Monday, July 28, 2008

24 July — Thursday

In the opening narration of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the now-grown Scout says that although the days of her childhood were comprised of 24 hours, just like any other day, they were naturally contained so, so much more. That is what a day here in Chennai working with the kids, thinking of working with the kids and preparing to work with the kids feels like—each day is 24 hours, yes, and yet they are so much fuller and richer and they stretch to encompass so much more than just “a day..”

My Thursday began with and ended with an auto rickshaw ride. I’m addicted to their crazy speed, their seemingly reckless weaving through the traffic and open-air capacity to really see and feel a part of the city. When we go somewhere as a group, like this evening’s dance performance, half take the van and half get the fun of the rickshaw and then on the return we switch…those in the van feeling like grown-ups (more or less) and those in the rickshaw feeling like lucky kids.

And about this evening’s outing: In response to someone’s question about whether we could, in the coming days see an Indian dance performance (sorry, I don’t know who to credit here, but it was a brilliant suggestion), Stephen turned to the newspaper and quickly arranged for us to go into Chennai and attend an evening of Baratanatyam performed by students of Humaltha Ramchandra. It was perfect! The colors, the traditional costumes, the music and the choreography brought rhythm and image to the legends and myths that for countless years have been a big part of shaping and informing India’s world view. We had driven into the city straight from SEAMS, so I think we were all feeling a big grimy and sweaty (at least I was!) and certainly not dressed for an evening in a theater, but it didn’t matter. We sat in the darkened audience of local Chennai-ans feeling happily transported by the dancers on the stage.

And now a quick re-cap of each member’s day:

Karen stayed later at St. Joseph to teach still more classes because some of the school’s teachers were absent. Her dedication to the students is beautiful. More than once, as Karen and I have walked the streets here of our immediate neighborhood, a student in one of her classes has rushed up to her to say “hi” and they are all the more pleased when she really knows who they are,

George had another productive and happy day w/ the kids at Grace—the kids were especially thrilled and enervated by today’s rain. For the younger students, George reachd into the recesses of his brain and found still more songs to teach them. The older kids continue to thrive on doing improve.

Kathy spent her morning keeping calm and caring company with patients at the hospital

Phyllis and Ricca enjoyed an especially calm and fun day at Assisi Illum. The little kids now happily greet them even more excitement (if that’s possible!) because they are no longer “guests,” but rather “regulars” who have hugged and praised and played with them throughout the past week. Today’s bubble session on the front patio was a BIG hit.

Jim, w/ his usual wry and sweet wit, said that if the chaos of today’s kindergarten class at St. Joseph had occurred on the first day he would have though “Good lord, what have I gotten myself into??” (I think I actually do remember him saying something like this on Monday…) He said he’s just decided to give himself over to the mayhem and to be the witness, not the judge. A very wise and very deeply thoughtful approach—also, probably colored by knowing he will soon pass the “class baton” on to Deanne when he begins his demolition stint at SEAMS next week.

As for me (Deanne), the kids have entered my dreams. I will miss the little ones at Assisi Illum, but look forward to working with the new-to-me students at St. Joseph.

For the day’s quote, I turn to the final paragraph of the book I read today to my sweet quartet of little girls at SEAMS (“The Three Questions,” based on a story by Leo Tolstoy): “Remember that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear ones, are the answers to what is most important in this world. This is why we are here.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Our morning route takes us past some of Chennai’s contrasts. We brave the crazy traffic as we pass large corporate buildings, a roadside pottery market, a brilliantly painted shrine, people drawing up wooden buckets of water from a community well just outside the entrance to St. Thomas Hospital, a group of thatched huts by a river valley with people’s laundry drying on the ground, and then back lanes with cows ambling around. Assisi Illam is in a quiet neighborhood behind a blue gate. Across the street is a construction site where workers are plastering the second story from a rickety wooden scaffold with an effigy dangling by its neck nearby. As we enter the patio, the children call “auntie, auntie” from the doorway. Deanne, Phyllis and I (Ricca) work with 15 of the thirty-some children in the second floor playroom. Yesterday the children were remarkably well behaved and we were congratulating ourselves on our competence; today it was all downhill from good morning. The little ones were in an ornery mood, fighting over toys, chasing and pushing each other, screaming, even biting. They didn’t want to do the projects we had planned or anything quiet. By 11:20 when Sister Rose came up to get them for snack time and told us to take a 10-minute break, we were ready for one. Deanne observed: “we have now officially lost control”. The day got better after that. In the afternoon Phyllis and Deanne gave their cameras a workout as the sisters dressed up the five resident children –Sylvia, Sophia, John, George and Jasmine - with hats and parasols so they could pose for us. After the children have their lunch, they nap. We sit on the floor with the sisters sharing an Indian meal from our big thermos and their kitchen, playing with the babies, and visiting with one another-- which is English practice for Sister Rose. Kathy had a productive day visiting hospital patients and teaching the novices. She also visited a patient at her home. Karen is impressed with the English skills and focus of her older students, who are interested to learn about the training they will need to prepare for professional careers in law or medicine. George had a good day with his students, and Jim continues his daily quest to manage 45 preschoolers. After our early evening visit with the Seams kids, the group went out for a wonderful dinner. The highlight was a wild ride downtown and back in a motorized rickshaw. Today’s quote: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in….to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865. Bonus quote: “It’s all to do with the training; you can do a lot if you’re properly trained.” Queen Elizabeth II. (If you are the first to locate this quote in the guest house, you will win a prize!) --Ricca Slone

