I’ve always been deeply fascinated by the idea of volunteering; I believe that by giving some of my time to people in need, I’ll be helping them greatly. It’s an incredible feeling when you realize that not only do you have the ability to do something, but that you have actually converted this ability into action towards making a difference. It’s a way of getting bragging rights, and of doing something noble and commendable. It’s what everyone has to do to get into a good college — the more you do of it, the better it is for your resume, obviously — and the more you do of it, the easier it is to understand why it’s become such a critical component for colleges that try and perceive an applicant’s holistic development.
I remember when I started volunteering, I was idling away a summer, and wondering what to do with my time. First year of college had only just completed, and there was no real need to find a job, or to be serious about anything. Volunteering seemed like an easy, convenient option — and I was constantly encouraged by everyone around me to pursue this option. After all, who didn’t want a Princeton student coming in as a part-time, free of cost teacher?
As it turned out, plenty of people. The NGO space in Mumbai is difficult to navigate on its best days, and impossible on its worst. There were so many factors to consider: the NGO had to be in South Bombay, and had to be working with children. It had to be in a safe place. My mother insisted that there had to be at least two other women working with me. They had to need an English teacher, and be okay with one who would only commit to coming in 3 times a week, without any prior experience. The NGO had to be one that my parents had already heard of, because of course, so much about reputation guarantees security in the Indian context.
Countless google searches and many unanswered emails later, I was finally guided by two of my parents’ friends to NGOs where they knew people: Ashadaan and Teach For India. I spent two summers volunteering, one with each of these NGOs. They couldn’t have been more different from each other, and yet they seemed to be working towards similar causes: uplifting children everywhere.
Teach For India was phenomenally organized; I had to attend a training and I was put in a classroom with two other fellows. We had lesson plans and worksheets, and I was supervised for the first few weeks that I was there to ensure I got the hang of things quickly.
Ashadaan was a chaotic place, full of crying babies, children with multiple disabilities and well-meaning nuns and ayahs, who had to nurse the children and give them their full attention at all times.
At both places, I was a teacher. I had a group of 7 kids who I was working with at TFI, and two groups, one of 4 and one of 2, who I worked with at Ashadaan. At TFI, I religiously followed the lesson plan; teaching them about living and non-living things, helping them spell 3 letter words, never deviating from the schedule. At Ashadaan, I did as I pleased; using Roald Dahl novels as a way to teach English, searching for colouring worksheets online to use as resources, trying to get my few students to stay motivated despite their various obvious disadvantages. Some of the TFI kids came from broken, abusive homes, some had parents who weren’t willing to acknowledge learning disabilities, and some were just plain disinterested in school. At Ashadaan all the kids had physical disabilities, and the ones I was working with had the severe mental or learning disabilities.
At the end of the day, my job was the same. I was teaching. I don’t know if one way was better than the other, my gratification at communicating a concept was consistent in all instances. What I do know though, is that volunteering changed my life. It removed me from the sheltered world of privilege, and made me not only acknowledge, but really examine the lives of so many others and the spectrum of realities that exist. It made me stronger, more resolute, but most importantly, more conscious and aware of everything around me, both what I could easily perceive, and what I couldn’t. It taught me that at the end of the day, it is what you do with a situation that really matters; not circumstances, not resources, not anything else. Volunteering taught me more about myself than anything else I have encountered in my life so far. I’m not sure if I made a difference to anyone else’s life, but during those summers, I made all the difference to mine.