VOLUNTEER REPORT - Ernest Lee
Let me start off with a complaint. I find a deadline for articulating my experience of spending even one month here at Shanti Bhavan quite inconvenient. First off, the required period of reflection that should precede verbalization needs to be much longer than the time I have before I go. Only after a period, of at least a few days away from here and taking a few moments to look back, would I truly be able to provide a decent testimonial. Secondly, I’d much rather be spending my last day here with the kids.
That having been said let me see what I can do. I only discovered the fruits of volunteer work recently, in the spring of 2003. Although I will not be able to make a career of it, I have been enriched in ways that can not be valued in dollars or rupees. To date this experience is far and away the most memorable.
My dream in life is to travel the world and see all that there is to see. My passion is helping others. After graduating college, I thought, “what better way to spend my time before moving onto higher education than volunteering abroad?” I researched possible destinations and I must admit India never came to mind. For that idea I need to thank my friend Brian for introducing me to this “peaceful place” by way of his relationship with Dr. George.
When I checked out Shanti Bhavan’s website, my excitement grew. It sounded like a perfect place. I was enthusiastic about being a part of the mission, curriculum and well-rounded focus that The George Foundation has set in place. When I finally purchased my travel book for the sub-continent I realized that a month here would not be enough to witness all that India has to offer.
Travelling from New York, the voyage is long and the time difference is huge. One of the biggest challenges is simply adjusting. Perhaps I am an outlier, but it took me almost twice as long as the “one day for each hour time difference” to acclimate to the change in time. Making things tougher are other variations from what I am used to, such as climate and diet. I love the sun, but even in March, when New York still has snow, the intensity of the midday rays this close to the equator, is unbearable. Since about the midway point of my stay I’ve learned to avoid exposure when it is too hot; the scheduled rest time during the hottest part of the day helps in that respect. As far as meals go, it is a difficult transition from my protein-centered dining at home to the vegetarian fare of South India. I struggled mightily at first. In the beginning, the rate at which I began supplementing, if not replacing, meals with my protein bars would leave me with none left before I had to return home. Fortunately, after a couple of weeks my body got used to the options available and more recently I have actually come to enjoy a large portion of the meals. Moreover, I have plenty of protein bars remaining. Pradeep & Co. took good care of us (Brian and I) in the dining hall, and Shanti’s idea of having eggs and oatmeal for breakfast eased our tummies.
Another change from what I am used to is in the living conditions. Lying on a tropical latitude the wildlife here is abundant, beautiful and, at times, a little too up-close and personal. While the flora on the campus is absolutely gorgeous, the fauna I have seen and in some cases shared a room with, have been less aesthetically pleasing. Among the biggest nuisances are the bugs. The barrage of mosquitoes, other biting insects, ants, beetles and bugs I’ve never seen before is incessant. A mosquito net and bug spray is helpful; unfortunately, I found both to be to big a hassle. The small geckos that are everywhere including the outside of our bathroom window are unnerving at first and irritating when they leave excretory gifts on your bed and luggage but their strict diet of bugs, bugs and more bugs make them tolerable. One lizard was a bit too big and was curious enough to try a sealed breakfast bar that I had left on the desk in our room overnight. The spiders I did not mind either as they perform the same function as the smaller reptiles but other arachnids such as scorpions are less desirable. Most recently we have had visits from the tiniest of rodents, no bigger than my thumb. Beyond the roommates of other species, the actual living space, the bed and the bathroom aren’t what they are at home but you get used to it. By no means would I consider the guesthouse, “roughing it.”
Then there are the cultural differences. For instance, the taboo on sunbathing or perhaps more generally, on public partial nudity. As I mentioned, I love the sun; I try to soak it up when I get the chance, as there aren’t many outside the summer months in New York. So if you are planning on getting a tan, expect tan lines and a good old fashion farmer’s tan.
Another taboo is any physical contact between the opposite sex. What Americans view as platonic but affectionate gestures like a hand on the shoulder and pats on the back are loaded with romantic connotations here. On the other hand, the contact among guys here is greater than what you will find in the States.
Making things easier is the staff on-hand. It is quite a luxury to have laundry service seven days a week. It only took a phone call to Ragu at the Foundation House to get our room cleaned any day of the week as well.
The teaching staff is here for the same reason I came, the children. It is hard not to fall in love with them and I am a big softie. My main responsibility was to teach three classes in tandem with Brian. I got to know the 7 th graders best as I taught them both English Literature and Geography for the month. I also taught Geography to the 6 th graders. Neither of these subjects are my forte but I enjoyed the challenge . It is a great feeling to find a way to successfully convey knowledge that a class is having trouble grasping. I also have a new found appreciation for the work that teachers have to put in to prepare lessons, as well as, create, review and grade assignments and exams.
However, it was the time spent outside the classroom that I found most rewarding. Prior to exam week I was allowed to tutor a couple of 7 th and 6 th graders who were having trouble with math for various reasons. It was nostalgic for me to review things like writing algebraic equations from word problems and determining angles involving parallel lines. It is great to see the light bulb go off after working on a problem for some time.
Even more fun for me was story time. For two weeks I read to the younger children before bedtime. Having the children gather ‘round in their pajamas is too cute. I think the single most memorable sight and sound for me is the look of eagerness and suspense built up in a 2 nd grader’s face followed by a “wow” exhaled in unison upon turning the page.
