MUMBAI, India — When Courtney Deacon of Brick graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2010, she joined a small research team of alumni and professors who traveled to India to research a type of wool fabric manufactured in the country.
The trip was supposed to last a month.
But at age 23, she made what some — including her parents at the time — would consider an unthinkable decision. She ditched the group and moved to the slums outside of New Delhi, where she volunteered in an orphanage.
Nearly a decade later, she’s still caring for India’s most neglected children as the founder of One Life to Love, a home for abandoned and orphaned kids with special needs.
Now Courtney Deacon Lalotra after her 2015 marriage, she told NJ Advance Media she didn’t return to New Jersey because she was “heartbroken” by the sight of the slums and children begging on the streets.
Later, two children — one who cared for her when she fell ill, another who died — inspired her to make this a life’s calling.
“I started working with children (in the slums) and I felt like the community embraced me,” she said during Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent seven-day business mission to India.
The slums are massive, even larger in Mumbai, where Murphy finished out his trip.
“It’s just like layers. Layers of people, layers of buildings, layers of color,” Deacon Lalotra, 32, said. “It was a rag-picking community, which is with people who actually pick through garbage to pull out recyclables.”
“It’s a slum on top of a mountain of garbage,” she continued, describing how the dump zone for two cities inhabited by millions of people let off an unimaginable stench in the summer heat.
Within short order, she got sick — very sick.
“It was like the mosquitoes welcomed me first because I got everything,” including malaria and the viral disease chikungunya, she said.
The diseases knocked her off her feet and left her unable to get out of bed. An orphaned girl, Farida, about 10 years old, checked on her daily. Farida gave her food and water.
“She basically nursed me back to health. I asked her when I got better, ‘Why did you spend so much time doing that?’” Deacon Lalotra recalled. “She said that when she gets sick that there was nobody there to take care of her, so she didn’t want me to feel that same loneliness.”
When Deacon Lalotra first volunteered at the slum orphanage — along with about four other workers and a cook, who kept watch over about 50 kids — she didn’t expect to stay indefinitely.
“I felt like, ‘Okay, let’s just see how it goes,’” she said. “But after I met Farida, I was like, ‘This is my life. I’m staying here and I’m not going back.’ And I didn’t go back.”
The decision “freaked out” her parents back in Brick. It prompted an immediate trip by her mother to check on her, who “cried the whole time” she visited and witnessed where her daughter was living, Deacon Lalorta recalled.
But she had their support and the new Indian resident said she was content at the time to “be a volunteer at the slum for life.”
Then her path took another detour when a homeless boy with special needs one day appeared at the slum’s orphanage “scared, completely naked, unable to walk and who showed signs of sexual abuse,” Deacon Lalotra said.
The boy, named Surendra, which she said means “beautiful,” was about 14. It took a while for Surendra to open up, or even tell his caretakers or the other children his name, she said. But once he did, everything slowly started to get better for him
“He was able to walk on his own, he started to kick the soccer ball and play in the park. I was like, ‘Wow, this is transformation right before my eyes,’” Deacon Lalotra said.
But the orphanage wouldn’t keep him because his special needs required more resources. He was sent to a state-run mental institution, she said.
“They have the capacity for 400 children and they have 1,000 or more,” she said.
“When I tried to visit him a month later I was told that he passed away. I was devastated and I decided from that moment I would do whatever I could to make sure that no other child would go through that and I didn’t want his death to be in vain, so that’s when I started One Life to Love,” Deacon Lalotra said.
With the help of her parents, hometown church and friends and family back in New Jersey, Deacon Lalotra raised enough money to buy a home that serves as an orphanage for homeless children with special needs.
“My mom sold her gold. My dad gave me like three paychecks in a row just to get the house opened,” she said.
She and her husband, Yogesh Lalotra, have 10 adopted children, as well as a four-year-old son. The One Life to Love house also serves as a place for about 30 kids to visit during the day for meals and an education, she said.
It’s staffed by her and “house mothers,” or widows, divorcees or women escaping abusive relationships who are paid to help run the home.
The home has helped hundreds of children since she opened it in 2014, she said.
“Maybe I can’t help 100,000 street children today. But I can change one child’s life today, through love, care and provision,” Deacon Lalotra said. “And if I help one and you help one, then we are genuinely changing the world.”
One Life to Love continues to run with support by people back in the Garden State, including her church, family and friends, and her parents.
“My parents come out to visit often. The children call them grandma and grandpa,” Deacon Lalotra said.
She told her story to her home state’s governor, Murphy, while he was in India.
Back home, John and Judy Deacon — who still live in Brick — said they expected their daughter’s trip to be a short, one-time thing.
“It wasn’t anything I thought would be everlasting,” Judy Deacon said.
John Deacon said he’s overwhelmed by his daughter’s life.
“When she gets these mentally challenged kids, you say: How is she gonna get through to these kids?” her father said. “Then you return a year later, and it’s just amazing. You really have to go and see to understand.”