Holiday with a difference

Debarati Palit Singh
Saturday, 30 June 2018

Volunteering vacations are becoming a new trend in the country. Debarati Palit Singh talks to organisations and volunteers who opt for such breaks, and come back enriched and enlightened

Jayesh Mathur was between switching jobs. He was on a month’s break but instead of sitting at home or heading to his favourite holiday destination, Mathur decided to go on a volunteering vacation. He spent almost a month teaching unprivileged children far off in the North East. There are several others like Mathur who, instead of packing their bags and flying off to exotic locations, prefer to spend their vacation in a more productive manner. 

Volunteering vacation or voluntourism, which involves travelling and charity work, like teaching children, helping towards nature conservation and so on, is a popular trend abroad and is catching up in India too. It gives you a chance to work at the grassroots level, experience the local flavour and do your bit for society. Goes without saying it also gives you a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness. 

Though the number of Indians opting for voluntourism is much less compared to foreigners coming to India for the same, the tribe is growing. There are several social organisations across the country who welcome volunteers working with them over weekends, for a week or even a month or more. The organisations work in different sectors and depending on a person’s interest one can choose.  

Some of the well-known organisations include Spiti Ecosphere, which is a social enterprise that aims to create sustainable livelihoods that are linked to nature and culture conservation; R.O.S.E — Rural Organisation for Social Elevation, that works at grassroots level, with an aim to improve the health, education and quality of life of the rural poor in this region; AAROHI, which is a non-profit, grassroots organisation committed to need-based and people-planned integrated rural development in central Himalayan region of Uttarakhand; India; SECMOL — The Students’ Educational And Cultural Movement Of Ladakh, which runs activities that range from solar alternatives to youth camps, educational reforms and ecotourism; Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team (ANET) which works on environmental conservation and community building work; Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network that works towards conservation and creating awareness about the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle, among others. What you really need is zeal and interest to work with such organisations. 

‘They Contribute in whichever way they can’

“We get 600 volunteers a year who come to work with us for two-three weeks on an average,” says Dorji Kyi, director, LHA Charitable Trust, Dharamsala. LHA, is a non-profit organisation which provides vital resources for Tibetan refugees, the local Indian population and people from the Himalayan region. They offer a variety of programmes and services including language classes, computer skills courses, medicine and clothing distribution, vocational training, health and environmental education, cultural exchange, free books and so on. 

There many who just drop in and work with them over the weekend. “Most of the volunteers teach conversational English to the monks,” Kyi says adding that usually one doesn’t need any particular training to conduct the classes but some do. “In some projects, we do need professionals. For example, professionals are required to teach a language or computer skills. Then there are many who help in conducting surveys for which we also need someone with experience.” 

Most Indian volunteers join in summer. “The good thing is that most volunteers come with the mindset to contribute in whichever they can, which is great. If they have specific skill sets, it’s even more helpful and beneficial to the community,” she adds.  

‘I get pleasure from helping others’

Taking a sabbatical from work, Anita Paul decided to travel to India on a volunteering vacation. She has been volunteering with LHA for almost three months and conducting Intermediate English classes, plus ad hoc conversation classes and private tutoring. “I was working in the UK for many years, then I decided that I needed to do something more fruitful, so I decided to travel and volunteer in India,” says Paul, who has to plan the lessons and syllabus, among other things.   

Though she is here on a long-term break, there are many who come for a few weeks. “It’s a great opportunity to help and interact with the monks and refugees at the centre. There are many university students and working professionals who come here and spend a few weeks. It’s a great experience because the monks are amazing and interacting with them is even more insightful. You get to learn about their culture. I am here because I wanted to get more from life. Happiness is not just about money and qualifications. Helping others makes me happy,” she says.  

‘Indians have to concentrate on daily survival’

“If you come to volunteer with us and can adjust culturally, then it becomes easier,” says Charu Goswami, director, Operation, Ladli. “Those who come from abroad get a shock to find that our school has no electricity and is located next to a garbage dump. But if the volunteers are joyous, friendly, cooperative, willing to learn from our children and have a commitment to work, there is no problem,” he says.  

Ladli, works on vocational training programme for abused, orphaned and destitute children. The NGO, which is located in Jaipur works with children who are into begging, child labour, or even prostitution. Here at the NGO, they learn to make jewellery and handicrafts. The children are also taught Hindi, English, art, dance and yoga, and provided nutrition, medical check-ups and counselling. They also have a formal school for rural and urban children in the outskirts of the city, and vocational and computer training centres. Goswami says that because the age group of children is between 6 and 18 years, there is a lot of scope to work. 

Most of the volunteers who work with them are 26 to 34 years of age. “We prefer volunteers who are willing to work with us for a minimum of two-three months because it takes a few days to understand the background of the children. But we also welcome those who want to work with us for a few weeks. If someone is dedicated, they can achieve a lot in 10 days,” says Goswami adding that many who join them as volunteers are on a sabbatical or in between vacations.  

He says that there is no denying that the maximum number of volunteers who work with them are foreigners. “If we get 50 foreigners, we get 15 to 20 Indian volunteers and I don’t blame them because they have their own set of problems. They cannot spend too much time with us because they have their own priorities. Indians are more focused on their jobs and cannot take breaks. They have to concentrate on their daily survival because they do not get social benefits and securities unlike foreigners. They have to work for their own survival first. In spite of all these challenges, we get many students and corporates to volunteer,” he adds. 

‘Volunteerism is for mutual enrichment’

Medha Tengshe, founder, Sadhana Village, a registered charitable trust working in the fields of mental disabilities, education, and rural development, calls volunteering vacation a new wave. “It’s a welcome change. Most of the volunteers have ideas in their mind and are committed. This should be like a movement and more people should join as volunteers,” says Tengshe who has been running the organisation for the past 24 years in the outskirts of Pune. 

Like most organisations, Sadhana Village too receives a great number of volunteers from abroad. “They are more adaptable to the situation and society in general. Social work is something which should be taught from a young age. But we, as a society, aren’t taught to concentrate on social work because parents are scared about what will happen, if their children get carried away with social work and leave their jobs,” she says. 

But the mindset is gradually changing. “We get a considerable number of volunteers from the IT industry. However, there’s a stigma about doing physical work and getting our hands dirty in soil. That said, those who join us do have the intention of doing their bit for society,” adds Tengshe. 
Volunteerism changes one’s way of thinking and teaches us empathy. “The same changed my perspective towards life and offered me a better understanding of human nature. I honestly feel that one should do volunteerism not just for society, but also for mutual enrichment and mutual development,” she quips. 

‘I have learnt to be patient’

Lisa Toemmes from Germany, who is in India on a study break, after her graduation, has been volunteering with Sadhana Village for a few months. At the school, Toemmes has been working with special children but when she had first joined the organisation, she faced culture shock. “Initially, it was a bit difficult, but now that I have been working here for sometime, I am used to it and cannot imagine saying goodbye to everyone,” she says. 

Working at the school has taught Toemmes several aspects of life. “I have learnt to be patient, come to realise that not everything can go as planned and I have learnt to laugh with these people,” she says. 
But what prompted her to come to India in the first place? “I always wanted to come to India and from the beginning I was clear that I wanted to work with children. Once here, I just went with the flow and everything happened organically,” she says.
There are several memories that Toemmes says she will take home. “The most memorable part is the love the special children have for everyone, and of course, the community life,” she says.

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