of sleeping well. Sleeping Children Around the World aims to change this inequity; as our mission statement says, “our dream is for a world in which every child benefits from the comfort of a good night’s sleep.”

The days spent in the village with the children, the year following their lives from a distance, all was valuable learning - learning that was facilitated by the ASMF grant. The Grant provided the opportunity for learning more about life in rural India. Although my initial focus was on “sleep,” the study became much more than that alone. The observations made about family and community, the parental focus on education for their children, the dreams of the children, and the challenges of living a primarily subsistence existence are all things that will be documented well beyond the year of this Grant.

In truth, now that I have spent time getting to know these kids and their community, I plan to always remain in contact with them. The Grant gave me a chance to get to know them, and now I always will. Their stories have become my stories, stories that I can share here in North America, our land of privilege. Hopefully, in sharing the stories of their lives, people will recognize the global inequity and will take action for social justice - for these children and for others.