Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Day – Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Long View – One Volunteer’s Perspective

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “The fish only knows that it lives in water after it is already on the river bank.  Without our awareness of another world out there it would never occur to us to change.  (Author unknown, but contributed by a former student)

Coming to India on my 4th Global Volunteers trip has been a real privilege -  in spite of the long flight, unceasing mosquitoes, and not being able to spend enough time with “My Little Heart, Augustine.”  

This dedicated group of volunteers is enthusiastic, supportive, and striving to make the world a better place, so simply put in one of our team goals: To Make a Positive Difference.  Little actions have big consequences.  Unfortunately, in a brief, two-week encounter with children whose smiles can light our world, we do wonder who is changed more, the children or ourselves.  Over the past few days I have pondered this thought as we hope to make a positive impact on the children’s lives at SEAMs, our main work project this year.  In hopes of teaching the children good hygiene practices and clothing care we discussed how likely is it that these lessons will be learned.  The scripture passage that talks about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and Peter requests, not only wash my feet, but my hands and head as well…. – Jesus returns, “to those who have bathed, there is no further need for cleaning, but the feet….” Strange, but I never fully grasped the meaning of those words until this forth time to Chennai and feel that  as I prepare to leave this week, I will carry with me residual city street dust on my own feet all the way home to Minnesota.  So, how is it possible for these little ones to cross a dirt courtyard, five feet from their bedroom door and be expected to bed with clean feet?  I think about these things and our two worlds but know the children were proud to show us they could thoroughly and properly wash themselves.  It all matters.

So it may seem that Will’s song about teaching the parts of a tree to students at Grace School, playing “clothing Bingo” as the volunteers attempted to bring organize and inventory the boy’s clothing at SEAMs, singing the Lollipop song for the 100th time, or Katie planning and executing the picture board in the guest house of photos, names and family pairs of SEAMs children are insignificant acts of kindness.  Yet, all may be but a single grain of rice in the dish of vegetable biryani.  Each grain is necessary to create a delectable feast.  So today, dear volunteers, those of you embarking on your first India Global, I offer this as my Christmas Hope for you – Your action, your grain does matter.

I now see a dormitory where five years ago none stood - could be a room and a bed or a palace to these children.

I see children thriving, happy, and learning.  Conversational English is taking root and students could enjoy reading their letters from my students.

I hear sweet heavenly music sung for only my ears to hear as Sunitha sings a lullaby in Tamil; she has trusted me as “a friend.”

I watch the children of SEAMs work together and play together better before.  The Christmas program extravaganza “SUPER” – “PERFECTO”  – complete with stage curtains, props, set-design, make-up, directors, actors, performers, singers, comedy, stuntmen, lighting changes, special effects, song and dance and  (John) a precocious Santa weaving his magic throughout.  I’m convinced no traditional Indian dance in Chennai could have been more entertaining or performed with as much heart. 

I know that I’m remembered from past years by songs and rhymes and dances and hugs, because they have been heaped on me in abundant joy and these little ones continue to remind me what it was that I had forgotten I taught them in past years.   

I see healthy arms and legs which once displayed gaping wounds and infections.  To see less illness is truly wonderful.

I see Stephen and Sheeba so dedicated to doing the right thing and knowing how to set priorities for the work and improvement of the children’s lives and I continue to marvel at their wisdom and dedication.  I respect Stephen’s juggling ability for keeping the program in flight….. Of schedules, desires, transportation, food requests, outings, events, dance parties, weekend travel excursions, so patiently without skipping a beat.  Sheeba is the co-pilot of the craft and well, Roshan, sometimes the host and sometimes the rowdy passenger about to be throw off the plane - all make for a marvelous adventure.

I see in my niece, someone whom I highly respect for sharing her love, her heart, her life with these children who mean so much to me.  She has been my delight on this trip.

And I see a small boy, who thinks that in this world “he is my child”,…..the son of mother with no children of her own.  It is a tie that binds an Aunty to her “monkey boy!”

