Vancouver woman creates nonprofit to help widows in India who are often shunned

By Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer



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A few weeks after Bonnie Bourdage’s first time in India, she received a picture that changed her perspective of the trip.

She went to India to help build an orphanage after being invited by a woman she knew through church. After the trip, Bourdage still wasn’t entirely sure why she went, especially after seeing how much help was needed in the area. Then she got the photo.

It was her and a widow embracing in a hug while she prayed for the woman, who needed cataract surgery. She reached out to her host on the trip about paying for the woman’s surgery, which she was told might cost somewhere around $400. The man she contacted said not to bother.

“India will break your heart,” he told her.

Bourdage couldn’t stop thinking about the woman and the other widows she met during her trip. She knew she wanted to do something to help, and with assistance from a pastor at a church in a village in southeast India, she formed Sodhari, a nonprofit geared toward widows and orphans in India. Sodhari translates to “sister” in Telugu, a language spoken in parts of India.

The nonprofit sponsors 20 widows in India at about $35 a month as Bourdage and others work to raise $55,000 to build a two-story home for the widows. The women will live on the first floor; orphans will live on the second floor.

“When I saw that picture, I immediately knew why I went on that trip,” said Bourdage, 59, of Vancouver. “It led me to those ladies.”

Bourdage wasn’t sure how to go about helping the widows she’d met once she returned to Vancouver. She reached out to a few contacts she made in India about setting up something for widows, but nobody was eager to help her. Bourdage said she was told that widows are often shunned in India.

She was friends on Facebook with a pastor in India, and saw he was collecting money to help people in Nepal after an earthquake in April 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people and injured nearly 22,000. She donated money to his trip, and he sent her photos of everything he’d bought for five families in Nepal. Bourdage was impressed with his transparency, and after talking to a few other people who have worked with this pastor and had similarly positives experiences, she asked him to work on helping widows. He agreed to and helped identify 20 widows.

Bourdage said it was important to work with locals on the organization and for upcoming projects.

“I didn’t want to be this great white savior who goes over there to help,” she said. “The people there, they know the land and they know the culture. They know who to work with to get this home built. The money we’re raising, it can go toward a house for these woman while also providing jobs to people over there. I don’t want to go over with a crew and build this ourselves.”

Bourdage will still travel to India at least once a year to see how things are going and visit with the group of women. She got the idea to name her organization Sodhari during a visit when she was sitting with them and the pastor. She was in a chair and the rest of the women were on the floor. The pastor told her to sit with them, so she did and after some initial awkwardness, they all grew close.

“They are my sisters,” she said.

She’ll also bring some people over to meet with the women and see the work Sodhari is doing.

“People who go and see the need and the work that is being done, it makes it more personal,” Bourdage said.

Spreading word

So far, Bourdage has told her friends and family about her organization. A friend sets up a coffee cart in a park to raise money. In about 10 months, Bourdage plans on retiring from her job as a driver with C-Tran. After she retires, she’s going to drive around the country living out of her 14-foot trailer and talk to people about Sodhari.

She’s hoping to set up meetings with church groups and womens groups around the country.

“I need a new audience,” she said. “All my friends here have heard me talk about Sodhari.”

Bourdage has lived in the trailer since June. She said it has everything she needs.

She also teamed up with Assisting International Missions, a nonprofit that supports and funds missionaries, to help with sponsoring the women.

“We don’t have an international team,” Bourdage said. “It’s a group of ladies here in Vancouver who care about these women.”

Bourdage doesn’t have a history in fundraising or organizing, and said she’s gotten a lot of help in getting Sodhari off the ground.

“I can drive a bus pretty well,” she said. “But I have no special talents. I’m just walking through doors that have been opened for me and getting people to join me who know what they’re doing. All I have is a passion for these ladies. Everyone else has the skills to help them.”

Bourdage said her inspiration to help the group of widows is a “God-given thing,” as well as learning about all of their life stories. She said the widows range in age from early 30s up to 95. Some women are educated and lived comfortably until their husbands died while others lived in poverty. Bourdage said Sodhari has given them peers and they all look after each other.

“There’s one woman who told us that she was so sad because nobody would talk to her,” Bourdage said. “Her husband died and she just wanted someone to talk to, but nobody would speak to her. With Sodhari, now they have this tiny community together.”