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The summer of a lifetime - Volunteering in India

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Rebecca shares her experience of volunteering with Suas Educational Development.

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"No selection of words can express the intensity of the heat, the chaos and the colour of the streets, the smells, and the relentless car-horns"

After sending away an application form for the Suas Volunteer Programme 2013, I was lucky enough to receive an interview scheduled for one night last November. I had just finished a 5 o’clock lecture, I was exhausted and it was absolutely bucketing down outside. I stood at my bus stop for a minute and thought seriously about skipping the interview, going home and curling up on the couch.

It’s bizarre looking back at how close I came to letting that opportunity slip past me, which ultimately would have led me to have spent the Summer working in a shop and then blowing all my earnings on a 10 day trip to Magaluf. I ended up running across town in the dark, got soaked and got a place on the programme which, without trying to sound like a walking talking cliché, has actually changed my life.

Suas Educational Development was set up in 2002 by a bunch of Trinity College students, and since then they’ve been responsible for homework clubs and literacy support programmes around Dublin city, for developing awareness on global issues, as well as supporting a number of schools across Kenya and India.

This year I was one of 78 people who volunteered as teaching assistants with Suas’ partners in India, where we met the most wonderful brown-eyed, cheeky-smiled children who come from some exceptionally tough circumstances. After three training weekends, I felt pretty prepared to teach these kids, but I never expected to be taught so much by them.

India is a really frustrating place to describe. No selection of words can express the intensity of the heat, the chaos and the colour of the streets, the smells, and the relentless car-horns. Extreme poverty hits you like a smack in the face and the extreme wealth that lives cheek by jowl alongside it breaks your heart.

The people are the warmest, most kind-hearted that I’ve ever met and I don’t remember a day without finding myself in a weird and wonderful situation, like taxi journeys with Bollywood singing drivers, or getting totally lost in translation (our landlord introduced himself as Mr Naughty – he was a lovely guy, totally innocent to the suggestive nature of his nickname).

Of course the placement has its fair share of challenges too; it’s physically and emotionally exhausting. Think a night out in town followed by Coppers and a happy meal in McDonalds and then facing a 9am lecture the next morning. But it makes you realise just how much you can squeeze into one measly day and teaches you a ton about how to motivate and discipline yourself to work harder than you ever thought you could.

Since I’ve come home my work ethic has totally changed –that 9am lecture is a total breeze for me now! At about week 7, I realised the incredible effect India was having on me. I looked around the tiny nursery school I had been teaching in and everything had gone a little bit mad. One of the kids, Tanusree, had somehow managed to dismantle the blackboard and had lost her skirt in the process, Dipendu was eating a crayon, Riya had scaled a wall and was now hanging from the window. And I suddenly realised that I had never felt happier than I did at that moment.

There was no one person or thing that was making me smile, but I just couldn’t stop. I’ve had some of the best days of my life in India. Every day I reminisce about teaching the kids The Beatles songs, dodging wayward cows while driving down the street, the late-night chats on the roof of our accommodation with my 10 amazing teammates who are now undoubtedly some of my closest friends.

I think about how broken I was saying goodbye to my kids and receiving pens and hair clips as gifts from them, which are more precious to me now than anything else I’ve ever owned. I think of Gopal, one boy who had a particularly difficult life – his alcoholic family, his poverty-stricken home and how in spite of it all, he was the happiest person in our classroom.

Since I’ve come home, nothing bothers me and I appreciate everything. I’ll never forget running through the door of my house after my 10 weeks away and bursting into tears to find that the nursery I had been teaching in is smaller than our kitchen extension.

I can’t imagine my life now had I just gotten the bus home that rainy night last November. Don’t let this opportunity slip past you like I almost did. Don’t think about anyone or anything else, any ifs or any buts, and trust me when I say that you won’t regret this decision, I promise.

Visit www.suas.ie today for more information and to fill out your VP14 application form! Deadline: October 28th.

Tags: volunteering volunteer travel

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Image by Rebecca O Byrne
Published October 21, 2013
Updated November 01, 2013
Rebecca O Byrne
  • The summer of a lifetime - Volunteering in India
  • The summer of a lifetime - Volunteering in India

This article is part of the SpunOut Opinion section – a space for young people to share their experiences of tough times and encourage others to seek help.

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