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Volunteering in India Changed a Young Man’s Life

Two particularly good things arose from Andrew Luhrs’ time as a young volunteer at an Indian orphanage.

One was the establishment of a U.S. nonprofit organization to support the children. The other was his decision to pursue a career in medicine. Andrew Luhrs, MD now is a surgeon in the Center for Bariatric Surgery, a program of Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals. 

Andrew Luhrs, MD takes a photo with students at the Bharati Integrated Rural Development Society clinic in India
Some might call it karma: Helping children in India led Andrew Luhrs, MD to a career in medicine that allows him to help his patients here live healthier lives. Above, Dr. Luhrs takes a photo with students at the Bharati Integrated Rural Development Society clinic in India.

After graduating in 2007 with a bachelor of science degree from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, the young man was uncertain of his future. He was interested in medicine, but had not yet applied to medical school or decided what his path would be.

Through a mutual acquaintance, he connected with V. Paul Raja Rao, executive director of the Bharati Integrated Rural Development Society (BIRDS) in India. “Paul said, ‘Why don’t you come help us in our clinic?’,” recalls Dr. Luhrs.

On his first visit, he volunteered for two months at the children’s boarding home that BIRDS runs in a very rural town, Muthyalapadu, in Andhra Pradesh. The state is a drought-prone area of high unemployment, where child labor and child marriage are commonplace.

Among its missions, BIRDS trains farmers in sustainable practices such as water and soil management and gives microloans to women to start small businesses. At the time, the orphanage was very small, housing “fewer than 40 kids of the ‘untouchable’ caste, the Dalit caste,” Dr. Luhrs said.

He spent mornings in the clinic taking general health histories and doing vaccinations, and the afternoons in the BIRDS School with the children, teaching them English and helping them with classwork. 

“I think my decision to pursue medicine all centers around my experience in Muthyalapadu." - Andrew Luhrs, MD

“At the end of that first trip, we came up with the idea of trying to do some sort of sponsorship so that we could expand the number of children that the organization was able to support,” Dr. Luhrs recalls.

 “I put a call out on my Facebook page to friends and family, asking if they wanted to sponsor one of the 40 kids — and within a week and a half, I had 80 sponsors,” said Dr. Luhrs. Along with a $50,000 grant Rao had secured, the sponsorships allowed BIRDS to double the size of the orphanage.

BIRDS built a new building with improved accommodations, and “Within two years, we expanded from those 40 kids to 370 kids,” said Dr. Luhrs, who volunteered for another three months in 2008.

“I think my decision to pursue medicine all centers around my experience in Muthyalapadu," Dr. Luhrs said. Long conversations with a physician at the campus clinic about his life goals crystallized his determination to study medicine. “At the time I was very interested in social justice and trying to help as many people as possible on a public health level,” Dr. Luhrs said. Even now, one of his research interests is socioeconomic disparities in health care.

Children writing in chalk on packed earth
The students write "I love you Andrew" in chalk in the packed dirt.

“As we talked it through, it just started making more and more sense … that medicine was probably the route to do that. Turns out, he was right.”

After enrolling in the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Dr. Luhrs continued his involvement in the nonprofit. Eventually, because of the demands of his studies, he had to step away. The nonprofit, now managed by a woman in Oregon, continues to support the BIRDS children.

Money from sponsors covers the students’ food, education, and clothing, with the goal of seeing them through high school. Most children in the region are taken out of school after Grade 8 and work as day laborers or on farms to contribute to their family’s livelihood.

“These kids, who are part of the ‘untouchable’ class in the caste system in India – they really have no options open to them. Most kids cannot get through a full secondary education in these rural villages because they are relied upon to bring money in to the family. So, it is pretty inspiring to see what Paul is doing,” said Dr. Luhrs.