Volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity
Volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata
by Verity Worthington
Many people have asked me what draws me to Kolkata, and it’s a difficult question to answer. For my confirmation, way back in the last millennium, I received a book with daily quotes from Mother Teresa [“The Joy in Loving”]. I remember reading one entry which described a young girl visiting Kolkata from Paris. Mother noted that her eyes weren’t smiling, and sent her to work in Kalighat, where she found Jesus.
Perhaps I knew my eyes weren’t smiling either, because as soon as I finished school, I decided I would go to Kolkata to volunteer. Looking back I was certainly very young and innocent. I remember my journey from the airport, wondering if these people really slept on the streets, who owned the dogs and cows etc! It was akin to landing on another planet - many miles away from my all-girls school in rural England. However, I was soon captivated by the volunteer community; by the warmth and friendliness of the people and sisters. For the first time in my life I felt accepted for who I was, not for what I could do. I began working in a dispensary, and led a group of volunteers painting the park at Shishu Bhavan. It probably sounds cliched, but from the very beginning it became apparent that whatever we gave, we received much more.
Since that first visit nearly 10 years ago, I’ve returned many times to Kolkata, and have volunteered elsewhere with the Missionaries of Charity. Like many other volunteers, I enjoy sharing in the prayer life of the sisters as well as the apostolate. We began our day at 5am with morning prayer, and ended it with adoration. In a city as chaotic and noisy as Kolkata, the chapel becomes a vital part of the volunteer day. Mother’s Tomb is also a very special place to offer prayers and find moments of solitude. The volunteer community, under the care of Missionary of Charity Sister is remarkably close
Sometimes it’s easy to become immune to the poverty in Kolkata – after all, everything is relative. However, volunteering is a very humbling experience. Kalighat especially is a very special place. It is a quiet place; a place where the tears of the dying and the tears of the searching meet; a place where east meets west; where boundaries are broken. I was continually humbled; at the lady who thanked me for helping her eat, at the lady curled up in the corner of her bed sobbing who let me sit with her ... at the woman with excruciating burns who endured daily agony, yet raised her hands in gratitude to the doctor.
You’re reminded that it’s 2009 and people are dying without anything and anyone; forgotten by the world; rejected; unwanted; unloved. One lady in particular stands out in my memory – she had such sad eyes; our lives had been so different; different languages and cultures and customs; yet as I fed her, we were somehow united "together" in our humanity. That shared experience matters, and you realize that touching each other’s brokenness is where we find Jesus.
Every volunteer contributes a drop to the ocean of humanity, and it is certainly true that the ocean would be less without these drops. It is so easy to look at the big picture; to see the thousands of suffering people, and forget that we can only do small things with great love - that the one person we serve at a given moment is Jesus. This was definitely apparent when on Christmas day we served food to thousands of people who queued so patiently at the gates of Shishu Bhavan. This is a passage from an email I sent home: "There is a chilly cold in the air at the moment, and as I walk to work past bodies wrapped in sheets on the pavement - I realize how close to that first nativity we are here. When we tend to the dying in Kalighat - when we give out blankets as we were this morning ... this is Christmas ... not fairy lights and tinsel. I find myself seeing the Holy Family on every pavement in this city - poor, needy and vulnerable; whole families surviving in this cold weather, on a patch of dirty pavement - one day to the next, one year to the next. They aren't busy preparing the turkey or wrapping last minute presents. They haven't sent any Christmas cards this year, or decorated a tree. These babies know nothing of Santa-Claus, they don't have a stocking to hang at the end of their bed - yet they have something many people with all of those things will lack this Christmas. Perhaps it sounds clinched, but Mother Teresa was right, here people share ... they huddle under the same blanket; they share the little food they have with their neighbors. There is no room at the Inn for them either ... they live in the cold, rejected by the world - and they do so with humility.
I was reminded this morning as we gave out blankets and rice, of the queues around the world in shopping malls at this time of year. People waited so long for these essential items, which they received with such gratitude. It is a lesson to us all."
I have met so many wonderful people during my time volunteering, and I consider the Missionaries of Charity to be my extended family. People think it is courageous, to go to Kolkata and volunteer – yet those who do so discover that far from being difficult, they are embraced and welcomed with such love. I would like to say my motive for volunteering was altruistic, but I needed them far more than they needed me. The irony is, it is easy to love in Kolkata, where the physical poverty is so great. As Mother said “you will find Kolkata all over the world if you have the eyes to see”; and this is the biggest challenge for long-term volunteers and indeed, for all of us.
If you are arriving in Kolkata by plane, take a pre-paid taxi from the airport – the desk is located on the right before the exit. This will not cost more than 200Rupees, but drivers will try and ask for more, so be prepared!
- Many volunteers find accommodation on Sudder Street, which has a host of backpacker type dormitories. Sudder Street is a 20minute walk from Motherhouse. Closer accommodation can be found at Monica House on A.J.C Bose Rd, opposite Shishu Bhavan, and at Bely Guest House – right next door to Motherhouse, above the WEB internet café. There is no need to book rooms in advance. Dorm beds cost around 100-150rupees a night.
It is advisable to get your shots [Typhoid, Hep A and B, Tetanus] and bring with you any prescription medication you are taking. Personally, I did not take antimalarials, but these are available in Kolkata [as is most medication] much cheaper than in the west.
