For Esmeralada Bernal, a social science student from Spain, volunteering her services for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata has been more than a fulfilling experience. She wakes up early every morning at her Sudder Street hotel and makes way to the AJC Bose Road to reach Mother House, where she reports for the day. Breakfast is shared with fellow-volunteers from around the world and then by 7 am each one of them heads for several care homes around Kolkata, including Nirmal Hriday (home for the dying), Prem Dan (for the sick and mentally ill) and Shishu Bhavan (for orphaned children).
“Before I came here, I had hoped to work with the dying. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of death and offer companionship to those I thought needed it most. My experience at Nirmal Hriday has been an experience way beyond what I expected,” Bernal says, who is here to spend her mid-semester break. Like Bernal there are hundreds of eager volunteers from different parts of the world who are attracted to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity even over a decade after her death.
“She is still everywhere in Kolkata. Statues of her pop up among the snarled traffic jams, while her photograph lines the walls of internet cafes, stores and bookshops throughout town,” says Vanessa Arrington, a travel journalist from Cuba, who in her blog has given extensive details about her volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity. The volunteers have the option of either work for a few days, a couple of weeks, or several months. Some even end up staying for years. Duties include everything from doing laundry work to cleaning bedrooms, to helping feed and bathe patients, to just spending time with the hundreds of those receiving care at the homes.
“The experience of volunteering here has pushed me out of the comfort zone. I have had to cut women’s toenails, pick lice out of their hair and make attempts to begin a conversation with them,” says Hilda Adler, a student of literature from Berlin, Germany. The volunteers generally work for six days a week. They can choose from morning or afternoon shifts, but many eager foreigners end up choosing both. However, they soon realise that it can be a bit taxing. “I wanted to work every shift, but the intensity of the experience and the heat got the better of me. So now I am working only one shift a day,” says Jacques Boucher, a MBA student from Paris.
Contrary to popular perception, volunteers do not have to be Catholic or even religious. The idea is to give everyone an opportunity to reach out to fellow human beings. “I was a bit sceptical about it being a very religious experience, but thankfully it wasn’t. It was spiritual,” says Chris Martin, from the US, who plans to settle down in Darjeeling and open a school for the destitute there.
The volunteer program, however, draws a vast number of Catholics and Christians, but all are welcome to attend the daily 6 am mass and afternoon Adoration at the Mother House.
First published in www.expressindia.com 2008.09.