BRATTLEBORO — Noah Levinson made his first visit to Calcutta the summer before college. It was a trip that changed his life.
Accompanied by his Northfield Mt. Hermon classmate, Sohrab Noshirvani, Levinson spent six weeks volunteering at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying Destitutes, where the poorest of the poor are given a place to die with dignity, surrounded by love. Returning home, Levinson kept thinking about what he had experienced. After volunteering there again the next summer, he struggled with the realization that the people he had held in his arms were dying of curable diseases. He wondered how he could do more for the destitute he had seen daily, especially the children.
By January 2002 Levinson returned to Calcutta, having raised $30,000 to start a mobile health clinic. That was the beginning of Calcutta Kids. Since then it has evolved into an organization that provides health and nutrition services to pregnant women, mothers, and their children up to age three in underserved slums in and around the city of Kolkata (Calcutta).
Now Levinson, former Marlboro resident and a 2005 graduate of Marlboro College, has received a 2015 National Caring Award in recognition of his work as founder and president of Calcutta Kids, The awards ceremony took place on Oct. 30 in Nashville, Tenn. Levinson has also been inducted into the Caring Hall of Fame, located in the Frederick Douglass Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Caring Institute, a non-profit organization founded by Val J. Halamandaris in 1985, honors and promotes "the values of caring, integrity, and public service," according to its web site. "Inspired by Mother Teresa, the Institute believes that caring is the one-word distillation of the Golden Rule. It also maintains that most problems can be solved by individuals who transcend self and devote their lives to serving others, especially the disadvantaged, poor, disabled, and dying."
The real heroes of Calcutta Kids, Levinson said, are the community health workers, who are from the slum community they serve and whose efforts create transformative change.
"While the award will be handed to me," he said, "I see this as an award for Calcutta Kids and the outstanding work that our team does day in and day out in the slum community in which we work. The honor is for our community health workers, who create change in deplorable health statistics by becoming friends to the pregnant women and mothers with whom we work.
"These trained health workers," he continued, "gain trust, provide information, and then encourage the adoption of life-enhancing and life-saving health and behavioral practices. The honor is also for the community of pregnant women and mothers who have adopted these practices and reduced severe malnutrition among the children in the community by 70 percent."
The evolution of Calcutta Kids from a mobile medical unit to its present iteration resulted from Levinson's evaluation of the health records of the mobile unit while he was a student at Marlboro College.
"The records showed we were seeing the same kids repeatedly," he said. "These kids had a low birth weight and were malnourished. What we were doing wasn't enough. Because birth weight is a crucial component of later healthy development, we realized we had to work with pregnant women, and kids in their first 1000 days of life to give them the strongest foundation" for proper development of the immune system and the brain.
According to Levinson, Calcutta Kids has four basic objectives.
First, "To do whatever we can to insure no pregnant women or children under the age of three die. As a small organization, we can go the extra mile. All our beneficiaries and their families have the phone number of their community health worker. Plus our office has a 24-hour line for access to health services."
Second, "To make sure pregnant women and children under three are healthy by providing access to medical services, medication, and growth monitoring."
Third, "To do whatever we can to guarantee a birth weight of two-and-a-half kilograms (5.5 pounds) because low birth weight is the number one predictor of whether a child will live past age 5."
And fourth, "To make sure children are growing normally, following a normal growth curve. Every month all 600 kids in our clinic are weighed and measured. Whenever we see a negative dip in growth, we intervene."
Levinson lived in Kolkata for 14 years, working with the Calcutta Kids team full-time. He and his wife, Evangeline Ambat, who is co-director of Calcutta Kids, recently moved to Massachusetts to pursue graduate study. Although they have pulled back from full-time involvement with the organization, they travel to India four times a year. The organization continues to use data to refine its efforts.
"Instead of the staff relying on us to make the hard decisions," he said, "we discuss the raw data with the workers before any policy changes are made. People have to come up with three possible solutions. It's developing the staff's critical thinking that was always there."
Some challenges resist solutions. In 2009, 12 percent of the children served by Calcutta Kids were malnourished. Levinson wanted to see that number lowered. The team redesigned the interventions. The figure was reduced to three-and-a-half percent. That number, however, remained intractable.
"I was curious," Levinson said. "Why can't we get below three-and-a-half percent with public health or nutrition interventions? What's unique about these families? When we looked further, we found the reasons had nothing to do with health or nutrition. The families experienced domestic violence, sex abuse, drug abuse, or mental illness."
Nonetheless, the focus of Calcutta Kids remains maternal and child health intervention.
"Every year another 200 kids have a healthy foundation," Levinson said. "With a healthy foundation, they do better in school. With an education, they have the opportunity to get good jobs. Then they can earn more money and move out of the slum."