You do not have to write to the sisters or call before you arrive. However, you do need to register as a volunteer before you can start working in the centres. To do this, bring your passport to Shishu Bhavan, located at 78 A.J.C Bose Road, at 3pm sharp, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Alternatively, the Sister in charge of volunteers issues day passes at breakfast in Motherhouse, [54a A.J.C Bose Road] after mass in the mornings.
Mass is at 6am every day at Motherhouse, followed by a breakfast of bananas, bread and chai. You don’t have to attend mass to get breakfast, but you’re most welcome. At 7.30 we say a prayer, and disperse for work. Volunteers are also welcome to Adoration, which is at 6.30pm every evening except on Thursdays and Sundays when it’s at 6pm.
Be aware that many of the beggars working in the vicinity of Motherhouse are professional. It is difficult at first to understand the many levels of poverty in Kolkata, but it is not encouraged to give money to people in the street.
There are many places to eat around Sudder Street, with Blue Sky Café being a favourite haunt amongst volunteers. On AJC Bose Road, Delhi-Dabar serves cheap rice and dahl at lunchtime, and fantasti khati rolls [a Kolkata speciality] in the evenings. Hotel Circular, on the other side of A.J.C Bose Road, offers a range of cuisine, but be prepared for slow service! Alternatively, if you have cooking facilities, there are many bazaars which sell fresh fruit and vegetables, and there is a supermarket chain called MORE, located at New Market, and Elliot Road.
For treats, Flury’s on Park Street offers wonderful cakes and afternoon tea. Kolkata also has a KFC on Middleton Row, and a pizzeria called Fire and Ice on Camac Street. Be kind to yourself, volunteering can be hard work. If you’re in need of a break, you could also head to the Forum on Elgin Road, where there is an INOX cinema showing western and Indian films.
Do be careful of the water; make sure you drink bottled water, and check the seal first.
Be prepared to wash your clothes in a bucket! One thing I’ve learnt over the years is to wash my clothes every day, otherwise it is really hard work! You can buy detergent [brands like Ariel] at many street stalls. Soak them first, and then get scrubbing!
You can receive mail at Motherhouse, kept in a box in the breakfast room. Letters should be addressed c/o Sister in charge of volunteers, Missionaries of Charity, Motherhouse, 54a A.J.C Bose Road, Kolkata 700016, West Bengal, INDIA.
If you’re working in Kalighat, Prem Dan or Daya Dan, you will need to get a bus to work. It is advisable to keep a ready supply of coins, as the conductors don’t like giving change. It costs 4rupees from Motherhouse to Kalighat.
Thursdays are volunteers day off. There is no breakfast on Thursdays, but there are often volunteer activities arranged such as visits to Titagargh, the leprosy centre run by the MC brothers.
Take a deep breath, a journal to write in, and be prepared for a life changing experience!
Tips for volunteering in Kolkata
Many people have found volunteering to be the experience of a lifetime. Volunteers are welcome to help the sisters in their service to the poorest of the poor for a week, a month, or longer.
The qualifications required for volunteering:
“Hearts to love and hands to serve!”
You are not required to call or write to the sisters ahead of time to go to Kolkata to volunteer.
Simply “show up” for Orientation and Registration:
At: 3 p.m.
Nirmala Shishu Bhavan (Home for Children),
78, A.J.C. Bose Road, Kolkata – 700016
On: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Please bring your passport as you are required to show it to the Volunteers’ Coordinator at the Orientation.
Note: Volunteers’ Coordinators are not available on Sundays and Thursdays.
Thursday is a day of prayer for the Sisters.
There is also no orientation and registration on the following days:
The Monday after Easter
Volunteers share in the works of love at the Homes for: the dying destitutes, children, and physically and mentally challenged children.
Details will be given at the Orientation.
For those who wish to join the sisters for Mass and Holy Hour at Motherhouse (54, A.J.C. Bose Road, Kolkata – 700016) or to see the Museum, the schedule is as follows:
Holy Mass at 6 a.m. followed by breakfast
Holy Hour at 6.30 p.m.; Thursday and Sunday at 6 p.m.
Holy Mass and Blessing (with Mother Teresa’s Relic) at Mother Teresa’s Tomb on Fridays at 4.30 p.m.
Viewing of the Museum and Mother Teresa’s Room: 8 a.m. to 12 noon and 3 p.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Visiting Hours for our Homes: 9 a.m. – 12 noon and 3 p.m. – 5.30 p.m.
Volunteers must arrange for their own accommodations. Some of the nearest and cheapest places of accommodation are:
Hotel Circular, 177, A.J.C. Bose Road
Monica House, St. James’s Church, A.J.C. Bose Road
YMCA, 25, Chowringhee Road,
Hotel Maria, Center Point, Modern Lodge, Salvation Army Hostel, Sudder Street
Baptist Mission, near Baptist Church A. J. C. Bose Road
Volunteers are welcome to help the sisters in their service to the poorest of the poor for a week, a month, or longer.
For those wishing to volunteer in Calcutta, please write directly to Sister in-charge of volunteers, who is presently in charge of the volunteers at our Motherhouse:
Missionaries of Charity
Sister in-charge of volunteers
54/A A.J.C. BOSE ROAD
Or call: Tel : 91-33-2249-7115 or 91-33-2217-2277
NO E-MAIL AVAILABLE .
For those wishing to volunteer elsewhere. Please contact directly the regional house for the Country , where you plan to go NO E-MAIL AVAILABLE . View list of regional house of the Missionaries of Charity with the respective country in each Region: Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, The Americas