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The team continues to grow in interesting, unexpected, and fulfilling ways. Kathy thoroughly enjoys working with the novices at St. Joseph’s, noting that their penchant to speak with passion about their faith and their role models “makes their English soar!”
Phyllis, Ricca, and Deanne had great success at Assisi Illam; Deanne suggested they make crowns for the children out of construction paper and Ricca and Phyllis photographed the young princes and princesses. Everybody felt like royalty and I promise not to strain for metaphor after this. Jim (that’s me) and Karen had productive days at St. Joseph’s. Karen’s work with the older children was rewarding (she is undeniably popular as we walk about the campus and has helped me wrestle with my fledgling Tamil) and we both had a tour of the computer center from Sister Bala. I learned to slow down and make animal noises for the three-year-olds in the lower kindergarten. Many songs were sung. I got the chance to watch George in action at Grace School with his fourth-graders. It is obvious why he is much beloved; the children don’t want to see him go home at the end of the day and he, in turn, gives them his undivided and creative attention.
During our afternoon break, Stephen arranged for us to go shopping at the Government Store in Chennai. Karen proclaimed herself to be a “shopping expert” and made good on her claim. Her luggage arrived this morning, which may be a mixed blessing because she seems very much at home in her beautiful Indian clothing.
In the late afternoon we went to SEAMS and worked with the children before coming home to another delicious meal in our cool and jasmine-scented dining room (courtesy of Deanne). We talked at dinner about how inspiring and humbling it is to work with our students and then we dispersed into the muggy night.
It is good to be here.


Today’s quote: “We do not see the world as it is; rather, we see the world as we are.” Anais Nin

Monday, July 21, 2008

Today was initiation. I am happy to say that everyone survived the first day and enjoyed working with the children and teachers. Stephen skillfully coordinated our various pick-ups and drop-offs at the different locations.
Deanne, Phyllis, and Rica spent time at Assisi Illam. They explained to the rest of us that the kids were full of energy but also well behaved. A three-year-old they met there had been sent home with homework that would be comparable to what a first grader in the US or Canada might receive. Academic discipline starts at an early age here and it shows.
George returned to Grace School and I can only imagine how excited the children must have been about his return. When the children at Seam’s saw him again their reaction was priceless. They ran to him and beaming, they shouted every word to five little monkeys. Kathy reports that she is excited about working with the novices who will in turn be teaching the children English. She is waiting to see if her services at the hospital will be required.
Jim and I are knee deep in St. Joseph’s. Jim is working with a large group of little Kindergarteners, and they have already taught him that in India Okra is called Lady Finger. I was very impressed with the composure and English skills of the sixth graders I met today. The younger grades also impressed me and one can’t help but feel welcomed by their smiles and interest in everything.
In the evening together we all went to Seams. We were assigned to different groups of children and will be working with the same ones during our stay. Ricca’s idea of bringing a bag of colorful balls was a hit and the kids were really excited to play catch with us. Today was challenging and inspiring all in one.


