Volunteering in India with Children

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Alaina McGregor, of Jandals and a Backpack, volunteered for two months at The Educators Trust, a children’s charity in Goa, India that provides an education to slum and street children.

When I told friends and family that I was going to leave my public relations job in New Zealand to volunteer with slum children in India, I was met with dubious looks. I’m the first person to admit that I don’t have much of a maternal bone in my body but ever since I spent time in India in 2009, I had a fierce passion to return and make a difference.

Volunteering in India has been the best gift of my life. 

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I had never had any experience with children previously so it was a huge learning curve but what I took away was the most unbelievable and humbling experience of my life. My beautiful children (yes they became mine) taught me to slow down and appreciate everything life has to offer.

Seeing what little they had and how their parents struggled was heart-breaking but I never heard one single complaint and only ever received smiles. And hugs. Oh the hugs are what I miss the most. Those no holds barred hugs where they see you come through the gate in the morning and they launch themselves into your arms. Those are the memories I hold onto.

My volunteer placement in Goa changed me and my life. While I set out to teach the children at my school, it was in fact them that gave me the most enriching and rewarding gift of all.

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When I came home from India in 2009, I set about doing some research for a bona fide charity that I felt was a good fit for me. I was open to anything but my only stipulation was that I wasn’t prepared to spend thousands of dollars and book through a third party organization. Often the charity itself receives very little of that money and I didn’t believe it was in their best interest to go down that avenue.

That was how I found The Educators Trust. While some of their volunteers do come through other volunteer organizations, you are also able to arrange a placement directly through them. If you choose this route, you must commit to a minimum of one month although anything longer than two months is preferred. This is so you have enough time to build a bond with the children and have a positive impact on their learning. There are opportunities for short-term volunteers to come in and help out at their various slum projects and Friday beach day but you can only teach at the schools if you are registered for a month or more and submit a police check.

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The only fee I had to pay was $50 which covered my lunch every day at school (dhal, bhagi and rice) and two t-shirts which I had to wear every day. While I had to support myself in terms of food and accommodation, my outgoings were minimal. Considering I was living in a busy tourist area where prices are hugely inflated compared to the rest of India, I was still only living on about NZ$15 per day for everything. I stayed in a guest house and had my own room/bathroom which cost me $7.50 p/night. I kept costs down by visiting the markets most days and cooking my own meals, drinking at local bars (25 rupee for a drink vs. 250 in a club) and limiting my eating at expensive shacks on the beach.

I lived in the main tourist area of Baga/Calangute which was close to the action and just a 10 minute walk to the beach. Every day (Monday-Friday) I would catch the local bus with two other volunteers to the office which was within walking distance of two of their schools, New Light and Leading Light.

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Every bus journey was an adventure. Being stared at was a daily occurrence with many people often striking up conversations with us. Many locals knew about the work that the Educators Trust was doing to help slum and street children and we naturally stood out and drew attention in our bright orange tops. Most buses played loud Bollywood music and had flashing neon light so every day we got to enjoy going to school in a little disco on wheels. Definitely a crazy and authentic local Indian bus experience!

I was a teaching assistant at Leading Light school and my average day was spent in classes from 9-1pm and then either helping the older students with their tuition from 2-4pm or going to the slum at 3pm to play games and distribute fruit to the kids.

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In my first few weeks, we would help teach English and Math to the children in two morning sessions. But then mainstream school went on summer holidays which meant that we were not able to teach proper lessons for two months.

Instead we spent each day doing arts and crafts, singing, dancing and playing games. It was great fun and definitely took me down memory lane as I had to rack my brains thinking of fun and creative games and songs from my childhood that they would enjoy. Heads Down, Thumbs Up and Duck Duck Goose were particular favourites. Kids really are the same anywhere in the world!

We also got to take the children to the local water park, the beach every Friday afternoon and take part in other fun celebrations like Holi where we volunteers and 60 kids went crazy throwing coloured powder and water at each other in a field! It didn’t wash off for a week!

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If there is one thing I wish I could have changed it would have been to have stayed longer! Saying goodbye was heart breaking especially when the kids kept asking when I would be back.

The part I found hardest was that I didn’t get any initial guidance from the two teachers at my school and was just given the youngest nursery class of six children to teach who had very little grasp of English. Without having their ability to translate and explain what I wanted in Hindi, for a long time I felt like I wasn’t making much of a difference. It took a good month before I found where I fit in and how my skills could help. But by that stage, I was half way through and then all of a sudden my time is up. It was a shame as I had only just found my groove and formed a tight bond with my students and then I had to leave.

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Apart from the whole experience of meeting the most amazing and inspirational bunch of children, I also had the privilege of meeting a fantastic group of motivated and extremely giving volunteers. They made me want to be a better volunteer and do more. I ended up staying at the same guest house as two other English volunteers who had been there for four months so they and a couple of other volunteers became my Goa family. We had so many laughs and fun times and it really helped to make the transition of living in crazy India without knowing anyone a lot easier.

I also loved that I had the opportunity to learn some Hindi while I was there as it really opened up a lot of new opportunities for me to meet and converse with locals when I travelled around India afterwards.

The mantra of The Educators Trust is: "while educating one child won't change the world but for that one child the world will change forever." I’m really glad I had the opportunity to play a small role in helping to make that happen.

Thanks so much to Alaina for sharing her incredible story. If you're interested in volunteering in India with children, consider getting in touch with The Educators Trust

Alaina is a kiwi girl that ditched her high paying PR job to travel the world. She has lived in the UK, traveled Europe, Asia and Africa extensively and can't seem to stay in one place too long. Alaina has volunteered in Cambodia and India, been smothered in colourful paint during Holi Festival, chilled out on some of the best beaches in the world and along the way has become addicted to travel. To read about her inspiring travels and to keep up to date with her juicy adventures, check out her blog Jandals and a Backpack

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