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Mother Teresa teaches a lifelong lesson

Unlike many teen-agers, Apu Mukherjee did not spend the summer before her senior year lounging on the beach or hanging out at the mall. Instead, she cared for sick and abandoned children alongside her role model, Mother Teresa, in Calcutta, India.

Apu, 17, of Seminole, a senior at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, said she has traveled to Calcutta many times since she was a baby. Her parents are from India, and her father's family lives in Calcutta.

"I've always known that Mother Teresa worked there," Apu said. "I've always been fascinated with her. When I was little, I would tell my parents, "Boy, I'd like to help her.' "

Apu decided to write Mother Teresa directly and ask if she could work at her children's hospital and orphanage for a month. Mother Teresa then contacted Apu's family in Calcutta and granted permission.

"It's not like she's on a throne above everyone, like some famous, untouchable person," Apu said. "She's very visible."

Apu described the 80-year-old recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize as "a lively, vivacious woman" with a "youthful, strong voice." However, she said Mother Teresa is quite ill.

"Her health won't let her do as much as she once did," Apu said. "But she's very stubborn. She told a sister, "I want to die standing up.' "

Apu said she plans to become a physician. Her father, Dipak, is a cardiologist, and her mother, Manishi, is a gynecologist. Apu said her experiences with the children in Calcutta taught her to be patient, gentle and persistent _ qualities she feels are important for a doctor.

Apu fed and bathed premature infants and children up to age 12. She sang to them, gave them medicine, played with them and put them to sleep.

"I also worked with grotesquely deformed children," she said. "They can't move. They're like statues, confined to that one position. They can't even talk. And it seems that they get the least attention."

The two languages Apu encountered were Bengali and English, and because she is fluent in both, she did not have any problems communicating.

Apu, who usually dresses like a typical American teen-ager, donned a sari during her stay. She described Calcutta as unbearably hot, overpopulated and dirty. She said she saw many people digging in the garbage for food.

"There are naked men, women and children all over the streets. . . . Their bodies are like toothpicks," she said. "If it wasn't for Mother Teresa, the number in the streets would be unbelievable. She's so important to the area and the country."

In 1948 Mother Teresa founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to the poor. By 1970, the order was credited with saving the lives of almost 8,000 destitute outcasts in Calcutta alone. The order also operates more than 200 centers worldwide.

Apu is Hindu. She said she was never asked her religion and it had no bearing on her work.

Apu said her trip humbled her and taught her things she never could have learned in a classroom.

"It's easy to read about all these things, but unless you're exposed to it and see it yourself, it's hard to understand," she said.

"I never realized how much community service can help you. It's not something you do for recognition or praise or to write on a transcript. It's a duty," she said.

"There are lessons you learn in doing something for someone besides yourself. It doesn't have to be as exotic as going to India and working with Mother Teresa. Just do anything, something you believe in and stick with it. Never give up."

Apu said she plans to work in Mother Teresa's leper colony next summer before she begins college.