VOLUNTEER REPORT - Jean Koff
I only spent a month as a volunteer at Shanti Bhavan, yet I am already looking forward to my return to this school, though that opportunity may not present itself for many years. Each aspect of Shanti Bhavan combines to offer a truly rewarding experience: the campus is serenely picturesque, its buildings open and inviting as well as practical; the faculty and staff extend a similar candor and friendliness—I remember feeling at home by the third day of my stay. Then there are of course the children, an assembly of students who consistently amazed me with their positive energy, bright talent, and zeal for learning. It is often hard to believe that these children, thriving under the George Foundation's mission to provide them with instruction and nourishment of the mind, body and spirit, hail from the poorest of poor families in neighboring villages. Such an enthusiastic group of learners within this “haven of peace” creates a near-utopian atmosphere for volunteer teachers.
I arrived at Shanti Bhavan unsure of what I would teach; I had listed my topics of interest and expertise in my application, but the administrators had not specified in which subjects they would need my services the most. Although I coped with the materials available, I feel that I could have developed much more comprehensive lesson plans had I been able to prepare them in advance in the United States and bring over helpful teaching tools. Since Shanti Bhavan relies heavily on charitable donations for school supplies, there are some gaps in the materials teachers have at their disposal. For instance, the school had no middle school biology textbooks yet, though I believe it will receive some in an upcoming shipment. Items such as computer programs, CDs, videocassettes, DVDs, sheet music, and of course, books, all would have been easily packed into my suitcase had I known of the school's need before my departure. This is not to say that Shanti Bhavan's facilities are ill equipped: on the contrary, I was impressed by the selection of books (reference and literature) in the library and by the computer labs that students use every day. I quickly adjusted to the absence of internet access (one must venture an hour by bus into the town of Hosur during the weekend to surf the net), and I am told that the school should obtain wireless access within a few months.
As far as accommodations go, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of comfort I enjoyed at Shanti Bhavan. I shared a bedroom and bathroom (both very clean) with two other volunteers, and we remained grateful for warm showers and the agreeable climate. For the most part, screens on the windows and careful attention to quickly shut our door kept out mosquitoes, but when they did at one point become a bit more numerous, the facilities staff sprayed our room, which immediately allayed the problem. We could send in our laundry to be hand-washed every morning, and a housekeeper cleaned our room each weekend. The food served in the dining hall five times a day was, though occasionally a bit spicy, quite tasty and satisfying. If ever any of us were unable to eat the food, or felt that we were missing out on key nutrients, the facilities director was only too happy to arrange for diet supplements or less-spicy alternatives. To ensure that we received enough protein, for instance, we were served a hardboiled egg with breakfast. In addition, we were given fresh fruit (mangoes, custard apples, and figs) each week to eat at our leisure. Although we ate a LOT of rice and curry at Shanti Bhavan (and of course I often pined for the familiar food of home), I always found the meals both appetizing and gratifying.I could pack this closing paragraph with clichés about learning as much from the children as they did from me—and they would all be true, but instead I will just reiterate what a happy, stimulating environment Shanti Bhavan provides for teachers and students alike. The kids are eager to learn whatever you are eager to teach them, which sets the stage for a fruitful exchange of knowledge and culture. I hope my time at Shanti Bhavan will not be just a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because I feel that the lives and futures of these children have become inextricably woven with my own, and I want so badly to witness their continuation on the path to growth and success. The mission of this organization is truly a noble one, and I am proud to have contributed to it in whatever small way I could.
12th July, 2005