“What is to give light must endure burning” –Victor Frankel

Sunday, July 20, 2008

This was orientation day for team 68. Stephen guided us through the orientation process with ease. We began at 10 am as seven individuals from various parts of North America. By the time we were finished, at 4:30, we had become a team with shared goals. Each of us brings our unique talents and we are committed to working enthusiastically with the children and adults in this community. Jim and Karen will be working at St. Joseph’s School. Jim with the kindergarteners and Karen with grades 1 through 9. Phyllis, Ricca and Deanne will be at Assisi Illam with Sister Rose and the babies. Kathy will be at St. Thomas Hospital and will teach English to the Novices. This is Kathy’s second stint as a volunteer in Porur. I am also returning and I’m happy to say that I’ll be back at Grace School teaching the primary grades, 1-5. We will all go to Seams children’s home at 5:30 each day
It is wonderful to be back in India. I missed the sights, sounds, and faces of Porur. Jim and I got up before 6 and took a long walk, dodging a few early-rising cows.
The biggest news is that our team leader Stephen and his lovely wife Sheeba gave birth Monday to a healthy, beautiful son. A few summers from now, I plan to teach him the words to “Five Little Monkeys”.
George Hayes

Today’s quote:
“A man kid, you’ll be kid, whatever the song.
Sing for yourself as you march along”

Monday, July 7, 2008

Friday, July 4, 2008 - Leslie Parsons

This morning I began teaching grade 4. We started with basic yoga and stretching then it turned into running on the spot, climbing... A whole whack of different physical activities to get them going. They loved it and it was hysterical to watch them all running on the spot, pretending to climb a mountain, reaching for the stars… we were all laughing. Then we played basic word games which they enjoyed as well. At the end of class, they all ran up to me asking for my autograph. A lot of the kids do this everyday and it cracks me up. They are just adorable.

In the afternoon after lunch a was with grade nine and we played 20 questions – boys against the girls. They loved it because it is competitive – I have them boys against girls and even the teacher gets in on it. We have fun playing it and had a lot of laughs today. It got very loud with the competition that other children were popping their heads in to se what all the commotion was about.

I feel a little sad this afternoon knowing that the two other volunteers, who are father and daughter –Aron and Sonali are leaving first thing tomorrow. I have had a wonderful time with them and enjoyed getting to know them, hearing their stories and sharing our experiences together. Next week I am on my own. I don’t mind this during the day, but at dinner and after dinner I am sure I will be lonely.

Thursday July 3, 2008 - Sonali Sastry

Quote: It is the quality of our work which will please God and not the quantity

Preparing for the novices and kids tired me out last night but it has definitely paid off. As the week comes to an end, I find that my time in Chennai was too short. The day started out at Assisi Illam where a new group of kids were at the gate waiting to greet me. I was told that I would be teaching four kids math and English. It was a new experience and I was amazed at how much energy the kids had towards learning.

At lunch, Stephen, my dad and I went home and enjoyed, once again, an amazing lunch Rani had prepared. After lunch, I prepared even more for the novices. As usual, upon my arrival, the girls all were there waiting to greet me. As we started the lesson, I was so happy on how much they have learned in this extremely short week. We had a discussion on the differences between America and India and it has definitely helped me to realize how much I take for granted.

At Seam, as the balloons were introduced to the kids, they went crazy. And to add to it all, it started raining and we were all forced inside into the main hall. Unfortunately, one boy went around popping the innocent kids’ balloons which caused chaos, tears and laughter at the same time. Today, I spent more time with the older kids, which was a different experience and it was an enjoyable one. I am really going to miss the children at Seam and wish I could be there for just one more week.

Even though we were only here for one week, I feel like I have gotten to know the whole team very well. It was definitely a good experience and I’m hoping to come back to Chennai and volunteer some more.

Wednesday, June 2nd – Arun Sastry

We seem to be very well settled into a routine now. I get up at 07:30, get ready and then wake up the other girls. Rani has figured out how I like my coffee, so as soon as she sees my face in the morning, she gets me a cup, just the way I like it!

The day at Grace Elementary School was better than it was yesterday. I had taken some coloring material today, so the younger kids (and therefore I) were much happier. I used their textbooks today for guidance on what to teach, and that made the session much more useful for them as well. Looking at the kids, I was saddened to think of the fact that I’d have to leave these happy children and head home soon.

SEAM, as always, evokes a different set of emotions. It’s amazing how the kids work, play, cook and sleep within the compound, and how they all get along so well together. Today, the kids all welcomed us wearing the clothes that Leslie had donated yesterday. As always, I spent time with the oldest of the kids (Rajesh, Suresh, and Suganya), going over English grammar. Rajesh looked a little tired, but in spite of that, he showed his usual enthusiasm in the subject matter at hand. I guess these kids get up early, and do a lot of chores in addition to their school work, and in this stifling heat, it is amazing that they don’t collapse by the time we show up. It’s sad to see the kids at times, but on the other hand, I think that these kids are relatively more privileged (compared to other kids around here), since they not only have people like us to help wherever possible, but also they also have a good shelter, food, and place to play.

