Posted by Aniket Panda on Oct 6, 2019
[I wanted to keep this private, but I thought it might be useful for anyone else thinking about volunteering with Manav Sadhna, an NGO at the Gandhi Ashram in India. Here's a lil reflection about my month there. :)
“we must not see any person as an abstraction.
instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own
treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”
- elie wiesel
When I first walked into Manav Gulzar, I could feel my shirt soaking through with sweat and my arms itching with mosquito bites. It smelled weird, and I wanted to go home and eat ice cream. When the community center’s coordinator, Nilamben, offered me chai, I laughed, because the thought of drinking anything remotely hot, in what seemed to me the worst weather I’d ever been in, was insane. Walking through the courtyard of the center, I heard kids laughing, and in response, their teacher yelling at them in a language I didn’t understand. The kids were spread throughout six classrooms around me, designed by architects who used cheap materials to collectively create Manav Gulzar, a space “dedicated to nurturing each child so that he/she may blossom to his/her fullest.” When I heard a sixth-grader call out my name, I walked up to his classroom, and saw a room full of kids looking at me like I was from another planet. I glanced around the room to look at so many new faces, but one of the kids, hiding behind his friend, stood out to me. I didn’t know his name yet, but he looked just like me, the same height, same demeanor, almost the same person, one living in a slum, and another, a carefree 15 year old who just got a new debit card that seemingly had an endless amount of money.
At Manav Gulzar, I taught English & Computers to kids in grade levels 1-9 for 5 weeks. Each grade level came with new challenges and different things to teach, and I found myself quickly learning how to teach and interact with kids in a language I never thought I’d have to learn. I had no teaching credentials or certifications, and I also had no idea how I was going to teach a class of 3rd graders fluent in Gujarati how to talk to me in English. After a frenzy of Google searches and some YouTube videos, I started to use panda bears to teach the alphabet to first graders, and computers, to teach eighth graders sentence structure. The kids showed a desire to learn that was rare in the USA. No matter how boring the lesson seemed to me, how weirdly I spoke Hindi, or how inexperienced of a teacher I was, they always wanted to know more, and they surprisingly enjoyed my lessons.
In computers, I got to teach Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Google Docs, typing, the parts of a computer, and more. The kids didn’t have much exposure to technology, and anytime I would mention computer class their ears would perk up. Things I thought mundane and boring on the computer seemed like roller coaster rides to the 8th graders, and no matter what it was on the computer they were excited, they were intrigued, and most of all, they were encouraged that they could work in technology.
The kids really showed me how happiness comes from within. They were facing real challenges, but they were always happy with me. They made teaching fun, and were entertaining. One day, I showed the kids a robot and we talked about them. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these kids is the next CEO of a technology company. The staff at Manav Gulzar helped me, and showed me how dedicated an organization can be. People like Nilamben, or Vaishaliben, or Bharot Bhai are the driving force behind Gulzar. Even though Bharot Bhai had a strange obsession with bhindi, I loved the food they brought and miss that classroom-turned lunchroom. The kindness they showed to me and continue to show to the kids is a big reason why Gulzar can effectively uplift these underprivileged communities.
I remember everyday, when Juned or Nikhil got a nutritious snack and a glass of milk, they always offered me a plate of my own and on it, their own food. It was that type of selfless giving that really impacted me because I saw values in the kids that may not have been there in myself when I was their age. At Gulzar, it was common to see kids reusing things we hold to the highest degree of “disposable.” They made animal puppets out of paper because fabric was too expensive. Everyday, I had to accustom myself to this new life here, but everyday, the aura of love and kindness at this community center, in the heart of an urban slum, stayed the same.
But that’s not to say I wasn’t scared. The truth is, I was so scared something would happen, scared even now that my words will make the wrong impact. With something like this, it can be hard to tell you how my experience was when I still can’t fully comprehend certain parts of it. What I do know, is that I came to Manav Sadhna for myself. It wasn’t to prove someone else wrong, it wasn’t for college, and it definitely wasn’t because my mom forced me to. And coming back to the US, I was nervous, because I didn’t want people to expect that I had changed overnight and became a brand new person. I’m still mostly the same person I was, and I also still have a long list of character faults and things I don’t like about myself. And while yes, I continue to catch myself saying mean things to people or making decisions that aren’t the best, I think I’ve changed. I think every experience here is unique, it’s a place free from negative energy, a place of tranquility, and a place of synchronicity.
The quote you saw at the beginning of this “diary” is from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor. I first learned of it from my ninth-grade English teacher, in a book about Henrietta Lacks, who is responsible for saving 13 million lives. It’s a really nice quote which I think too few of us know, and I think it’s fitting for my time at Manav Sadhna. Each person, each volunteer or center staff member, each kid or parent, each human being in general is like a universe. There are bright stars, and sometimes black holes. Like a true universe, I was able to only explore a minute fraction and gaze at its ever expanding horizon. There is so much to each person, whether it was someone like Harshaben, who was the best roommate I could ever ask for, or Ajaybhai, who is an incredible volunteer coordinator, that it’s hard to fully understand them. But we can accept that confusion, and try to follow the golden rule from kindergarten - treat others how you would want to be treated.
I think every volunteer that comes to Manav Sadhna is looking for something different. For me, I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for, but I think I might have found it. The impact that Manav Sadhna has on these communities is truly breathtaking, and I'm so humbled to be a part of it. I got to see how the kids at Manav Gulzar make do with whatever they have, and dream of things that I take for granted. I learned grace, humility, perseverance, determination, leadership, and more traits that I can’t find the word for. All the kids here are my new best friends, and I’m really very sad to leave all these amazing people and new friends that I've made, but I’m very excited for the future. These kids have so much to give the world, and they’ve definitely given that to me.