VOLUNTEER REPORT - Jacques Lafortune

What strikes you most about Shanti Bhavan (Haven of Peace) is that... it is (a haven of peace).  It is not just a catchy name that the founders thought might have been appealing a dozen or so years ago when they established the institution.  Or for that matter, a name that would grab the attention of eventual well-meaning benefactors or supporters.  It is also not a name, as have been seen so often in the past, that would soon lose the significance of its idealistic but impractical goals.  No, quite to the contrary.  If ever a name reflects the spirit, the goals and the attitudes of an institution, “Shanti Bhavan” is it.

Recently retired, I came from Montreal, Canada, in mid-February 2007 to this island of peace in Southern India.  A quick tour of the premises (dorms, dining hall, school building, etc.), guided by Miss Shanti J., the affable and effective Facilities Manager, and meeting some of the academic and residential personnel as well as other volunteers, confirmed the fact that this is a well-run world class institution.  The environment, the services, the facilities are all conducive to achieving its goals.  But the best was yet to come.

Meeting the children (the “great kids of Shanti Bhavan”) put aside any lingering doubts or questions I would have had.  Let’s face it.  During the ride from Bangalore to Shanti Bhavan, I had, on a couple of occasions, raised in my mind the instinctively reactive and I guess inevitable question: “What I am getting myself into?”  After all, being driven from one of the most rapidly-developing and modern cities in India into the depths of rural India with its very poor villages, oxen-drawn carriages and children playing in garbage heaps does make one wonder.  The children, who come from this environment, and who are now at
Shanti Bhavan, shock you into another dimension.  Sure, I had read Abraham George’s book “India Untouched”, and had readily accepted his thesis that given the right education in a proper environment, even the poorest of the poor could be as successful as any other in India’s (still) caste-oriented society.  But seeing the results with my own eyes confirmed that I had indeed made the right decision to come here.

Miss Beena Nair, the able and energetic Vice-Principal, assigned me to academic duties such as teaching Maths in Grade 6, Geography in Grade 9, and Computers in Grades 8 and 9.  Not a trained teacher (I was assisting the professional subject teachers), I was quite apprehensive at carrying out these new responsibilities.  Again, the welcome displayed by the children, their politeness and yes, their charm, made my first lessons rather easy to carry out.

One of the key, and immediately recognizable differences between the school kids back home and the children at Shanti Bhavan is the latter’s’ eagerness and willingness to discover, to explore and to learn.  Beyond the many questions related to your personal status, family, children (and grand-children in my case), they do want to hear your views and opinions onf international issues, sporting events or any other matter.  Quite naturally and in a very short period, bonds are established with the kids of all age groups.  Quite quickly, you feel at home.  Quite quickly, you’re part of the family.

Over and above the academically-related duties, I was assigned to give a hand in the well-stocked library, as well as storytelling (bedtime stories to kids ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 5).  Storytelling had to be one of the most rewarding “duties”.  Nothing can end a day as nicely and satisfactorily as seeing 20 to 25 children smiling and laughing just before going to bed.  All the accumulated fatigue of the day and the anxiousness of preparing the lessons for the next day are forgotten.  Happy, smiling children is what Shanti Bhavan is all about.  And to be part of it is a privilege.

The children of Shanti Bhavan are getting the best education available from dedicated and professional teachers.  The staff responsible for the children outside the classroom (the residential staff) is affectionately referred to as the “aunties”.  This group of ladies is the heart and soul of the institution.  They look after the children to whose care they have been entrusted as they would their own.  They live with them in the dorms, are at the tables with them at every meal, and accompany them to their games or on the sports field.  They are responsible for the crucial and determining period of the children’s transition from their life in a poor, sometimes destitute environment, to a clean, safe and well structured surrounding.  They teach them everything from their first words of English, to table manners, and living in a group environment.

It is unfortunate that I have not had the pleasure of meeting either Abraham George or Mrs. Lalita Law, Principal, both who had been detained in the USA for personal reasons.  It is they who have put together this great place.  It is their vision, translated into a very specific plan of action, which makes Shanti Bhavan what it is.  Their dedication to the tasks of caring for and educating India’s poorest of the poor (some come from the lowest castes) is being recognized internationally.

I told the kids and the staff, at one of the last daily assemblies of the school year, that leaving Shanti Bhavan was the most difficult goodbye in my life.  Sure, I had said my good-byes to colleagues on many occasions (many assignments, different countries, etc.)  Sure, one develops strong relationships with colleagues, even friendships.  Solid bonds are welded in professional team environments.  But one doesn’t fall in love with one’s colleagues, as one does with the adorable and incredible kids of Shanti Bhavan.

I value my experience as well as my modest contribution to
The George Foundation.  It was after visiting India with my wife the previous year that I had made the wish to come back to this wonderful country and “do something”, however small it may be.  This wish has come true.

The motto, which the children of Shanti Bhavan strive to abide by, is
“Be The Best You Can”.  They are THE BEST.

Jacques Lafortune
Montreal, Canada

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