By Jamuna Rangachari
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 a diverse range of people from all backgrounds and walks of life, volunteers form a community of their own. Further, both the beneficiaries of one’s volunteer efforts and the team that one works with, are rich sources of inspiration and catalysts to developing better relationships.
Connecting to society
“It filled me with great pride to be part of the community helping anyone in need of help, mainly old residents, traffic accident victims, fire victims and other situations at any time of the day or night,” says Anu Ahluwalia, sharing her experience of being a volunteer of the First Aid Squad in Colts Neck, USA. Such volunteer work brings the community, and therefore the entire nation, closer. As Anu observes, “I see a lot of American families doing volunteer work in some form or the other, and I feel this strengthens the country from deep within. I wish Indians would take ownership and self-responsibility, and help their community, and thereby the nation.” Her son too is a volunteer at the First Aid Squad and she feels the experience has definitely helped him bloom.
Though seva is an age-old concept in India, organised volunteering is relatively new, but getting increasingly popular.
As Varun of Dream India says, “Smart marketing makes sure that the youth is attracted to volunteering. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments in companies make sure that the associates of the companies volunteer regularly, colleges make sure that students spend a minimum amount of time volunteering and, in fact, even associate credits to such activities.”
In the West, volunteering is considered a must for college students and is viewed extremely positively, even by prospective employers. In fact, a survey carried out by TimeBank through Reed Executive showed that
• 73 per cent of employers would recruit a candidate with volunteering experience over one without…..
• 94 per cent of employers believe that volunteering can add to skills.
• 94 per cent of employees who volunteered to learn new skills had benefitted either by getting their first job, improving their salary, or being promoted.
Even though the motivation of volunteering for credits is not exactly pure, in an imperfect world, it provides one good reason to reach out to one’s neighbour. As Anu says, “Volunteerism looks good on resumes for colleges and workplaces which is an incentive for youngsters to volunteer. But what’s most important is that volunteerism is instilled into the citizen’s mindset at an early age. I think it builds character in a child.” She adds, “I wonder, if a child’s character is strong, can the nation’s be weak?”
“Disabled children do require a lot of individual attention, and hence, involving volunteers definitely helps the organisation to cater to their needs. The children get the benefit of additional bonding, and the volunteers themselves like doing it so much that many of them have been continuing to volunteer for as long a period as 10 years, and even if they take a break for personal reasons sometimes, they always come back,” says Nirmal Malhotra, manager, awareness-raising, media and publicity, AADI, who has the responsibility of managing the volunteer programme there.
AADI’s aim is to make both the children and the volunteers feel absolutely comfortable. It involves the volunteers in all its areas of work, and treats them as part of the family, remembering their birthdays, organising get-togethers and other such human resource practices with them, too. In Delhi, on the morning of the first Tuesday of every month, they hold a presentation on the organisation’s activities. This enables potential volunteers to get the larger picture, and decide which activity they would like to take part in. A volunteer is required to dedicate at least two days in a week for two-five hours’ work each time in order to contribute meaningfully. They are also involved in special events such as fund-raising, being writers for children during exams, and so on.
“Support, supervision and recognition are three key ways to keep volunteers motivated and committed,” says Mohammed Jamaal, Center head of iVolunteer, an organisation that links potential volunteers with NGOs. He goes on to explain that effective support encourages a partnership approach where volunteers feel that they are an integral part of the organisation, rather than simply an extra pair of hands. iVolunteer facilitates the setting up of a good support system that reflects the fact that staff and volunteers have clear and established rights and responsibilities.
The effort shows
As Guntas Randhawa, an employee of Computer Sciences Corporation, who volunteered through iVolunteer to prepare educational material and conduct workshops on English and basic hygiene for two schools in Delhi, says, “The focus on finding the right service for me made a lot of difference.”
As in any human resource area, the key really is to ensure that the volunteers feel valued. It is important for managers to be accessible, give feedback and monitor the activities to the extent required. When volunteers feel their work is noticed and appreciated, the motivation level increases by leaps and bounds. For instance, in AADI, one of the volunteers, who had been volunteering in various activities for seven years, is now so involved that she comes every day for three hours to manage the library at AADI.
Spirit of seva
As in any area of life, when the spirit of the work one is doing is not in place, the whole exercise becomes futile. Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay award winner and founder of Asha, points out this crucial factor, saying, “In my view, social work is one area which must be done by self-motivated individuals committed to higher ideals of creating a humane society.” Varun agrees, saying, “When people get involved for reasons other than pure volunteering, such as college students looking out for credits, they are difficult to handle as they don’t realise the importance of the work.”
Vedanta, Buddhism, the Bible, the Koran and all other religious traditions exhort one to take up work in the spirit of service, focusing purely on the needs of others and not on oneself.
Indeed, many spiritual organisations are a testimony to how this spirit has the capacity to transform society. The Vipassana International Academy, founded by SN Goenka, whose headquarters is based in Igatpuri, Maharashtra, is a classic example. The organisation offers a 10-day Buddhist meditation programme, where participants are housed and fed free of charge, all through the aid of voluntary helpers and donors. As Ajit Parikh, secretary of the organisation explains, “When pious intentions and hard work go together, the results are wonderful.”
Sanjeev Shah, founder of an NGO, OASIS, headquartered in Gujarat, is certain that no society can truly progress without the active spirit of volunteerism, citing our freedom struggle as an exemplary case of what such an effort can achieve. Giving an ardent appeal for everyone to lend their support to society, he says, “While we salute the millions of citizens and hundreds of NGOs putting in hearty efforts to help others and build peaceful societies, it is also time to join their tribe, if we already do not belong to them.”
“I think volunteerism creates the philosophical base of a person. Volunteering becomes an individual’s avenue to a political philosophy and ideology, provides hope, and eventually leads to a search for a way of life that is consistent with one’s self,” says Harsha, who adds a fervent hope that such initiatives would result in principle-based consistent direct action by all.
Transformation of the self, of the other, and ultimately of the entire society. What better reward could there be for one’s time and effort? Isn’t it time we took the step to shift the focus from ourself to the other?
Action for Ability Development and Inclusion (AADI) -http://www.aadi-india.org/
Asha for Education : http://www.ashanet.com
iVolunteer : http://www.ivolunteer.org.in
Oasis : http://www.oasiswebsite.com/
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