When I was twenty-two, just out of university, I went on my first volunteer experience in India. Both volunteering and India hold a personal significance. I’d just finished my BA in Social Work, so I was full of zest to put my skills into practice. It was perfect timing to tick this adventure off the bucket list, as I assumed that this would be my one and only opportunity to volunteer in a faraway land.
India also has a special meaning because my family comes from Sind, before it became part of Pakistan. My grandparents moved to Malta after they married and my father was born here. I was curious to see Mama India in all her authenticity.
Curiosity is a little flame that starts to ignite and grow with the more attention and knowledge it’s given. You always crave more. This is how I felt when I got my first taste of travel to India in 2012. The volunteer experience had inspiring and frustrating aspects, which, I soon came to learn, was an accurate summarisation of India as a whole.
I worked in a shelter for young boys who had either run away from home or had gotten lost. They were termed ‘street boys’, and many had experienced drug addiction. Our days were spent spending time with them. I had moments of boredom and frustration – How was I helping exactly?
As I hinted these feelings to the shelter’s director, he told me something that changed my entire view on volunteering. “The shelter must continue with or without you. This experience is more for you than for them. When you leave after a month, our lives must continue. We don’t depend on volunteers to function. But you’re giving them something we cannot – female love and attention. You’ve taken time out of your life for them. Many of them miss their sisters and their mothers.”
Image from flickr.com, user Gary Alford.
It’s not about the volunteer’s ego and satisfaction. It’s not about patting yourself on the back for a job well done. Sure, it’s no easy feat leaving your comfort zone and taking a step into the unpaid unknown for the benefit of strangers. Your presence has value, but your mission is to understand first. With understanding, you can look towards helping in the long-term.
In 2014, I started to get a bit antsy and thirsty for a new volunteering experience. I even considered going to Africa. I then googled ‘volunteer experience Malta’, and came across the Right to Smile website. This NGO had been started by a Maltese person. Up until that point, I hadn’t realised how rare it is to find a local NGO with overseas volunteering opportunities that’s not EU or religiously based. Reading their ethos, I heard the echo of the shelter director’s words in India.
Their next placements were to be stationed in India. Fast forward a few months, and I spent three weeks on a group volunteer placement in Bodh Gaya. The time flew by. It was a pleasure to give myself in such a way, never caring about the time or date for being completely immersed in the moment. The bond felt within a volunteer group is unlike anything you could ever experience. We met as a group of strangers and came back as a family.
Bodh Gaya. Image from flickr.com, user Scott Larsen
Mama India called me home for a third time when my friend and I went on a six-month trip around Asia. I can only summarise it as blissful. That’s not to say there were no painful moments. A friend back home passed away when I was one month into my trip. It was painful to be away, though it would also have been painful to be there.
Being part of this organisation puts my mind on a different level, where I look at the world as whole and as a system. I look forward to giving, gaining, developing and discovering much more. I look forward to the inspiring people I’m going to meet along the way. The Right to Smile family is a hub of positive people working towards positive goals on an intercultural level, bringing people from different worlds closer together to understand what is common in both. It lessens the fear of what we don’t know by bridging us and them through volunteering placements and on-going projects. I love witnessing the volunteers’ journey and supporting them through it. I love hearing what they have to say afterwards, as they return back to their normal lives and reflect.