Volunteer Report: Tiffany O’Donnell

I enjoyed my stay at Shanti Bhavan very much. The atmosphere at the school is friendly and safe, and it is difficult not to feel good while you are there. It really is world class. Compared to the government school I visited in a nearby village, Shanti Bhavan is a heaven. The quality of education is outstanding, due mostly to the diligent efforts of the teaching staff to make learning “fun” (which, I am under the impression, is a somewhat unexplored concept in most government schools). The grounds are beautifully kept and things seem to run smoothly because of excellent administration and cooperation. It is definitely a healthy learning environment for students and teachers alike. I learned very much, not only specifically about
Shanti Bhavan, but also about the social issues plaguing rural India and about measures that can be taken to lighten these tensions.

The accommodations were fine. At first I was in a room with a tiled roof and little critters could get in, but as soon as I informed the administrators, my room was switched and there was no other problem. The food was generally quite good. I kept a small stash of food in my room or in the refrigerator in the lounge because sometimes I felt quite hungry between meals (my system did not respond well to eating so much rice). The administrators were very accommodating in seeing that I had chapati if I was having trouble with the rice. To me, most of the curries and sauces tasted the same, and it was fine. I did not like breakfast usually. I found the hot breakfasts with chutney quite heavy and sometimes a little sickening in the morning.

The staff was fantastic. All of the teachers were very friendly and receptive. It must be difficult to have a volunteer around because you have to alter your schedule to accommodate extra activities, but everyone was very supportive. Many teachers were as eager to learn as the students were. They are always looking for new teaching resources so they were very receptive to my ideas, and I also learned a great deal from them. The teachers really care for the students; it is very evident. The school runs under very strict guidelines, which is necessary for productivity, but at times I felt that some teachers had an unclear idea of when to employ discipline and when to let things slide. Children need to laugh and play a little bit, and since their schedules are such that free time is very limited, small disruptions of chatter and laughter in class are to be expected. Sometimes the discipline that ensued would be far more disruptive to the class than the original outburst (it was never abusive; I just found that sometimes, the reprimanding was a bit severe for the crime committed). But it is easy to see that the teachers’ actions are always governed by good intentions. Their main concern is to help the children, as well as their peers. They were always willing to answer any questions I had about the school or curriculum and to give me a hand when I asked. Whenever I had more serious questions or requests, I felt completely comfortable going to Mrs. Law, Miss Beena, or Miss Shanti for guidance. All of these women are extremely busy, but always make you feel as though they have all the time in the world for you. I really appreciated this.

There are over 150 children in this school, and they all expect you to remember their names so you have to be very attentive. They are not afraid of authority, but they remain very respectful and loving children. From the minute I arrived, the questions started and they never stopped. The children are curious about everything and some things they ask are very surprising. You really have to be on your toes. Most of the students are very bright and wise beyond their years because of what they have seen and experienced in their lifetimes. They are very open and, for the most part, happy to discuss their home situations and their families (as long as you are willing to reciprocate). For a westerner, some of the things they share with you are difficult to imagine and may be very sad, but you act as though you hear these things everyday and you are un-phased because, for them, that’s life. They taught me as much as I taught them, and they were grateful for every little bit I had to give. They are really an unforgettable bunch, and extremely thoughtful, sensitive, and loving. They really won me over.

I do plan to return to Shanti Bhavan (it has cast its spell). Next time I will come more equipped with photographs, music, videos, books, and other things that would interest the children. They are grateful the most grateful children I have ever met, which makes me wish I could have even done more. This experience has definitely left a mark in me, and I am very grateful to everyone who made it so enjoyable, especially the students. The hardest part of my experience at Shanti Bhavan was saying goodbye.

Tiffany O’Donnell
University of Montreal, Canada

August 6, 2004

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