GENEVA — Rocky Braat slides into a booth at Mary’s Diner and shakes out of his coat.
The diner is brightly lit and the coffee is hot, but it’s clear Braat, 31, isn’t comfortable. He shuffles his boot-clad feet and tugs at his shirt. Occasionally, he rolls his eyes at a question or shrugs his shoulders in disinterest.
He talks about the documentary film and 2013 Sundance Film Festival winner “Blood Brother,” which follows him on his mission to enrich the lives of HIV positive orphans in India, but Braat doesn’t really say much until he pulls out his laptop and starts showing clips of the film. He smiles as he watches the 33 orphans in his care as they decorate a room for Christmas. He laughs as he sees himself, barefoot, carrying an artificial Christmas tree down a path from his house to the orphanage. The tree falls apart en route.
Five years ago, Braat, a 2001 Geneva High School graduate and graphic designer, decided to take a trip to India to find “a more authentic way to live.”
He would never call Geneva, or his college town of Pittsburgh, “home” again.
The trip began with a visit to Calcutta, but a side-trip to the orphanage in Chennai changed Braat’s life.
To be clear, Braat doesn’t raise money for the children’s food, shelter or medicine — those are provided by the Indian government. What Braat saw lacking was the children’s sense of self, their lack of family or personal connections, even while they were being raised in a large group.
“It is about birthdays and Christmas,” he said. “It is about creating that emotional stability, being a good role model for the boys and giving the girls a sense of self esteem — giving them worth.”
In the film, Braat teaches the children — all orphaned by AIDS — how to brush their teeth. He cooks them their first hot dogs. He bakes them birthday cakes and gives them toys. They call him “Rocky anna,” which means “Rocky brother.”
And sometimes, the children die.
“These are HIV-positive children,” he said. “They go from relatively healthy to dead within days. There is a lack of education, a lack of medicine and a lot of disease.”
He has buried three children so far.
“Seeing children die is incredibly difficult,” he said. “Three have died so far, and we anticipate who will be next. It’s very heavy.”
Braat’s talent in graphic design, photography and writing tells the story of the Chennai orphans, too.
He is selling his book “I Was Always Beautiful” as a fundraiser for the children. It is available through www.animalmediagroup.com and Braat’s website www.wemustsotheycan.com. He collects donations, via PayPal, too.
Then there’s Steve Hoover’s film, which won the grand jury award and audience award at Sundance.
“I became very emotional when we won the second award,” Braat said. “It was so shocking to win two (awards). It was the last thing we expected.”
The film brings an unprecedented look into the lives of severely impoverished children in India, and it speaks volumes about the country’s lack of compassion for the poor.
“My greatest fear isn’t HIV,” he said. “It’s losing my sense of compassion. I couldn’t live like that. I couldn’t live not caring about people, but that’s how it is in India.”
In his book, Braat transcribes notes scribbled on scraps of paper and the backs of receipts. He writes about a rich man pushing away a child begging for money. One black and white photo shows two small children who live at a bus stop. The caption under a color photo of a 14-year-old girl reads: “The daughter of my heart.”
This is where Braat’s conversation begins — with compassion for the poor, for the sick and for the dying.
“The film, the book, they are windows into the soul of the poor,” he said.
Braat will soon fly home to India, to the children who call him “brother,” and he will return to them with a suitcase full of dollar store toys — dolls for the girls and cars for the boys — to remind them that they are children who should be weightless in their play.
“They endure so much and they ask for so little,” he said. “India does not manufacture toys. But what is a toy to a child? It can be everything — and when it’s a gift from someone who values them it is a treasure.”
Braat hopes to raise funds for a new project — a way to give the children a future and a way to earn money after they “age out” of the orphanage.
“I want to make people care about the children of India,” he said. “I see children growing up in a group but never having a sense of family, and I know that can change.”