By Jamuna Rangachari February 2008 Seva, an age-old tradition in india, has now emerged as organised volunteerism, a powerful catalyst for personal growth and self-fulfilment, and with the potential to transform society have never felt so much joy out of any work that I have ever done,” says Shreya Sridharan, a college student in Mumbai, recounting the time she put up a play with slum kids in St Xavier’s College, as part of a project with Dream India. In fact, her entire experience with Dream India, where she teaches and interacts with underprivileged children, is extremely special, and she acknowledges that her own personal growth has catapulted in the process. Dream India, an NGO that is totally volunteer-driven, states its mission to be “an India in which every educated soul understands the importance of giving back what he has taken from society”. It operates by linking like-minded people together, and helping them reach out to the underprivileged sections in society. The results, in its short span of life, have been wonderful. As Varun, one of the founders, says, “The volunteers not only gain in confidence, but also manage to pull out their creative strings and think out of the box in trying to solve problems.” Deeptanshu Jha, a student of IIT, Guwahati, volunteered in the villages of Hardoi district, Uttar Pradesh, through Asha for Education, an organisation that works to educate underprivileged children and correct socio-economic issues. One major problem confronting the villagers was that most of the canals had been totally dry for a decade, yet on paper |they were stated to be operational, compelling the villagers to even pay irrigation tax for water they were not receiving. Stung by the injustice of it, he worked towards submitting a report to the authorities to bring it to their notice. A small dharna Some villagers also staged a small dharna as a mute protest, by wrapping black cloth around their mouths, and conversing with the authorities only in writing. The report generated a small triumph inasmuch as the tax was no longer charged to small farmers but only to the Tehsildar. “This interaction made me aware of the real problems of rural “India” and is a different dimension of my education,” says Deeptanshu, who now acknowledges that India’s development will happen only when the rural sector too is taken care of. Padma Subramanian, a teacher for many years, has been volunteering with AADI (Action for Ability Development and Inclusion, formerly Spastics Society of India) in Delhi, since 1999. “The sharing, bonding and love that I receive from the children here has no parallel,” she says. So motivated is she that even when she goes on a visit to Chennai, she volunteers at the Vidya Sagar school for special children there. Considering it her privilege, she says, “I am so thankful for the opportunity I have to be with these wonderful children.” Similarly, Rajni Balasubramanian, who has been involved for 16 years with AADI, feels that her entire family has become more humane as a result of her interaction with these children who she calls “truly special in the right sense of the word”. Volunteer and grow“Asha educated not only underprivileged kids, but me as well,” says Harsha Vardhan, whose activities with Asha have become a major part of his life. Acknowledging the role volunteering has played in his life, he says, “I was transformed by my ever-evolving social network. It taught me how to manage relationships faster than any profession, and also exposed me to several kinds of organisations.” Yes, volunteering does help other people. But really, the amount of growth that it facilitates in the process is so pronounced that one wonders who the true beneficiary is. Discover yourself“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,” said Mahatma Gandhi. Volunteering is the perfect vehicle to do this. Since it is not a ‘job’, one can feel less inhibited in acquiring new skills too. Planning and implementing a major fundraising event can develop goal-setting, planning and budgeting skills. Supervising and training other volunteers helps develop supervisory and training skills. Making banners helps discover one’s talent in art. As Anu Ahluwalia, who volunteers as a Hindi teacher in the US, says, “My passion for creativity, learning and teaching children definitely blossomed,” and shares that her entire family is more connected to their Indian roots, as a result of her volunteering. Likewise, Sangeeta Anand, who voluntarily handles the media at the Art of Living Foundation, says, “I discovered skills and hidden potential that came to the fore in this endeavour. A lot of barriers were dropped along the way and fears overcome.” Choose to be the change“When I see a child becoming even a little more enthusiastic about studies due to our interaction, it gives me a sense of well-being that is incomparable with any other so-called ‘achievement’ of mine,” says Shreya. Deeptanshu too agrees, saying, “The change I brought about was minuscule. Still, I do feel very good about the fact that I had a small role in bringing a governmental issue to the notice of higher authorities.” The sentiment is echoed by Kirti Sabherwal, an MBA student from Amity, who has volunteered in fund raising through iVolunteer, who says, “Anything that I can do for the underprivileged gives me a sense of achievement, a sense of giving back to society.” Fundamentally, volunteering is all about choice – for one has made the choice to do something freely, all on your own, without any pressure. It may be true that no one person can solve all the world’s problems, but what you can do is make your little corner of the world just that little bit better. This addresses a very special need in all of us for, in the deepest core of our being, we all want to make a difference and do something meaningful. It follows then that by involving oneself with a larger cause, one’s own self-esteem and growth catapults tremendously. New experiences and a new world“Atithi devo bhavah. A cot is produced; the visitors dismount their bicycles. They look around, wiping their faces, as the women and children sprinkle water on the floor. The visitors sigh, sitting back on the cots; they are offered water and a hand-held fan, the land draws a parched breath, and the wind blows cool under the shade.” This is an extract from Deeptanshu’s essay after his visit to Hardoi. After detailing the problems of the villagers and their stoic and value-based attitude despite many hardships, he goes on to say, “As an outsider, I am condemned to the city. To its air of sophistication and vice, and the village air is a great relief. The village people, with their crystalline convictions (that have) come down from generations, give relief from the obscurities and pedantries of city folk.” Yavnika Talwar, who volunteered for a fodder management project with iVolunteer, understood every aspect of village life, and avers that “this experience was worth every moment, and cannot be put into a few words.” Naveen Sunder, who also volunteered in the rural areas through iVolunteer, says, “The experience brought a landslide change in my perspectives, and now I know from personal experience that Real India is Rural India.” In my own case, even the minimal amount of volunteering I did with Doorstep School in Mumbai through Asha opened me to a new world, which I never knew enough about, though it was all around me. I understood the problems of street children, the challenges they face in improving their circumstances, and most of all, how much potential they all have. It reinforced my faith in the human spirit in a tremendous way, and sensitised my own children towards the less privileged. The experience was a catalyst to the birth of a book for children that wove together an adventure story with the experiences of the street children at the Doorstep School, so that more privileged children would get a glimpse of this very world. “Disabled people are treated badly even in places of worship,” says Rajini, feeling their pain as her own. She tries her best to sensitise everyone about how capable and loving the disabled are, and implores people to treat them well, fully empathising with them. Surely, if travel allows you to have a glimpse of the world around you, volunteering draws you into the experience of another life. This ‘other’ life could be just in your backyard or in another part of the world. But the new perspective gives it a totally new dimension. For, ultimately, what can be a better teacher than life itself? By involving ourselves in volunteer activities, we experience slices of life that we could never have imagined earlier. Whether it is a city-bred person experiencing life in the rural areas, or a teacher experiencing ‘discrimination’ through her involvement with the disabled, or privileged people knowing what life for a poor person can be like, life opens up many new vistas to the volunteer. Bonding and relationships“When the children call me up and share their experiences, it makes me feel wonderful, and I really look forward to the time with the children and with my co-volunteers at Dream India,” says Shreya, who spends as much spare time as she can with the group. “I was fascinated by the kind of people I met in the Asha meeting – their proactive nature and eagerness to empower others with whatever powers they had in their respective walks of life. It was like a family,” says Harsha. Indeed, what better way could there be to connect than giving something back? By bringing together
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