After SEAM, we went to Stephen’s home and met with his family. We were treated to the most delightful feast. Soon after dinner, we lost power (good timing!). It was hot, so we all went outside and we all joined the community block party. Just imagine – a huge chat session with several neighbors, all in darkness! That is what India is all about!!!

Tuesday July 1st, 2008 - Sonali Sastry

Quote: If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children

As I walked to the car feeling queasy, lightheaded and tired, my thoughts were that my body was failing me on the thought of volunteering again. However, a strange thing happened as I started working with the 1st group of kids at Assisi Illam. My problems were gone and I was excited to work with the young ones.

At lunch, I came and enjoyed a delicious meal which I relished. With a smile on my face, Stephen (Stephen’s brother) drove me to Bethlamite Sister where I was ready to teach the novices some English grammar. Being younger than the four girls is a bit hard for me, however I was hoping that they didn’t think I was 23 or 24. After what seemed like a long grammar lesson, the girls insisted on me staying for 5 minutes to enjoy a snack they themselves had prepared. Finally I decided to go with Stephen to pick up my dad at the Grace school.

While I was there, I encountered many eager and curious kids waiting to greet me while I laughed enjoying the sight. Afterwards, we rested and headed off to a store followed by Seam. At Seam, four bags of toys, clothes and other things for the kids were brought out and laid out in multiple lines. The expressions on the kids’ faces were priceless. The joy, happiness and laughter definitely made my day. I enjoyed talking to each kid, playing jump rope and seeing the older boy on the pink cell phone. So far, I have enjoyed volunteering and love all the people I am working with. I only wish I could stay longer but right now I’m just hoping I can do the most I can for the children and the novices.

Monday, June 30th - Leslie Parsons

Inspirational quote: Go with the flow.

This morning was my first day teaching at St.Joseph’s school. It was very challenging in the morning because I did not know what to expect and wasn’t quite prepared for what I was in for. I was unsure as to what to teach Grade 1 and UKG. Best to just sing with them, have them draw you pictures of different things like apples, sun and have them spell out each one. So by staying with games, stories and drawing and colouring it was much easier. They are so young so they just want to have fun and sing songs and play.

Grade 6 was totally different and much easier. We played my ‘favorite’ things where they had to write three sentences telling me of their favorite things and then point out the nouns from the sentence to the class. They were all excited and very engaged. I much prefer teaching the older children.
In the evening we went to SEAM and I thought I knew what to expect. they are full of love, eager to learn and give back. At least, they have each other which is important. It was the basic things that we take for granted that they do not have: pen, pencils, shoes, paper, notebooks, a table to eat on, beds to sleep in. They sleep on the concrete floor. Had I known that before I left, I would of brought more educational stuff for them and more necessities as opposed to so many toys. The older boys look after the young kids plus have the chores leaving less time for study. I want to really help them – provide them with an opportunity to have a chance at a career because they are so smart, responsible, driven and eager. In any event, I am looking forward to us bringing all the gifts to them: clothes, toys, games, shoes tomorrow.
The one big thing I thought about to day is, at least the children at St. Jopsh go home to love, at SEAM on the other hand, it is up to them and the volunteers to give and show love because that is all they have.

New Team Begins - IND0806A2

Sunday, 29 June - Arun Sastry

Quote: We must become the change we want to see in the world.

This was our first morning in Madras. We got together at 09:00 today for a wonderful breakfast of idlis, chutney and omelets, prepared by our cook, Rani. After the meal, Stephen conducted the orientation session, which was started off with each of us listing three goals that we wanted to achieve on this visit, and also what we thought were characteristics of a good team. Following this, Stephen went over some of the guidelines to follow during our sessions. Some of these were real eye-openers, e.g. meeting with the host before and after every session.

Following the orientation, we had another of Rani’s sumptuous meals, and took off in an air-conditioned Chevy to Mahabalipuram. Just outside Mahabalipuram, we stopped at Tiger Cave, a wonderful picnic spot close to the ocean. The main attraction there was a cave whose temple was surrounded by a crown of tiger heads.

In Mahabalipuram itself, we saw several kinds of rock carvings, including a huge bas-relief sculpture that is supposed to be the largest of its kind in the world.

Before we left Mahabalipuram, we stopped by at a crowded beach. It was interesting to see a large sea of humanity engaged in all kinds of endeavors, from frying fish to selling pony rides.

On our way back, we stopped by at IIT. It was nice to visit the campus and reminisce about the wonderful time I’d had there 25 years ago! We came home (wow, this place in Porur already feels like a home, after barely a day!)

We are all looking forward to what Monday brings.