By Sandra J. Pennecke
Jagdish Singh tells story after story of the lives that she's touched - and touched her - during her life's journey.
There's the man who was imprisoned after being wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, the young cancer patient who needed funds to qualify for treatment, the child with a cleft palate who traveled from India for surgery, and the young Afghan soldier who lost both legs helping fight the Taliban and sought asylum in the United States.
But, there are two stories that Singh experienced in her own life that turned her into the inspirational woman she is today and continue to fuel her fire toward creating a world with love - not hate.
"My compassion about helping others was inborn, I think," said Singh, now 77. "I remember at the age of 5 in the village, there were Muslims and untouchables. I used to play with all of them."
Raised in a multigenerational family in the village of Haveli Chobdar, Punjab, India, Singh can't help but choke up when she describes the day her grandfather became angered when he saw her drinking water from the same glass as one of those friends.
"He had a cane in his hand, and he hit me with it," Singh said. "He dragged me from that place and said, 'How dare you.'"
Tears followed, and Singh questioned her grandfather, who said she didn't need an answer.
"My heart sank," Singh said. "But, it awakened something inside of me."
The first one in her family to go to college, Singh, who earned a bachelor's in education from Baring Union Christian College in Batala, India, and later a master's degree in education, guidance and counseling from Old Dominion University, speaks proudly of her accomplishments - although she says it is God working through her.
"I understood, as I got older, that my grandfather didn't want me to play with them because to him, they were not worthy," Singh said. "That created a revolution in my mind."
A lifetime of volunteer work and community service followed - something that Singh says came naturally and innately to her.
Her arranged marriage to her husband, Amarjit, is in its 53rd year and has produced five daughters and five grandchildren.
Amarjit arrived in the United States in 1966 with $7 in his pocket. He faced difficult times, but within a year, he was able to send for his family to join him and begin their lives in a new country.
Although faced with the racial tensions in the South at that time, Singh said good experiences abounded.
Still, the second encounter that molded Singh into the woman she became happened around this time.
With no food in her refrigerator to feed her children, she saw several apples lying on the ground near her neighbor's tree.
"In my culture, it's not stealing," said Singh, who went and picked them up, only to be yelled at by the neighbor.
"I threw those apples on the ground and told myself I will work hard to get those apples back," Singh said. "It changed my whole life and strengthened me to be more hard-working, toward community work, volunteer work, and be friends with people and help them."
Today, she still resides with her husband in the house they bought 43 years ago in the Western Branch section of Chesapeake.
"This house became a global village," Singh said. "If someone was hungry, my kitchen was always full of food."
Among her countless accomplishments, Singh, along with Amarjit and their daughter, Tuni, started Citizens First in 2003. The nonprofit human rights organization is aimed at protecting the rights of others and helping them in any way possible. With a strong belief in human decency, Citizens First fights injustice, battles discrimination and promotes human rights.
"I believe that hatred and bitterness have no place in my life because I have to accomplish a mission, and that mission is to create love in the hearts of human beings," Singh said. "And with that love, I will be able to play again with my untouchable friends and get my apples back."
No hatred. Only love. One person at a time.
Visit www.citizensfirstva.org to make a donation.