Kathy Sreedhar thinks she will die happy. "I don't know what impact anybody's individual life can have, but I can really say that 600 kids have homes," she said.
Because of her work?
"Mine and Mother Teresa's. Start with Mother Teresa," she said firmly.
Seven years ago, Sreedhar began arranging the first adoptions of Indian children by parents in the United States. The children come from homes run by Mother Teresa who last week was named this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Today, Sreedhar continues to be the main connection between hundreds of adoptive parents and orphaned children in India. She gets 10,000 letters a year and sometimes spends $500 a month on phone bills. There are 50 families in the Washington metroplitan area who have adopted Indian children with her help.
Each year she returns to India and works with Mother Teresa.
But Sreedhar allowed herself only a brief moment of self-congratulations. Mother Teresa, she said, made it all possible.
"Tens of thousands of people's lives were better either for five minutes or for all their lives," she said, because of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity who run hundreds of homes for the sick, dying, lepers, handicapped and orphaned or abandoned children in India and elsewhere.
In the sunny kitchen of her Northwest Washington home, Sreedhar extract a grilled cheese from the toaster oven and pours a cup of black coffee.
She is homey, friendly and very open. At 45, she has survived a number of personal tragedies which have made her "tough and practical," she said. She matter-of-factly describes the lives and deaths of hundreds of children -- subjects which make most listeners, unused to handling such matters every day, choke with tears.
She turns off the phone, which has been ringing steadily, wipes a lock of short black hair off her forehead and lights a Salem. "I don't know how you go about desribing presence and charisma," she said. It's like the Pope. How do you describe the Pope? When you are with her, you really don't want to leave. You want to sit there and be in her presence.
"She was a European nun, sent to India. . . where she taught wealthy Indian girls and boys in Catholic schools. Most nuns did what they were supposed to do, but she looked out the window and saw the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta. That's what made her different, Sreedhar said. "She sees."
What mystifies Sreedhar are the misconceptions Americans have about the scope of Mother Teresa's work. Most picture the tiny nun day by day tending the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta. She does that, Sreedhar said, at 5 a.m. every morning, but she also administers an empire of institutions in 60 countries with a budget of millions of dollars.
She is so skilled at politics and administration, Sreedhar said, "she could be president of one of the top Fortune 500 corporations if she had so chosen. She probably could be president of the United States. She knows how to make things work."
Yet, she still preseves a quality of individual loving and caring that has spread her fame, Sreedhar said.
How does it happen that an American woman, born Kathy Fergenson in New York City, came to know Mother Teresa and handle the adoption of hundreds of Indian children in this country?
Sreedhar fell in love with India in the Peace Corps, stayed on to work with the Agency for International Development and eventually married an Indian economist. They moved to Washington when he was assigned to the World Bank.
Wanting children, but unable to conceive, they submitted themselves for medical tests and learned that her husband had cancer and only two months to live. That was in 1967.
Four years later, still wanting a child, Sreedhar decided to try to adopt an Indian child even though she was a widow.
She went to New Delhi, stayed with in-laws and knocked on the doors of government orphanages.None would place a child with an American woman. So she went to see Mother Teresa. The Missionaries of Charity had placed a few children with European families, but no one was placing Indian children with Americans.
"One of the wonderful things about Mother Teresa is that she listens, she is flexible, and she changes her mind when she sees it is in the best interest of her people," Sreedhar said. She was accepted as an adoptive parent.
Sreedhar had one stipulation."I'll take any child you give me as long as it's not going to die, because I've just been through one death," she told the sisters.
She was given Meera, a 10-day-old baby girl. Ten days later, Meera died of an undetected heart condition.
Sreedhar said the experience just about finished her."I said I've lost a husband and a kid in India, and that's the end of it," she said.
But a friend went back to the sisters, convinced them to give Sreehar another child and took her to pick it up.
She got Anita, an 11-month-old, 13-pound baby girl, now an active self possessed eight-year-old. She has another daughter, Suzy, 3.
Acting on her successful experience, Sreedhar began to help others do the same.Now, after a day on her full-time job with a private international development organization, Sreedhar spends evenings and weekends helping people adopt Indian children. She is not an adoption agency, but rather helps prospective parents wade through state, federal and international bureaucracy for the necessary documents for the adoption.
Two American women in India handle details at the other end.
"As far as I'm concerned, the only motive (for adopting children) I don't like is, 'I'm going to save a child.'"
Because of last week's Nobel prize announcement, Sreedhar has been sought to speak about her work. She read the questions one group asked her to cover in her talk.
"Do you consider it practical to support an institution designed to reform a large part of the world without soliciting donations,' she read.
The question shows near total misunderstanding of Mother Teresa's work, she said incredulously, because "reforming a large part of the world has nothing to do with Mother Teresa's work."
She continued reading, "'wouldn't it be simpler to transport food rather than babies?'"
"That misses the whole thing," Sreedhar exploded. "That would be relief. She's caring for individuals. What good is food? You have to have a home." s