VOLUNTEER REPORT - Emma Lynne Mecham
I found my time at Shanti Bhavan to be extremely rewarding and educational. Although I was initially skeptical of the idealism that such a place must certainly be founded on, I was soon convinced that the dedication of the people at Shanti Bhavan to the children and to the project may actually succeed in turning this ideal into reality. The project seems a dream come true as a model for other development agencies.
I found the facilities to be comfortable, inviting, and well maintained. The order with which the logistics of Shanti Bhavan operate are admirable. In addition, the eco-friendly nature of the place is to be commended.
The children are unquestionably the most delightful part of Shanti Bhavan. They are kind, open, trusting, and resilient, despite the difficulties of their young lives. I will always remember them with fondness and will follow the success of Shanti Bhavan in granting them an opportunity to reach their tremendous potential with interest.
My interactions with the staff at Shanti Bhavan were always pleasant. Mrs. Law is an incredible principal, with an awareness of each of the children under her care, the needs of the staff and volunteers, and a realistic, but hopeful vision. I could not have been more impressed with her administration of the school.
The teaching staff was very patient and accepting of me as a volunteer. For the most part, I found them to be innovative, and resourceful. At times, however, I thought that the style of instruction was based too much on rote memorization.
The housemothers and supervisors treated me with the utmost respect and kindness. I was impressed with their work ethic and their dedication to the children. However, I found their verbal descriptions of how they disciplined very different than the discipline I saw them extending. This is, of course, natural to some degree when dealing with different children at different times.
But I found the inconsistency to be more far-reaching. It seemed to me that many of them were aware of the guidelines for discipline at Shanti Bhavan, but had not incorporated them into their actual handling of the children. They were indoctrinated, but not converted. I found the discipline to be harsh -- physically and verbally -- on a frequent basis. I became aware, either through personal witness or through the children, that they were hit with a stick, insulted, and yelled at on many occasions throughout my six-week stay. This criticism is not confined to the residential staff. On occasion, some of the teachers disciplined in this manner as well. I am aware that my background makes me an outsider to the cultural implications of such discipline, and as such, realize that my observations come from within a different cultural context. From within my personal context I found the discipline employed by many members of the staff at Shanti Bhavan to be abusive.
As a volunteer I was treated with the utmost attentiveness and understanding. Every person I came into contact with at Shanti Bhavan - the cleaning staff, the kitchen staff, the security guards, the gardening staff, the residential staff, the facilities staff, the teaching staff, and the administration -- all extended every possible comfort and kindness to me. My questions were always answered with patience and as far as I could tell, honesty. I found the principle of transparency to be true of the organization in a broad sense.
On the whole, I am delighted that such a place exists, and seems to be flourishing. I have no doubts that the goals and means by which they are achieved at Shanti Bhavan will make it a model institution on which other such institutions may look. The implications of Shanti Bhavan in the lives of these children will certainly be a contribution to positive social change, without cultural detachment, in India. I admire the institution, those who dedicate their careers to it, and those whose vision prompted such a place. The time I spent there was an experience without comparison and I extend my gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this tremendous project.
Emma Lynne Mecham
23rd February 2001
Note:The management has investigated and found 3 or possibly 4 cases where the care giving staff punished some children harshly with a ruler or a stick, and have been verbally abusive. They have been warned that further abusive practices will be dealt with dismissal from the institution