VOLUNTEER REPORT - Mira John
Volunteering at Shanti Bhavan has been such an incredible experience from beginning to end. During my stay (about a month), I taught mathematics and chemistry to the middle school classes. I also helped fifth graders with math during their prep (homework/studying) periods, and gave individual violin lessons to students who had started with previous volunteers. More importantly, however, I feel I gained a lifetime’s worth of memories and experiences from working at this amazing “haven of peace”, where teachers from all over the country and volunteers from all over the world work together to give children from the worst circumstances a fantastic education upbringing, so that they may learn how to become diligent, honest, and compassionate members of society.
When my dad and I arrived in Bangalore, a senior member of The George Foundation picked us up and took us to the school. Shanti Bhavan is about 2 hours away from Bangalore, close to a small village called Ballinganapalli in Tamil Nadu. The road was quite bumpy, but the sights along the way more than made up for the turbulence. Once we arrived, we were greeted by the school principal, Mrs. Law, and were treated to a very tasty lunch. She then introduced us to the rest of the school in a special assembly. (Normally, assemblies are after their third class. The students themselves present current events around the world to their fellow classmates, and in the process they develop a unique perspective and understanding of global events—I mention this because I think American schools could definitely benefit from such a system). Afterwards, she gave us a tour of the campus and finally showed us our rooms.
The next day, after my dad left, I moved upstairs and shared a room with two other volunteers for the duration of my stay. The facilities here are more than adequate. Each bedroom in the guest quarters is very spacious and comes with a desk, cabinet, overhead fan (very handy against mosquitoes!), Western bathroom and shower, mosquito netting on the windows, and a gorgeous view of the nearby coconut trees. We had a slight problem with ants during my last week, but nothing that we couldn’t handle. (I recommend bring bug poison and mosquito coils for the room anyway, just for precautionary purposes.) The meals are absolutely delicious (better than what I get at home!) but spicy. Mrs.Shanti (the facilities director), however, is more than willing to arrange a milder dish for those with sensitive taste buds. Meat is only served on Sundays, but to ensure that non-vegetarian teachers/volunteers don’t suffer from a protein deficiency, the kitchen serves hardboiled eggs to eat with breakfast. Nutrition is not a problem at Shanti Bhavan; snacks usually consist of mangos, custard apples, or some other fresh fruit, and every meal comes with rice and a savory vegetable curry.
By the end of my second day, Ms. Beena, the vice-principal of the school, had put together my schedule. I was lucky in that I was able to be with both the older students and younger children; in many cases, the volunteers end up spending more time with one half (usually elementary school) than with the other. At first, I assisted the teachers in my classes and helped the students with their classwork, but by the end of the month, I was teaching whole periods at a time by myself. I wish I knew ahead of time what I was going to teach (or that I was going to be teaching, rather than just assisting). I could have brought more supplies and books for the school, notebooks and pencils for daily use, beginner music books and extra violin supplies for my violin lessons, and perhaps prepared some sort of lesson plan for my classes. I am very grateful to the teachers for all that they have done to help the volunteers adjust to living at Shanti Bhavan and teaching and interacting with the students. I’m sure this has been said thousands of times by numerous volunteers, but the Shanti Bhavan teaching staff is incredible. They present a very rigorous but enriching curriculum to their students and maintain a very steady academic discipline within the classroom. Academic excellence is a must at this school, and the teachers work extremely hard to ensure that their pupils receive a sound, sturdy education that will help them as they grow older. The teachers, however, are also great companions and friends outside the school building. They’re more than willing to recommend restaurants and shops to visit in Bangalore or Hosur (another nearby city), spend time with volunteers during the weekends (my roommate has many thrilling tales of the expeditions she and the teachers had in Bangalore and Hosur), or even demonstrate how to cut open a mango without splattering mango juice everywhere. I can’t imagine life at Shanti Bhavan without them.
The students, however, are the crown jewels of the experience. They’re intelligent, curious, extremely creative, and so eager to learn both in the classroom and outside. Like all children, they can be mischievous monkeys at times, but they are so kind and polite and well-behaved, it’s hard to believe that they are still in grade school (especially when you compare them to their American counterparts). These kids love to talk and debate about everything, from current events to the merits of balancing chemical equations to favorite movies and even to what’s going to happen in the 7 th Harry Potter book. To illustrate just how much you can do with them, I’ll talk about our activities last weekend. After hiking around the banana farms with 5 th grade while having a “magic duel” with some of my math students, I spent Saturday evening working on the school newsletter with the 8 th grade while they told me about their various escapades and fond memories at Shanti Bhavan. Sunday morning’s activities included bumping a volleyball with the girls, learning how to spin tops (popular pastime, very hard to do) with the boys, attempting to climb a tree with sandals (bad idea, but still fun), learning how to dance in the dorms, and watching a movie with everyone until lunchtime. The students love spending time with volunteers and asking us about our likes, dislikes, life in the US, our hopes, etc., but they, like all children, also like to have fun and goof around when they’re not studying. They’re so vibrant and enthusiastic no matter how old they are or what you teach them. They truly are a joy to teach and to be with. It’s very hard to say good-bye to them, even if it’s only temporary.
Unlike other regions in India, the climate around Bangalore is very mild. You can wear whatever you want and be very comfortable, though I recommend bringing a sweater to ward off mosquitoes at night. The school has a laundry service, but clothes are handwashed, so don’t be surprised if your bright green shirt comes back slightly faded (but very clean). One of the downsides at Shanti Bhavan, though minor, is the lack of Internet within the campus. The school has managed remarkably well without it- they have rooms full of reference books, up-to-date textbooks from all over the world, video and DVD supplements, a National Geographic magazine collections that goes back to the 1960s, 2 computer labs, posters, and boxes and boxes of donations (that we volunteers organized and arranged for them). However, the addition of Internet would definitely aid both teachers and students. Other than that, and not knowing what to bring for my classes, I felt perfectly at home here.
As I wrap up my volunteer report, I’d like to once again stress just how incredible of an opportunity it was to work at Shanti Bhavan. The overall atmosphere is so welcoming and happy, that you feel as if you have lived your whole life on the beautiful campus. Dr. George has truly created something phenomenal, giving such bright children the chance to thrive and shine. Finally, I want to express my gratitude towards Mrs.Shanti, Ms. Beena, and the other staff for all their help, the other volunteers for their teamwork and friendship, Mrs. Law and Dr. George for allowing me to work here, and most importantly, the children for being such wonderful students and friends. It’s been such a privilege to volunteer at Shanti Bhavan, and I can’t wait until my next visit.