Sambhali Trust, Setrawa

The next two weeks…

I'll be volunteering in India. And I don't think I'm right for the job.

This wasn’t my plan. I’m going to tell you this upfront.

It’s not that I don’t want to volunteer. It’s not that I don’t think that this is a worthy cause or an amazing organization. Because I do. And it is.

It’s that I don’t think I am the right volunteer for this project.

It’s not you, it’s me.

When Jaime picked it, because his friend had participated before, I said OK. Because it is a good cause, because I do want to do some good in this world, because I didn’t want to find something else to do or be alone in India for two weeks.

So we left early on Friday to teach local children in Setrawa, India.

Now, I’d rather clean toilets than teach children. It’s not anything against the kids. I love kids. In theory. But I’m not used to them. I don’t know how to interact with them. And teaching anyone anything makes me nervous. School of any sort makes me nervous.

I was the girl who never volunteered to go to the blackboard. Who was always too scared to raise her hand in class. Who got low participation marks in every subject.

It’s not you, it’s me.

As soon as Jaime and I arrived we were thrown into things: coming to the school in the middle of the “butterfly” class for untouchables who had never before attended school.

The children were lovely and attentive and eager. They were simultaneously thrilled to be learning, to be showing off their skills and fascinated by the two new Westerners present.

But when we sat down in a circle for share time – sharing our favorite colors, animals, fruits – I panicked because, when put on the spot, I can never come up with answers to things. Yes, even things as simple as “My favorite fruit is…”

And when the students were practicing their capital letters I had no idea how to explain to a girl that she’d mixed up the placement of W and X. Or that there is more to the alphabet after H.

How am I supposed to teach a child anything?

It’s not you, it’s me.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

After class, Jaime and I were introduced to the local woman we’d be staying with and toured our new home.

We were set up with two cots in a room that almost looks to be the kitchen. There’s a thick concrete counter, there are boxes of water jugs, tea cups, metal canisters.

They showed us the squat toilet, explaining that we’d have to keep our toilet paper in a plastic bag and then burn it all at the end of our stay.

The English woman who was showing us around kept asking if we were OK with everything. And we were. Honest. I really don’t care where I sleep or where I pee as long as I feel welcome and secure. And I felt both right away with this woman and her family.

But later that night, when the family and friends – a seemingly endless amount of people – wanted to constantly ask us questions, when I had to continue to lie that Jaime was my brother (I’m really wondering if anyone possibly believes that), when I couldn’t go into my room without a knock from another child wanting to see what I was doing, when I just wanted a moment alone, a moment of peace, I was just overwhelmed.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

In the afternoon we visited another village. One full of children who had no education and who were not used to seeing westerners. The children spent the entire time jumping in front of my camera, pulling my arm, patting my butt. I felt claustrophobic and violated and when I got into the jeep heading home I couldn’t hold back my tears.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

We arrived back at the school towards the end of the afternoon class. These were children who were in school and came to learn more after. They are aged 5 to 15 and are of all different levels.

I wandered between the class’s sub-sections, observing, not quite sure what to do with myself, with them. I looked at the whiteboard and wasn’t even sure I could answer any of the questions.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

These next two weeks are going to be hard for me. I know that. It will be a test of will, patience, intelligence. None of which are qualities I think I have. And my introverted personality does not lend well to constantly being around curious children. Or curious adults.

Jaime and I have already discussed the option that I could leave early if I’m not feeling comfortable. I do not have to stay. And it’s an option that I’m already weighing. But, at the same time, I’m still not used to India. It’s still not a place I feel OK in. So my other option is to take a bus back, by myself, and what, stay in a room doing nothing for a week? So, I don’t know.

I don’t feel at all comfortable in this situation, I’m just not good with kids or good at teaching. But I also know that it’s not about me, it’s about them. These kids who are being given a chance. And so I’m going to try, though I don’t know how long I’ll be able to last, or how useful I can possibly be…

Sambhali Trust in Setrawa, India.

Hi, I'm Val. I spent most of my 20s in a standstill, unable to pick which path in life I wanted to take. I wanted the nomadic life of a traveler but also wanted the husband, the condo, and the kitten. Unable to decide which life I wanted more, I did nothing. When I turned 30 I’d had enough of putting my life on hold and decided to start “choosing my figs.” So, I quit my job, bought a one-way ticket to Europe, and traveled for three years. Now I'm back in Chicago, decorating my apartment in all the teal, petting my cats, and planning my next adventure.

  • matilda
    March 20, 2012at1:42 pm

    i wholly agree with your friend. you’re an amazing person and you can absolutely do this. why you should or shouldn’t do it has nothing to do with your capability, only your own will and strength. you could do a lot for these kids, by being there alone, and i too think this would do a lot for you.
    love from sweden.

  • Ali
    March 20, 2012at1:23 pm

    First of all, why wouldn’t anyone believe that you and Jaime are siblings? I mean really, fair skinned girl with dark blond/light brown hair and dark skinned, dark haired boy? You could be twins!

    This does sound really hard. I couldn’t do it, and I know I wouldn’t even try, wouldn’t even go to some small village in the middle of India. But you’re there, you have Jaime for support and a shoulder to cry on, and as much as I’m sure you hate hearing this (b/c I know I hate it when people say it to me) it’ll probably be really good for you. Like you said, most of these kids have absolutely no education. So any little thing you can teach them is progress. Maybe they only know 8 letters now but by the end of the 2 weeks they’ll know 12 or 15.

    And for you, it’s always the hardest situations that do the most for us, right? Maybe you’ll get through this and realize you CAN teach someone something. You will probably realize you’re much, much stronger than you think you are. Remember your first month or so in Europe when you were miserable and weren’t sure if you were going to make it? You pushed through that and then started having a great time.

    You can do this. You might not like it, you might not ever want to do anything like this again, you might not feel comfortable with it the entire two weeks, but you can do it. And you have your “brother” to help you out when you need a laugh 🙂 But if you still decide you really can’t handle being there, that’s ok too. You have to do what feels right for you. But I think you can make it through this just like you’ve made it through everything else.

  • Kieu ~ GQ trippin
    March 21, 2012at10:29 am

    Oh, Val.. I totally know how you’re feeling. I had about 2 meltdowns since my time here. India has challenged me in ways I never imagine. I’m so proud of you and Jaime for volunteering. I don’t know that I could to be honest.

    No matter what decision you make, stay or leave, you know nobody’s going to judge you for that. Do what you feel is right for you.

    Gerard and I are back in Delhi. Leaving for Thailand in 2 days so if you change your mind, I know your “brother” won’t mind either, meet us. 😉

    Chin up and I wish you all the best!

  • Kent
    March 21, 2012at10:37 am

    Wow – love this post! I think it touches on a lot of feelings that I had in a similar situation.

    First things first… take care of you! Whatever that means. If you aren’t doing the right thing for yourself, you can’t possibly do the right thing for anyone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean give up or leave, it just means do whatever you have to do to take care of you.

    And whatever that means is 100% OK.

  • 30HomeGames
    March 27, 2012at4:03 am

    There’s no harm in seeing and feeling something for yourself and deciding its not for you. Things do become easier over time but you should feel proud that you were openminded and willing to go this far to know for yourself.

  • Heather
    March 27, 2012at9:28 am

    I’ve always liked your honesty, writing, and photos, Val. Thanks for sharing about the volunteer experience. I’ve been reading Jaime’s updates on FB and Twitter and knew I needed to catch up on your India posts.

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