He was 6. They called him The Worm. He had had polio and couldn't use his arms or legs. When Kathy Sreedhar met him in one of Mother Teresa's foundling homes in India, she was told he might be able to manage a wheelchair some day, but no more.
That was two years ago. Sreedhar, who is Mother Teresa's agent for adoptions in this country, found a home for the boy with a California family.
Last summer she stopped off at the Los Angeles airport, and the family drove 100 miles to spend an hour with her because they had never met her.
"Sam had braces on his legs," she said, "and when he saw me he dropped his crutches and ran to me . . . "
That's what it's all about, Kathy Sreedhar says.
Today, at 45, she is slightly astonished to discover that she has achieved the fantasies of her teen years in Forest Hills, N.Y.: "a loving marriage, an exciting career and several wonderful children."
It didn't happen the way she expected, though, not at all.
Recovering from a short, early marriage, she went to India with the Peace Corps and later the Agency for International Development. She met an Indian engineer, married him and returned to America, where he worked for the World Bank. Within the year, he died of cancer.
She wanted children. She had always wanted children. She had been a volunteer for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity ("I thought I'd play games and teach them a little, but I found it was three sisters for a hundred kids and the needs were much more basic"), so now she flew back to India to adopt a child. It was 1972.
The conventional orphanages would have nothing to do with this single non-Indian woman, so she finally tried the Missionaries of Charity and was given a 10-day-old girl. But the infant died of heart trouble almost immediately.
"I had a friend who took one look at me and got in a taxi at 5 a.m. and went to Old Delhi and told the sisters to give me another girl that very day. wSo they gave me Anita, who was 11 months old and weighed only 13 pounds and had every parasite known to India. But she was throwing her cereal around. That was what I liked. She was spunky."
Four years later, Sreedhar had a daughter as a result of a relationship that ended in 1975. And now she wants to adopt a boy of 6 or so. It's not the usual thing, but that doesn't bother her.
For she has been touched by Mother Teresa's embracing spirit. The Noble Prize-winning nun rejects birth control and abortion and spends all her energies bringing life and love to the abandoned babies of India. Many stay at the homes she has organized there and many more are adopted by people all over the world -- in 60 countries at least.
Because the Missionaries of Charity don't make the rigid demands of prospective parents that most adoption agencies do -- that you be of the same religion and race, not overweight, the right age and so on -- the applications pour in. Sreedhar gets 10,000 letters a year.
"We send them a letter back," she said. "We remind them that we know nothing about these kids. Someone we think is 5 may develop breasts in four years, so then we understand that she was probably 9 when we found her."
Also, they are dark-skinned. They may be blind or crippled or have any number of a long list of diseases included in this first letter. Cost of adoption is about $1,150.
"That letter cuts the responses down to around 500. We actually place 100 children a year. Still, I do more than some agencies with a staff."
The hardest to place are the siblings, the boys, older children and the handicapped. A great many Indian children are abandoned because they have been crippled by polio. Mother Teresa inoculates all the children she can, Sreedhar adds, but can't cover the whole subcontinent.
"We had three brothers recently," she said, "8, 10 and 12, and one was deaf. A family took them. We place older children, blind, deaf, palsied, you name it.In most agencies, the social workers have total control and don't take risks."
Sreedhar, a Harvard graduate, is vice-chair of the board of the Joint Council of International Children's Services, among other things, so she speaks with some authority. After seven years as Mother Teresa's chief contact in the United States, she feels she has seen everything.
"There was a woman in Rochester who wanted a kid. She's single. And she's blind. No one else would give her a kid, even though she passed the home study. We had a girl who was so malnourished her hair was red. She was basically nonfunctioning, just sort of a blob. You can't bring in retarded children, you know, and this one was really borderline.Even Mother Teresa said I'd gone too far this time."
But the woman felt that the child was meant for her, had been chosen by God for her.
"They sent us a picture the other day: the girl with her cat and the mother with her seeing-eye dog. They looked so happy."
Make no mistake, the parents picked by Mother Teresa's lieutenants all over the world are not just anybody. They may not pass the external tests of appearance, but they are questioned searchingly before they can have one of these abandoned children. They are asked about their lives and values, their feelings, their weaknesses and strengths.
Some families already have 14 adopted children yet want more. Some support a dozen children on $15,000 a year. Some specialize in paralyzed children.
"One family will call up and say, 'What you got?' and I'll say, 'A boy with no arms, a blind kid, two brothers," and they'll say, 'We'll take 'em all.' No, this is not your everday adoption agency."
Sreedhar gets up at 5 so she can cope with her growing family as well as her job with the Secretariat for Women-in-Development. Since the publicity over Mother Teresa the applications have been deluging her. ("But just imagine what it's like for Mother Teresa, going out on the street with 50 TV cameras following her all day long, recording but doing nothing.") Her life with her children is more important to her than anything.
"As an only child I was fascinated to see sibling relationships, the fights and all. With Anita, I never had one moment of doubt. She went everywhere with me, she was always very flexible. Susan is more used to being at home and not being dragged around."
For Anita, the baby sister was distinctly a surprise. As long as she could remember, people had come to her house and poured over photos of babies, and then she and her mother would go to the airport, and there the child would be, and the new parents would hug it and gather it up, and everybody would cry.
"Anita thought all babies came from India on the plane," her mother said. "When I got pregnant, she didn't know what to make of it."