This summer myself and two of my classmates volunteered for six weeks in a Residential Home in a Loreto School in Sealdah, Calcutta. I'm studying Social Work and have always wanted to go to a developing country to work with the poor, so this was my chance to get my hands dirty. Before we left, I held three church gate collections and raised a generous €2,240 which I gave as a donation to the school from St. Columbas Parish when I arrived in Calcutta. This was gratefully acknowledged as donations are badly needed to keep Sr. Cyril's great work going.
Sr. Cyril is the principal of the school and the founder of many community projects throughout Calcutta. Of Irish descent she is a nun in her mid seventies who strives for change and to challenge injustice in the abolishment of poverty, she is truly inspiring and loved like a mother by all the pupils of the school.
My first day was totally overwhelming after a full twenty four hours of travelling, stepping out of the plane and facing the tremendous heat, it was like having a hair dryer blasted in my face and then trying to discern everything I was seeing in my mind, from sharing a plane with rich Indian men wearing Nike runners and sporting Mac Laptops to then facing the harsh reality of a city that has an 80% poverty rate, I was truly stumped. My two friends and I were collected by the school mini bus and brought to Gomes House, quite a famous guesthouse were Loreto volunteers usually stay, famous because Mother Teresa began her work here in the top storey of the house. The accommodation was clean and fairly basic which was perfectly suitable for the experience I wanted to and was supposed to have.
The House was a two minute walk from the School and on this walk I saw the most interesting sights, stalls upon stall of fruit and vegetables, men shaving customers for 2 cents a shave and all sorts of local delicacies. At the school I was given a Volunteers Introductory talk from Sr. Cyril. The main thing I was told was to give the children all the affection I could muster, Sr. Said "You come from countries where you're told not to touch a child and there is strict child protection involved in anything child related, but here it's the opposite if a child needs a hug give them one and don't let go until they're ready." I suppose the difference here is that western children have loving families and don't need affection in the way these Indian children do.
I mostly worked with the Rainbow children, they are called Rainbows because of the likeness between a child and a Rainbow, they both bring joy into people's lives and have something wondrous, quite indescribable about them.
The Rainbow Home was located on the fifth storey of the Loreto School. This Home consists of two large rooms, where each night sleeping mats are brought out and two hundred and fifty children aged three to eighteen sleeps on the floor. Along the walls there are lockers which store each child's few pairs of clothes, school uniform and school bag. The children receive three daily meals, medical attention and recreational activities. These are children who would have previously lived on the streets and were admitted to the school because either their parent/ guardian could no longer take care of them or they were found abandoned by a staff member from the school. Each child has a really traumatic story and is desperate for love and affection. They especially adore western volunteers and are very intrigued to hear about our lives.
A normal day for a Rainbow child is to wake up at five, have a shower and maybe go back to sleep until eight when volunteers come in to practice English with them before breakfast which is at ten am. Then it's off to school for half ten, they return around four thirty have snacks and free time until five thirty, study until seven thirty dinner is from eight to nine followed by bedtime stories and in bed by nine thirty. I worked around this time table and helped teach in Kindergarten and Special Needs during school hours.
I got really close to some of the Rainbows and had many interesting conversations with different girls about their lives and feelings, one in particular left a lasting impression on me. One day whilst helping Soma, a seventeen year old girl with her English homework, she burst out that she was really unhappy in the Home. For about an hour she explained to me why. She said she had no friends there, because she had nothing in common with the other girls of her age. She remarked that her circumstances are so much tougher then theirs, when in fact each child has a lot of trauma to deal with, one traumatic story is quite incomparable with another when every child is ill-equipped to dealing with their own pain. Soma however complained that the others could giggle over boys and movie stars while she has to focus entirely on school work so she can get a well paid job. Soma is in such strife, because her Mum is in a mental institution and her Dad has separated from his wife and wants nothing to do with his children. Soma feels the weight that these "embarrassments" have brought to her family, in conservative Indian society these are indeed seen as scandals. So now, she feels enormous pressure to obtain good grades and a highly paid job so she can pay her Mums medical bills and support herself and her younger sister, who is also in the Home. Soma kept telling me just how ignorant I was, how I couldn't possible relate to her and soon when I returned to rich Ireland, I'd forget her completely. This was quite confronting to hear and partially true, I don't know what it's like to be her, my life in ways has been a lot easier than hers, but I'm as human as she is and know what it's like to feel pain, loneliness and pressure in school to do well. She didn't quite believe any of this though, so I needed to make a second attempt at comforting her. I asked her what made her happy and she said reading, which wasn't much ground for me to work off in advising her in dealing with her suffering. I really wanted to ask her did she have faith in the Lord but wasn't sure if this was appropriate for me to say. Anyway I did and she said she often "goes and cries to Jesus in the prayer room". I was delighted and quite relieved to hear this, and was able to reassure how this is what God wants, his children to cast their burdens on him so he can be our comfort and strength and how people will let her down but Gods love is unfailing. By the end of our conversation she was reassured and happier, but I really don't know how much she got out of it, maybe I was the greater benefactor however I know she appreciated that she had someone who listened to her.
I would encourage anyone and everyone to consider volunteering, donating money to Overseas NGO's, thinking, praying for and remembering developing countries. It can seem a very daunting undertaking but it's actually such a privilege to go and see the reality of poverty and how two thirds of the world is living, literally in the gutters. It's so easy for us to get caught up in materialism and become desensitised, but we have all the power, all the resources to make a difference but quite often we become desensitised. "The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak", The Spirit is our greatest defender.