Volunteering in India
Lewis Bentley a graduate from from Bangor University volunteered in South India working with a charity called Restless Development. He talks to Student Times about his inspiring experience.
This time three months ago I was in South India, adjusting to the sweltering heat and learning to eat with my fingers.
I was also getting some experience in teaching as I took small groups of young students through some basic English speaking classes.
The situation was this: there were four of us living together, all volunteers from the UK, with no televisions or washing machines; we had been given temporary stay on the first floor of the local youth resource centre (YRC) just outside of town (Chengelpattu) and in our working week we mostly planned and delivered lessons in the classroom downstairs to the students of all ages who came of their own accord to use the YRC facilities, namely computers, printers, scanners, books, two full-time paid staff and us, the English speakers and teachers. There were seven of us: myself, Manisha, Catherine, Carys, Mohan, Raj and Leciya, four international volunteers from the UK and three national volunteers from the local area. We stayed for just over two months, running projects as a group. Does this sound amazing to you? If so, keep reading.
I didn't plan to get involved with charity work, and although I always liked the idea of travelling I didn't know when or how I would go about it. It was actually my mum who persuaded me to go to the VSO website and sign up, and I forgot about it as soon as I had completed the form; another application sent off; I was in the midst of job searching at the time and so had become accustomed to receiving little in the way of reply from the many emails and applications that I was dispatching, and I thought this would be a similar case. However, a little while later I received an email which told me that I had been assigned to a smaller organisation within the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) umbrella called Restless Development and was asked to attend a "selection day" at which applicants are interviewed and selected or not. Essentially the highest credential here was enthusiasm. I received an email around a week later telling me I had been picked and asking whether I would be available to travel to India next month.
A short time later I was descending onto a runway in Mumbai, looking out of the cabin window at the slums which border the airport on all sides.
It's been around three months since I returned and, on reflection, I can say that without a doubt my experience in India was one of the most important things that I have ever done. It was one of the highlights of my life, and I know that I will continue to think back on it again and again. But it wasn’t the delicious food, sizzling weather or lively culture that really made it for me: it was the feeling that my efforts were now focused on bringing about positive changes, for myself and others. It's an intoxicating feeling knowing that your work is for the satisfaction of others. It gives you a lot of energy. I can distinctly remember the elation that our group felt after we finished up for the night after running an event in a local village, we set up a sort of informative talent show whereby we and some of our students performed dances, songs and even a short drama about the dangers of alcohol addiction. We drew quite a crowd, and all the while we were surreptitiously doling out armfuls of pamphlets concerning ways to curtail the spread of disease. We were also advertising the YRC where we were based and taught from. The local village council attended and courteously ordered us taxis after the show had ended, and when we set off none of the pamphlets were on the floor.
So we spent two happy and fruitful months in India, and in the grand scheme of work that the charity is envisioning we did our small bit. I find myself thinking about the time that I spent there a lot. But I have to admit that now that I've put three months between myself and India it seems like it all could have happened in a dream. So what really are the enduring elements of that chapter in my life? I made great friends with the other volunteers I was living with and continue to see them back in the UK, the students we were teaching in the YRC steadily improved their English, and I have had an appreciation thrust upon me of the luxuries of living in a first world country. That last one is very important, but the most significant thing that changed is that I gained a certain attitude, which I am going to call positive stubbornness. This attitude is the small axe to the big tree of insurmountable obstacles. Since returning home from India I have written a book, begun learning a new musical instrument and have become more involved with my local community through attending meetings and volunteering at a local charity shop. I urge everyone reading this to begin cultivating positive stubbornness by getting involved with a charity or community project.
My experience is that charity work is something that can profoundly influence a community for the better, and I urge anyone reading this who is currently or will in the near future be looking for work to consider the avenues that are wide open in the charity sector. Do yourself a favour and consider service to others as a beginning to your career.
Lewis Bentley is a recent graduate (2012 English Literature with Creative Writing) from Bangor University, North Wales