Students at the Grace School in Chennai pose for a photo during a snack break. Working with them as a volunteer teacher is challenging and rewarding

Volunteering adds challenge and depth to a vacation

  • Feb. 3, 2011 12:00 p.m.

Judi Lees, Meridian Writers’ Group –

Chennai, India – The grade-one classroom in St. Joseph’s school is a buzz of kinetic energy. There is a continuous chatter of voices, and 50 little bodies squirm at their desks or wander around the room. Thankfully, the sari-clad teacher comes through the door and invokes some semblance of order so that I can proceed to teach.

I use the term “teach” loosely. As a volunteer my duty is to familiarize the children with English. My friend and I are part of a Global Volunteers team, a United States–based organization that sends willing workers to 20 countries; we actually pay to take part in non-profit projects. (This trip cost about US$2,300, plus airfare.)

Although I’ve volunteered before I find India particularly challenging. Chennai, a city of seven million, is a sticky, traffic-infested hive of noise. The daily temperature hovers around 38 degrees Celsius. The days are long: each one of them I am in five different classrooms, from kindergarten to grade five; each evening, we spend an hour at an orphanage that houses 39 children.

Although our team of six is put up in a comfortable guesthouse, it is basic by North American standards. Yet all of us, who range in age from 20 to 65, are happy to be here.

“When you do a volunteer trip, you get to see real life, not a nice, clean, pretty part,” says Shelly, from Delaware, who has also been to Africa on a Global Volunteers trip.

My friend Wendy, a nurse, loves working with small children. On this trip she was asked to also spend time with teenagers. “We really bonded. We had the most incredible conversations,” she says of her group of mostly girls at the orphanage.

For me, each day makes my heart sing. At the end of an especially exhausting one, a grade-four girl with a beautiful smile rushed in and took my hand. “You come back, please. You are the best. My story made me happy,” she beamed. She had been in my class that morning where I had the students personalize a story, then read it aloud. Her happiness made my day.

One of my assignments was with five 13-year-old boys. We played words games and wrote stories. I soon figured out that the cool dude who was the leader of the pack was an expert at appearing to know more than he did. When I discovered that he couldn’t complete his work, he quickly diverted my attention with, “You look nice, you have a nice smile”. He didn’t know many words, but he knew how to use them.

At the orphanage they held a touching goodbye ceremony when we completed our two weeks of service. The children sat on the floor and sang songs. Some did a dance, then they all came up to say a personal goodbye. There was a special glow in that room and it affirmed, for me, that a volunteer vacation is the way to go. And if you are up for a real challenge, head for India. You won’t regret it.

Explore More:

For more information on St. Paul, Minnesota–based Global Volunteers visit its website at www.globalvolunteers.org.

For information on travel in India visit India’s Ministry of Tourism website at www.incredibleindia.org.

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