So much had been done in so short a time – because of your love and dedication to the children of India.

I offer this only as one volunteer’s view mindful that the God of Abraham, and Muslims, the Gods of Hindus and a Christmas God named Emmanuel have the ultimate view – but I’m sure God would say, IT ALL MATTERS AND IT’S ALL GOOD. 

Merry Christmas Everyone,

Love JOYelle  - my perfect seasonal name!  (Joelle)


Thursday, December 22, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “What you give ought to be in direct relationship to what you’ve received.  If you have been blessed with a great deal, then you have a lot of giving to do.” - Johnnetta B. Cole
We met, as we always do, at 8:30AM for breakfast and conversation.  I’m used to eating most meals alone on the run back home, so mealtime together is a treat, it reminds me of life growing up with seven people in my family, there is never a shortage of thing to talk about. After planning out the day’s schedule we divided onto our different tasks. 

Will and Ginny headed of to help the teachers at GRACE.  They have come to have an appreciation for grade school teacher; it’s tiring work! 

Mary and Kerry joined Stephen Sheeba and Roshan to shop for some essentionals for the SEAM kids.  Their list included towels, underwear, soap cases, shampoo and cleaning supplies.  They shopped at a local store that was without electricity; the storeowner was leading them around with a candle.  I have to think that we made this storekeepers week with the amount of inventory we purchased. 

Joelle, Chris and I headed back to Assisi.  Joelle was greeted at Assisi with the children ruining the surprise that her special boy, Augustine would be home for lunch.  This was terrific news and she’s been missing him while he’s been at school taking exams all this week.

Our task at Assisi was to decorate for Christmas.  We created an assembly line of sorts for the children to paint a Christmas tree, holly, flowers and bulbs.  The kids stayed focused on this task for well over an hour.  We even had Sister Rose and Sister Matilda helping out too. 

The three first graders arrived before lunch and went about their routine of putting their bags away, changing out of their uniform and washing up for lunch.  All attention was the Indian soap opera that runs from 1-2PM.  There is no point in striking up a conversation with the Sisters or the kids during this show; all eyes are on the TV where it seems that the same thing happens every episode where some Indian girl starts crying. 

The afternoon at Assisi was spent rehearsing a dance to the Bruno Mars, Just the Way You Are song along with dancing to a few other tunes.  These kids sure have great moves.

Mary stayed back to work documenting the inventory for SEAM on a professional looking spreadsheet and the rest of us headed out to SEAM for our washday. After their chores were done the kids linked up in a row with their toothbrush in hand.  I distributed toothpaste on each kids brush and did a demonstration on how to brush your teeth.  We brushed for the duration of 3 ABC’s (which I have to admit is way longer than I brush back home).  Some kids had troubles keeping the paste from overflowing out of their mouth.  Next was the washing demonstration let by Will.  The kids were eager to follow suit, with some washing themselves three times over.

Our last activity at SEAM was a special project that Joelle coordinated with her art students back in Minnesota.  She had her students create a culture box of things that represented MN to share with the kids at SEAM, items included a hockey puck, teen magazine, baseball bat and pictures of snow.  Each kid also received a letter written by the students with a picture enclosed.  It was fun to see the children’s reactions to the individual letters.  The older boys loved getting pictures of the attractive teens.  Some kids received additional goodies including stickers and the prized possession of a $5 bill. We helped the younger kids read their letters; it was fun to share in their excitement. 

Next was dinner at Stephen’s parent’s house.  The intention was for us to take auto rickshaws back to the guesthouse to freshen up before heading out to dinner.  When Will and Chris were missing at the guest house Stephen called their driver to find that he thought Stephen meant for him to drive them to his parent’s house and not the guest house.  I can only imagine the concern that Chris and Will had when the 5 minute drive turned into a 30 minute one.  I’m sure they were put at ease when they were greeted by Stephen’s mom and her beautiful smile. 

