Sometimes making a difference requires getting your hands dirty.
Just ask Daniel Liles, who returned last month from a yearlong stint in India courtesy of a $26,000 grant from Rotary International. While in Asia, the 24-year-old helped renovate a public bathroom inside one of New Delhi’s largest slums.
“Every day was a road bump,” Liles said. “You are in a culture completely opposite of your own.”
On June 14, Liles thanked the Rotary Club of Thousand Oaks for supporting him before, during and after his trip to India.
During his time abroad, the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar studied at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University and participated in a humanitarian project he designed.
The project provided safe and sanitary restrooms for women and children at the Pusympur Pahari Community Center, located within a slum that is home to 5,000 people.
“Spreading goodwill sounds vague, but it becomes very clear what goodwill looks like and feels like when you’re abroad,” said Liles, who graduated from California Lutheran University in 2010.
Richard Williams, the president of Rotary Club of Thousand Oaks, said Liles was chosen last June from a pool of qualified candidates.
Every year, the Thousand Oaks club chooses one or more college students for the scholarship. Recipients are chosen by Rotary International’s selection committee. The number of awards depends upon the funds available.
In the 2011-12 year, the Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship program awarded more than 400 scholars from about 50 countries.
The scholars serve as goodwill ambassadors in foreign countries, where they study, conduct projects and share their culture with Rotary clubs and other groups.
Upon their return, the scholars share their experiences with clubs in their home country with the aim of broadening the organization’s cultural understanding.
Williams said Liles was fit for the job.
“We really believed in him.”
More importantly, Liles believed in his project.
“My goal was to (help) . . . women and children, the major demographic for (human) trafficking,” said Liles, a native of Las Vegas. “You’ve been given this investment by Rotary, and they expect returns.”
Once in India, Liles learned that most of the slum’s residents used a nearby field as their bathroom.
The practice was not only unsanitary, it was also unsafe, he said.
“Some men wait in the jungle to either rape or (cat call) the women,” he said. “There are a couple of cases where they have taken women (and) put them into the Delhi sex trade.”
The slum’s two bathroom facilities needed extensive cleaning and renovation.
“When they were installed, there was no education on how to use them,” Liles said. “They were overflowing.”
In an effort to neutralize the filthy toilets, the recent college graduate removed waste from their damaged enclosures.
The job was grimy, but Liles refused to complain.
“No one wants to hear about this part,” he said with a laugh. “I reconstructed the structure so it’s a nice-looking thing you’d want to use.”
Still, the new and improved toilets were a hard sell.
“The idea of (using an indoor toilet) in a slum is very foreign to people,” said Liles, who rented a flat nearby. “They asked, ‘Why don’t I just go to the field?’”
After a series of group discussions, the women and children embraced the facilities that gave them a safe and sanitary place to use the bathroom.
Liles’ trip wasn’t all dirty work.
During his stay, he learned what is called “bazaar Hindi.”
“I learned enough to get along in a bazaar or market ride,” said Liles. “I could get by.”
He also spent a great deal of time with Manjit and Rita Sawhney, his generous Rotarian hosts.
“(Manjit) taught me everything from classicism to Indian politics,” Liles said. “He introduced me to the intricacies of Indian family life.”
Liles’ favorite part of Indian culture?
“The hospitality,” he said. “If you have longer than a five-minute conversation, they immediately want to take you home for dinner and talk to you about their country. . . . You’re immediately welcomed within the family structure and treated as if you are family.”
Like the Indian people, Liles wants to live his life in a way that helps others.
“I came to this scholarship trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life and left knowing how I want to live life,” Liles said. “I will put that ‘service above self’ (mantra) at the center of everything I do . . . it’s like a compass.”
That compass led Liles to Teach for America, a two-year program in which he will teach special education at a low-income school in his hometown of Las Vegas.
“I really have an itch to become a teacher,” he said. “When you teach someone something new, it’s so addicting.”
No matter what he does or where he goes, India will stay in Liles’ heart forever.
“I want to go back as soon as possible,” he said. “Every day was a learning moment.”
College students interested in becoming Rotary scholars can send request letters and resumes to: Rotary Club of Thousand Oaks, P.O. Box 1225, Thousand Oaks, CA 91358.
To learn more about Daniel Liles and his trip to India, visit: www.danielhliles.com.