In addition to the academic aspect of life I did my best to oversee rather than instruct during physical education on days when tennis was played. Tennis is a “rich man’s sport” simply for the fact that you can only have so many players on one court and you need a certain number of balls and rackets to practice. While I love the sport and it is a game I think everyone should know it is near to impossible to teach fifteen youngsters or more on one court. More reasonable use of time, facilities and equipment would be to break the classes up into smaller groups. This is especially important with beginners, as building a good foundation with proper mechanics is vital. After a couple of days trying to teach, I just let the kids hit against the wall three at a time with other kids acting as ball boys as they were used to doing. My only addition was to have the remaining students take part in court work drills so that they would at least get some exercise rather than just stand around waiting for their three minute shift at the wall. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the children actually enjoyed it.
Then there are the experiences beyond the campus. I did not understand the importance of visiting the local villages until I saw it for myself. While helping out Baldev Medical Center with their de-worming and AIDS awareness projects I saw first hand the squalor these people had to endure. Yet, it will be hard to forget the stark contrast of the bright colored clothes the children wore against the drab colors that surrounded them. The ultimate revelation was that the majority of the students at Shanti Bhavan came from homes and villages just like the ones I visited. Furthermore, the caste system is still strongly rooted in Indian society, especially in the more rural areas like this part of Tamil Nadu and around seventy percent of the student body come from the Dalite, or “Untouchable” class. The “Untouchables” are so low that they are below the caste system and are literally viewed as untouchable in the physical sense. Some doctors will drape a cloth over a patient’s arm before taking his pulse if he is Dalite. I do not know what kind of contribution I was able to make in this aspect of my stay here but I certainly take away quite bit.
Another event I will not forget is the chariot festival in a nearby town. Because we were accompanied by Tommy, one of the facilities managers and a good friend, and coming from Shanti Bhavan we were given the honor of taking part in worship both in front of the chariot and inside the temple.
At the same time, nothing is perfect. The rural location of the school creates a wonderful atmosphere for children to grow, develop and learn. Yet, if I had made this trip alone I believe I would have felt rather isolated. The only contact from within the confines is a landline that has a spotty connection, and the time difference makes calling home even more challenging. I hope, to everyone’s benefit here, that The George Foundation will be able to improve the infrastructure and provide access to the Internet on a broad scale. Of course, consistent electricity and improved phone lines are probably higher priorities.
I also found the rigidity to which the children are kept to their schedules hard to comprehend. It was frustrating to me if not the students when they had to go to prep class, something along the lines of study hall, as we are about to finally solve a math problem during individual, one-on-one tutoring. Rather than finish up a homework problem with me and understand what they are doing, the students have to pick-up and go to do homework on their own with no guarantee that they will make it to the end point successfully. It is either that or start again the next day. Still, I know little about boarding schools and how they operate. Most likely, the order and formality followed here is in place for a good reason.
Another point I’d like to make, one that is no epiphany is that I fear that these children are growing up without enough male role models and experiences outside of Shanti Bhavan. I will venture to say that the biggest impact Brian and I may have on these children comes simply from being young men. I know in my own life, the presence of my tennis coach really shaped my personal development. I also know that a male influence not only weighs on the boys but the girls as well and not just the adolescents but the younger children too. I realize that there are more women in teaching and taking part in volunteering and there is no obvious solution, but I implore any man reading this to seriously consider spending some time here. The impact you have will be reciprocated if not in the same way.
The second point has no easy solution either. Both the location and the cost of field trips are prohibitive to learning outside the classroom. Nevertheless, I think it is important that the children see what the world around them is like. Even what volunteers from abroad tell them can not compare to experiencing things for themselves. I hope the funding for more frequent field trips can be found in the future.
I also do not understand the investment in an art museum. The idea itself is admirable but when it is used as a storage space I have to question the timing of its construction. On the other hand, the restaurant for the staff is a great idea. The food is rather tasty and the change in atmosphere from the dining hall is a good way to end the week. As much as I love kids, everyone needs a break if only long enough for a meal and some dancing.
All that aside, I can not stress enough what a positive experience this has been overall. The exuberance and energy of youth is utterly rejuvenating. Understanding what The George Foundation has done for these children by seeing where they come from and where they are now is amazing. The friendliness of the staff is reassuring.
I would like to thank Dr. George, Mr. Jude, Ms. Deny, Mrs. Law, Ms. Beena, Ms. Shanti, Raghu, Tommy, Nurse Annie, the entire staff and of course the children of Shanti Bhavan. In a short month you have enriched my life in ways I probably do not even realize yet and given me memories I will not soon forget.
I hope I have been able to bring my own kind of energy to intermingle with yours, provoke thought, stir curiosity and a desire to learn, and most importantly share my affection and love with you all.
Ernest B. Lee,
Comments by Shanti Bhavan management:
1) Volunteers are required to submit their report prior to the end of their term at Shanti Bhavan. This policy was instituted following failures on the part of some prior volunteers to submit their reports after leaving, despite repeated requests.
2) Swim wear is permitted at our swimming facility, and not in other areas of the school. Also, while Indians are known for their hospitality and warmth towards foreigners, public display of affections is not customary. We expect volunteers to respect host country norms.
3) As in any tropical country, India has an abundance of God’s creatures, both small and large. While the cleaning staff routinely sweep and mop the facilities, we do not “sanitize” all rooms of every insect. While the windows have mess shutters, insects do get in through tiled roof and when doors are left open. However, most bugs, including mosquitoes, are generally harmless (no malaria cases noted in the area recently). Volunteers hopefully learn from the experience of living in harmony with the nature at Shanti Bhavan.
4) A majority of the people living in surrounding villages are generally poor, though their living standard has improved considerably as a result of our foundation’s social work over the past several years. Volunteers who wish to make financial contributions toward poverty eradication may contact the foundation HO.