We agreed that dinner at Stephen’s parents was our best meal yet.  Chicken briyani, raita, aloo mattar, appalam, vada, complete with rice pudding.  Since it’s the holidays. Stephen’s sister and her family where in town on their annual visit.  We were also able to meet Little Stephen’s 10-month-old daughter Jaclyn.  After our meal, we took a tour of the neighborhood to pay a visit to Stephen’s relatives who live nearby.  We visited Little Stephen, Rani, our cook along and Stephen’s aunt. Stephen’s cousin was home with her youngest child, a 3-month-old baby; Ginny had the opportunity to attend this cousin’s wedding when she was here four years ago on her first Global Volunteers trip.  Ginny was quick to hold the baby and was busy signing her songs until she realized that the baby wasn’t wearing a diaper or anything on her bottom for that matter.  Ginny quickly said, “Take it back” and her grandmother quickly took the baby and put some sort of covering over the child’s bottom before returning her back to Ginny. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the guesthouse and called it a good day.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Watch your thoughts: they become your words
Watch your words: they become your actions
Watch your actions: they become your habits
Watch your habits: they become your character
Watch your character: it becomes your destiny

Today was officially day three at our volunteer assignments and it felt really good. I think it was because we were more relaxed and the kids were becoming more familiar to us which helped put us all at ease. Joelle, Chris and I continued the paper mâché project as Assisi, the kids are really good at it and at getting glue all over themselves and their clothes! Mary, Ginny and Will went to the Grace School and were joined by Katie who made a special guest appearance. Steven brought some gifts that Ginny provided and the children were surprised and delighted.

In the afternoon, Mary, Chris, Will and I went to visit St. Thomas Mountain ( the site were Doubting Thomas one of the decibels of Jesus lived and was later killed). Meanwhile Joelle took a trip to the hospital when she had an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite and Katie went to Assisi. Fortunately, Joelle was okay, she got a shot which made her a little dizzy so she went to bed for the remainder of the afternoon. She was amazed at how efficient yet cheap the hospital visit was, just 200 rupees (equivalent to 4 dollars) which included being seen by the doctor and the medication. Funny how a trip to the hospital in India is cheaper then most people's daily Starbucks latte.

This evening we went to SEAM and started the inventory of the boys clothes and personal hygiene products. It was a very different experience then doing the about chaos! Since there were so many boys as opposed to the girls (25 to be exact) Steven had them come to us so they all brought their trunks or duffle bag full of clothes to the courtyard and we counted how many pairs of pants, shirts, underwear ( if any) that they had along with soap, toothbrush, comb, towel. To further complicate the task it seemed it was close to laundry day so we had to figure out a way to account for the dirty clothes which were in a community pile.

This is where it got fun: we gathered everyone into the prayer hall with their trunks and had them sit in rows and then had the community pile of dirty clothes in the corner and then the 5 of us sat in chairs at the front of the room facing them. We had two helpers Tamil and Anan who held up one article of clothing at a time and the boys were supposed to claim what was theirs then they had to find which volunteer had their card with their name on it and make sure we checked off their article of clothing. It was kind of like BINGO "Who has a shirt for Suresh? " Who has a pair of pants for Mukesh?"
Meanwhile Ginny kept the girls busy by reading and teaching them math.

About 45 minutes later we got through everything and it was time for a reward. Katie handed out pictures of each kid to them that she had taken a few days before. They were so happy, Eziekel was very careful with his and put it in a clear plastic bag as one of his most prized possessions. Mary went around and took pictures of the kids holding the pictures of themselves and they laughed. We played for a bit and then Steven had them line up again and everyone got chocolate candy Mary had brought.

We left there around 7pm and headed to a local hotel for dinner. We had a great meal and recounted the fun we had with the kids.

It was a great day for all except maybe Joelle...


