In March 2013 I volunteered in Kolkata (Calcutta), India with 17 other students from St. Flannan’s College, Ennis, Clare for 17 days. We were brought by Shona Cahill, an Irish teacher, who had been volunteering in Kolkata for 11 years and treated it as her second home. Her passion and love for the people there was astounding. Kolkata is one of the most impoverished, poorest cities in the world. But it’s also called the City of Joy, something I agree with because the people there are some of the friendliest and happiest people I have ever met. It’s incredible.
What A Typical Day Consisted Of
In the mornings we got up at 5am. We went to MotherHouse, the base for the Missionaries of Charity, and had mass with them. Then at 7am we had breakfast in Motherhouse with all the other volunteers from all over the world. Then we went to our various homes to volunteer. These homes are run by the Missionaries of Charity, set up by Mother Teresa.
I went to Shanti Dan, a home for disabled women who had been abandoned by their families. We stayed with them until lunchtime, brought them to the bathroom, fed them lunch and put them into bed. The work we carried out was extremely difficult emotionally, physically and psychologically. It was quite terrifying to be helping people who could do nothing for themselves, but so rewarding! I fell in love with a few of the girls and it was heartbreaking to leave them. In the evenings, we taught English to street children in Howrah, an area on the outskirts of Calcutta.
The Cultural Differences Were Vast
India really is a whole different world, nothing like Ireland. It’s full of really bright colours, constantly beeping cars and strong pungent smells. The smog and pollution is crazy and I lost my voice for the first two days because of it. But after a while you kind of consider everything as normal, public urinals and showers, wild dogs in the streets, no seat-belts, cows who are sacred creatures in India. Your brain becomes a tiny bit desensitised to cope with the culture shock.
The days were long and I was exhausted, mentally and physically, when they were done but happier than I had ever been. I didn’t care at all about my appearance; we were walking around sweating constantly in sandals, bandanas, baggy t-shirts and long canvas pants. Instead I found myself focusing on my personality, how I made people feel and what I could offer rather than what people thought of what I looked.
When we came home it was crazy to wrap your head around. I cried for no reason when I got home. My Irish teacher gave out to me and I burst out crying in front of my class, very embarrassing, especially when you’re 17. I was a mess. But for everyone else their Easter break had consisted with chocolate and relaxing, not poverty and culture shock. All my friends were sick of hearing about it, because I would literally talk for hours, but it’s true that unless you’re there you can’t really fully understand the poverty and pure joy there is there.
My Mindset Has Completely Changed
Kolkata helped me to put life into perspective. I have a new outlook on how lucky I am, because it is really just luck that I wasn’t born into a slum in Kolkata. We tend to think all the opportunities we have, such as access to a good education, are the norm but they are not. I am so much more grateful for everything I would have previously taken for granted.
The phrase ‘first world problems’ has taken on a whole new deeper meaning for me because if the people of Kolkata had half of the ‘problems’ we complain about on a daily basis they would consider themselves the luckiest people in the world. There is a whole different world out there and millions of people who would be happy to be in your shoes. Seeing so many beautiful intelligent children in the slums made me so angry and sad because who know what those children could achieve if they had access to better education. There are so many people who would perform so much better in my place. It makes me strive not to take what I have for granted and work hard at the life I have been given!
I Couldn’t Recommend It Highly Enough!
I would fully advise everybody to do some volunteer work. It doesn’t have to be as big as going to India, it could be volunteering a few days a week in your local Enable Ireland shop. Whatever it is and whatever your motives, whether it’s enriching your CV, to pass the time if you’re out of a job or to feel more positive, I promise it will enrich your life and you will get so much more back than you put into it.
Thanks to Sarah for this piece and if you think you would like to volunteer overseas come along to one of our talks tomorrow.