#64: Volunteer abroad. (Volunteering at Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.)
Volunteering at Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.
My name is Valerie.
I am 31 years old.
My favorite color is green.
My favorite fruit is bananas.
My favorite vegetable is eggplant.
My favorite animal is a dog.
Today my feeling is worried.
Every day we sat in a circle with our Sambhali Trust butterfly class and one by one we would each introduce ourselves, say what our favorite things are, let everyone know how we’re feeling that day.
Some of the kids were pros, could rattle off lists with little worry. Some often forgot the word favorite, telling us “my animal is” or “my fruit is.” Some needed a lot of coaxing, a lot of explanation in Hindi, to squeak the foreign words out word by word. And then there was me, who lied at almost every step, because, on the first day, I panicked.
I said green instead of pink because I didn’t see any pink in the room to point to to illustrate the color. I said dog instead of monkey, even though the dogs in India scare me to death, because Jaime said monkey right before me and I didn’t want to say the same animal twice in a row. I said banana instead of strawberry because I didn’t know if it was a fruit they had. I often said that my feeling was happy, even though I wasn’t sure I was.
My first three nights in Setrawa I cried myself to sleep. Every moment I debated back and forth over whether I should just leave. I felt overwhelmed and out of place and uncomfortable. I felt as if I would be wasting both my time and theirs.
The worst part of it all was that I had to constantly lie. Before we came, Jaime and I were told that we should tell everyone that we’re brother and sister. It made things easier since it’s frowned upon for men and women who are not married or related to walk around together, not to mention share a room. The whole thing was laughable, really. Me with blonde hair and blue eyes. Jaime, hispanic with dark hair and dark eyes, incapable of holding back his Texas y’alls or saying “America” without a Mexican accent. I often wondered if anyone possibly bought it. It made things more difficult for me because I could never truly be myself. The kids would often ask Jaime questions first: where are you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What is you father’s name? What is your mother’s name? And he would answer. And I would have to go along. It made everything harder because I couldn’t really talk about my own life, I couldn’t show photos of my home or family when they asked to see them, I had to give up myself. I think it really stunted me from forming any sort of bond.
And then there was the fact that I’ve never been good at teaching. Or good with kids. Fears I told you about when I first got there. I was really, truly, ready to just pack up and leave.
Ultimately, though, three things kept me in Setrawa.
- It was cheap. This might sound like the ultimate selfish reason, but this volunteer project was a major stroke to my travel budget. All of our housing and meals for the two weeks there came to about $40. Add to that only about $1 more a day for internet, sodas, water, and cookies and we were still barely spending $4 a day. My budget needed the break and I knew if I left I’d be spending at the very least three times that amount, probably more.
- Heather, a teacher, my old roommate, one of my best friends, posted this on my Facebook wall:
Obviously I’m going to be encouraging. Everytime you’ve taken yourself out of your comfort zone, you’ve gotten better. It just takes time. You’re doing a wonderful thing that I know is hard for you. I’ve been doing this for years, and its still hard. I’ve spent the last month second guessing (third, fourth) everything I’ve done, I get stomach pains walking into school because I never know how the students will be, and all you can do is hope for the best and know you are trying your hardest. Plus, at least your kids want to learn. Go Val!
And she was right. I’ve spent so much time over the past six years pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Tackling challenge after challenge. And I always come out better for it. This was just one more thing.
- On the third day, this little one hugged me goodbye. I was already falling in love with the children.
And so, I stayed.
Jaime and I spent the early afternoons with a small group of young children in the butterfly class. Each class started with hygiene: brushing teeth, washing hair and arms and legs and faces, combing, picking out lice. And then we’d do circle time followed by a lesson of some sort. On the days when the actual teacher didn’t show up Jaime would teach them colors or shapes while I’d sit in back with the youngest kids going over the alphabet. Even that was a challenge as I had a hard time trying to explain when someone would mix up W and M or would stop after H or would start writing in capitals halfway through the lower case exercise. The class would usually end with some sort of game or a story, and then some time for play.
In the later afternoons we’d help out with the peacock class: an after school program. I mostly sat at the back and helped the less-advanced students catch up on things like the “name of weeks” and “name of months” and “name of colours.” FYI, according to the kids, and the teacher, “bright” is a color. Jaime and I still aren’t sure exactly what color that is supposed to be.
On the Saturday we led a workshop, making butterflies out of recycled plastic bottles and cardboard. It went over pretty well, though I was a little shocked when we were told that some of the younger ones couldn’t participate because it was too complicated. Especially since all it really involved was gluing fabric on cardboard (I pre-cut all of the wings) and, at the very least, they could have just colored the paper that wrapped around the body. I think anyone could have done that. But anyways. The kids worked in groups of four and glued and colored. We ended up with some pretty nice looking bugs.
In both classes the kids were obsessed with sharpening pencils and erasing. If the tip of a pencil wasn’t in a perfect point they would raise their hand for a sharpener. If I refused because the tip was perfectly useable they would break it. They couldn’t move on unless there were no stray marks on the page and unless everything was complete. When I was administering a test it took me 15 minutes to get one kid to move on past writing his name at the top. And then he would call me over after finishing every answer.
It was exhausting.
I never really found my groove teaching. Jaime did most of the actual work while I stood by to put toothpaste on toothbrushes, sharpen pencils, read stories when need be. I felt bad, though he said he didn’t mind. And, hey, I was only there because of him in the first place. But I tried. I did what I could. And I guess that is the best I could do.
Over the last year, numerous people have suggested that I get TEFLed and teach English overseas as a way to extend my travels. I always told them that it wasn’t an option for me. And I think I proved that to be true.
While by the end of it I got better, I never was fully comfortable, and I think even if I kept going, I never really would be.
So no, I had no revelations that this was something I could handle for any longer. And no, I won’t miss teaching, or small town life. I’m not quite sure that I learned anything new about myself or grew in any way. And I’m not really sure I had any impact on any of the kids.
But I made it through. And sometimes that’s enough.
And, even if I hated teaching them, the kids, I will miss…
Sambhali Setrawa Empowerment Centre provides educational opportunities to children in rural India. While Jaime and I only stayed two weeks, filling in a gap, most volunteers stay for at least a month, often three or even six. While I wasn’t the right fit for the position, it was definitely a wonderful organization and cause. If you are better at teaching and with kids than I am, I would highly recommend the program.
Volunteer Abroad was #64 on my life list…OK, it wasn’t really but I swore that was on there at some point so I replaced something I no longer want to do with it. Deal.