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  While we try to teach our children all about life, Our children teach us what life is all about.   -Angela Schwindt

We started out today with a bit more confidence than yesterday.  For the morning, Will, Ginny and I returned to Grace School.  I think all three of us were a little better prepared with activities for the children.  I'd like to thank the authors of the Global Volunteers Manual;  they expanded my children's song repertoire beyond "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" by reminding me of such classics as "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and "Old McDonald's Farm".  I found that  "ee-i-ee-i-oh" translates perfectly into Tamil.  Our teamwork is strengthening too. Will shared one of his successful classroom activities with Ginny who used in her classroom today with equal success.

The other volunteers returned to Assisi Illam.  They enjoyed a birthday party for one of the children, Jasmine.  They also embarked on what sounds like a rather sophisticated paper mâché project with the children.    I haven't seen the blueprints, but it seems to involve a large, sticky mess with balloons and paints. I'm anxious to see the result.

This afternoon, the whole team met the SEAM children as they returned home from school.  Joelle had created a list of essentials that each girl and each dormitory room should have.  We worked one-on-one with each girl to go through their belongings.  We checked their clothes for tears, broken zippers and missing buttons, and to see that they had clothes that fit.  We also checked their personal hygiene products and cleaning supplies.   Besides learning what each girl needed, there were some unexpected benefits to the process. The girls enjoyed showing us their special Diiwali dresses and trying on clothes to model for us. Girls everywhere love to dress up and look pretty, don't they?  It was nice to see the girls supporting each other, encouraging them to let go of clothes that they had outgrown or that were beyond repair.   We also sensed the girls felt empowered making their own decisions about their clothes. It was a good process all around.

While all this was going on with the girls, it was haircut day for the boys.  It was fun when they came up to us with their fresh haircuts  wanting their pictures snapped.  We're going to tackle the boys wardrobe inventory tomorrow.

This evening, Joelle and Katie worked on a poster for the Guest House that has the picture and name of each child at SEAM.  They did a wonderful job on this.  Learning their names has been a struggle for all of us.  It means so much to the children to be remembered by name as individuals.  This poster will be a great asset not just for us, but for all the volunteer teams here in the future.


Monday, December 19, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “It’s the beginning of a great adventure” – Lou Reed

It’s the end of our first official day of volunteering and I like the rest of my teammates am totally beat.  The day started off with yoga (for some) and an excellent breakfast prepared by our cook Rani.  During breakfast we discussed the plans for the day. Then we broke off into separate groups with some going to Grace School and the others to Assisi Illam.  I was part of the group that went to Assisi Illam.  We managed our way through a terrific traffic jam before arriving at Assisi.  Upon arrival we were greeted by a group of little smiling faces.  There was such joy in those smiles.  We were introduced to Assisi’s matron, Sister Rose, who welcomed us to this most impressive home.  Amongst rows of meager thatched roof homes, Assisi stands modern, clean, and comfortable, and a true oasis for the children. 

It’s remarkable how intelligent and articulate these children are, even by American standards.  These are 3 and 4 year olds that can effortlessly recite and write the alphabet and count to 100.  I was impressed.  After studying with the children, we had a really enjoyable playtime.  George, a very precocious little boy was emphatic that his building blocks be stacked to his specifications.  I don’t recall having any idiosyncrasies at such a young age, but I probably did.  Sister Rose offered each of the volunteers a mysterious thick drink served in a tea cup.  We looked at one another and said this is very good, at which Sister Rose gave a wry smile and said “I know”.  We finally discovered that this amazing substance was oatmeal.  Yes, oatmeal.  Funny how we’re so conditioned to expect something exotic that we couldn’t conceive of anything as mundane as oatmeal. 

Later in the afternoon both groups went to SEAMS and waited for the children who were making their way back from exams.  Now THESE kids get excited.  If you’ve never volunteered with orphans, it’s difficult to prepare yourself for the onslaught of all those little arms and hands reaching out for an affectionate embrace. My first duty at SEAMS was to stand guard outside the boys’ dormitories and ensure that they washed up, changed clothes, and cleaned their rooms.  Initially, they were so overwhelmed by our presence that it was difficult to keep them on task.  Several of them tried to drag me away from my post to go play.  I was amused by many of the boys ignoring the work at hand, who after making eye contact with me offered up a sheepish smile and a lively dance. 

We divided the children up for 30 minute one-on-one tutoring sessions with each of the volunteers.  I must admit that it was difficult to keep up with their energy levels.  By the end of the evening, after a spirited playtime, we headed back to the volunteer house very, very tired.  After a wonderful dinner, we discussed our favorite moments of the day and our most challenging moments.  Although it’s only been 2 days, I can say that we work well together as a team, a true collaboration amongst individuals that have the utmost commitment to achieving common goals.  I foresee the coming weeks to be exceptionally rewarding.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Everything is small stuff.”

We began our day with breakfast consisting of delicious scrambled eggs, steamed rice cakes with chutney, lots of tea or coffee at a very reasonable hour of 9AM.  We began our orientation by establishing the goals of our team followed by the objectives of our team and characteristics of a good team.  Raja described the schools or orphanages we would be working with this coming week.  The schools are having exams this week so I won’t be working at St. Joseph’s school this time but at Grace School and orphanage and at SEAMS.  Raja explained other activities we would be involved with in the coming weeks such as free time plans.

Our lunch began at 1 pm and consisted of another great meal cooked by Rani.  I remember he great t cooking the last time I was here four years ago and she didn’t disappoint me with a dish of eggplant, vegetable with rice and coconut lemon chutney   followed  by fresh papaya. 

After lunch we continued our orientation.  I will not be attending the Christmas party at SEAMS because my friend, Antony, has invited me to his house to share their Catholic Christmas.  I met Antony on my Elderhostel trip to southern India.  He, like Raja, was sent by his travel company on this trip. We had great fun with Antony on the trip. I was so impressed with southern India that I decided to come back and explore more on my own. I started with Chennai doing my third Global Volunteer program here. Antony arranged my domestic flights and a hotel in Goa.  I met his wife, daughter, Rakshita, who was three at that time.  Global Volunteers had accomplished my goal of establishing friendships with Indians including now Sheeba and Raja.  We continued orientation after lunch deciding what activities we would do during the week. The free-time coordinator is Katie, who has returned for her second time with her aunt.  Obviously, she enjoys these trips and one saw later at SEAMS how the children loved her and Joelle. Water and sewer pipes installed in the street have made walking on the streets around the guesthouse especially in the dark risky for me since I like to look at everything   as I walk.  So I got a ride back along with Joelle in a three wheeled taxi.  The SEAMS children were all happy to see us.  I don’t remember any of the kids here but do remember how excited they were to meet us.  We introduced ourselves to them and the only name I remember is John.  The kids are ushered into their r all purpose room, quickly seated and Raja o rather Roshan, passes out the Mint Chocolate chip gum.  I was thinking of bringing Salt water taffy but decided against it because I know what it did to my teeth chewing it quickly.  Soon the director of SEAMS appeared with his spotless white pants and shirt wearing a Santa Claus hat.  He danced very nicely and I was impressed with his arm movements and graceful body movement.  Soon, all of us were invited to accompany the kids to see where they slept. Next came the dancing in the all-purpose room with the kids.  I haven’t had this much exercise since coming to India.  We say good bye to the children and I ride back.

Dinner is at a local restaurant.  Raja orders for us but we all have a say in what we will eat.  Some of us ordered lassis (no mango ones but salty or sweet lassis available).  Some of us have the sweet and sour chicken soup with coriander. Delicious.  Spicy cauliflower, paneer, tandoori chicken and of course my favorite Indian food naan bread in two flavors (butter and garlic).  Will liked the spicy cauliflower but missed out on the lassi.  As a former teacher one of my personal goals is to get Will to TRY a banana and a LASSI.

We all walked back to the guesthouse including me.  Everyone crashed but I took my shower and was still not sleepy.  So I came down stairs quietly, and just about finished this journal when something flashed and I lost the entire journal page.   So hopefully I remembered everything.