The experience was wonderful and meaningful- unforgettable
In the Kalighat , is where I spent three memorable mornings as a volunteer. The hospital, established by Mother Teresa in 1950, is run by the Missionaries of Charity with the help of volunteers. Working there made me realize 1) how fortunate we Americans are and 2) how overregulated we are here in the U.S. ....
It was September when I walked into Kalighat, which was very Spartan and clean but satisfactory, and said to the nun (all the nuns spoke English), “I would like to do some volunteer work.”
“Good,” she said. “Go over there and help that fellow to bathe the men.”
That was it. I didn’t have to fill out any papers. No fingerprints. No social security number. Nothing. Later they took my name and address and sent me a ‘Thank you’ card.
And so another volunteer and I carried an emaciated man to the bathing area, where I alone used a plastic pitcher to pour tepid water over the man’s head and back and chest and arms and legs. I then soaped most of his body and rinsed him off and dried him. Another worker helped me to carry the man back to his cot, where I dressed him in clean pajamas.
Most of the morning was spent bathing men. I also used Johnson’s Baby Oil to rub the dry scalps and backs and limbs of some of the men, most of whom seemed pleased with the massage.
I also helped some to take pills, and once I spooned glucose into the mouth of a younger fellow, paralyzed by a fall, who could not even swallow. The glucose just ran into his mouth and down his throat. He could not speak nor move. He only stared, emotionless, at me.
On another morning I helped other volunteers, most of them college-age persons from around the world, to wash the pajamas of the men and women. The washing was all done by hand and by feet.
The first “cycle” involved tramping, as though the pajamas were grapes, on the soiled clothing in soapy water. The clothes then were rinsed by hand in another concrete basin and then put into the basin where I worked with two students. Our job was to rinse them in disinfectant, wring them out and pass them on to a volunteer who hung them on the roof in the sun.
On the third morning I helped wash dishes, by hand, of course, squatting before low tubs on the floor. The dishes were metal plates, cups and spoons.
Elsewhere I saw middle-aged women volunteers at sewing machines. I assume they were repairing the blankets and pajamas.
The patients are among “the poorest of the poor” who have nowhere else to go. Mother Teresa was determined that no one should die unwanted on the streets.
I worked for only three mornings, but others worked for a month or longer. Volunteering is rewarding, for certain, the experience was wonderful and meaningful — unforgettable.
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.
Volunteering for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity
By David Jolly
KOLKATA, India — It's only 9 a.m. here at Prem Dan, a long-term convalescent facility run by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, but already my fellow volunteers and I are soaked with sweat as we bend over tanks of water, hand-washing laundry for close to one hundred patients.
It is hard work in the early June heat. Six volunteers are sloshing clothes around in soapy water; the rest, myself included, rinse and wring out the garments before they are taken to dry in the harsh pre-monsoon sunshine. As the old man, at 44, I initially fear that I won't be able to keep up with the 20-something guys around me, but I soon get the rhythm. There is a strong spirit of teamwork here, and when a wet shirt goes zipping by my ear, knocking my baseball cap into the water, I turn to face the grinning culprit and laugh with everyone else.
Everyone is familiar with Mother Teresa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in 1997, but not everyone realizes that the order of Catholic nuns she founded here in this city, formerly known as Calcutta, continues to thrive and that the sisters and brothers of the order welcome volunteers as they seek to fulfill their vow of caring for "the poorest of the poor."
Unlike the majority of the volunteers, many of whom have been planning their visits for months or even years, I have come on a whim. I had already been in India for three weeks, on a study-tour with a group of American social workers, but tiring of the travel pace, I left the group in the southwestern state of Kerala, and via a couple of cheap flights made my way across the country to Kolkata.
Finding my way to Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, is simple. At lunch on the day after my arrival, I meet a group of Americans in a restaurant on Sudder Street, where most of the city's foreigner-friendly accommodation is located. They are themselves on their way to volunteer and invite me to join them for an orientation session that afternoon.
At Mother House, I meet volunteers from all over the world, including French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spaniards, Germans, Americans, Canadians and Irish. While there is naturally some cliquishness along national and linguistic lines, the common challenges help to bring the strangers together. Many volunteers are seasoned travelers, while others were outside of their home countries for the first time. (I am stunned to find a couple of midwestern Americans violating a cardinal rule of Indian travel, eating raw salad in a local restaurant. Sure enough, they both go out of commission for 48 hours). Some of the volunteers are medical professionals or social workers; there are quite a few office workers, and many students. The youngest volunteer I meet is 17 years old, the oldest is probably well beyond retirement age.
At the orientation session we learn the history of the order, are given some advice about dealing with beggars and street scams, and are assigned our work. I am assigned to a group home called Nabo Jibon, where I will work with severely disabled adolescent boys.
When I arrive the next morning at Nabo Jibon, 45 minutes and two bus rides from Mother House, I learn that most of the heavy lifting - cooking, cleaning and washing - is done by local women and the friendly young novices. The other volunteers and I sit and talk individually with the boys, recite the alphabet, kick a ball around, push them on the swings, and help at mealtime. I find that my singing, which enjoys little repute in most circles, is a big hit here, and the kids clap, laugh and smile at my efforts. One boy, who had appeared closed to the world, leaps to his feet and dances rapturously when I sing the melody to the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
A social worker from Nebraska, Liz, volunteering in Kolkata for the second time, urges me to work at some of the other facilities, as well. "You're not getting the 'true' experience," she nags in a friendly way.
So a few days later, I spend the afternoon working at a place called Nirmal Hriday. I approach it with trepidation. Kalighat, as it is also known, for the Hindu temple complex with which it is associated, is the hospice for the dying that was the first of the facilities Mother Teresa founded here. It houses perhaps 150 patients in closely spaced beds, with men and women in separate wards. Most are old and sick, but no one is in obvious pain.
Instead of the solemn, oppressive atmosphere I have been anticipating, I find a beehive of activity and, once again, a lively sense of camaraderie among the volunteers. The sisters come from all over the world, including India, and they are kind and extremely efficient. But while the other, more experienced, volunteers seem to know exactly what they're doing, I feel that I'm in the way, and after giving hand massages and chatting for a while with patients, I am eager for tasks. When a no-nonsense Italian nurse puts me to work feeding little pots of what I imagine to be banana custard to a sightless and nearly toothless old man, I jump at the chance to be useful.
This experience drives home the fact that longer-term volunteers are a lot more valuable than us tourists. I meet a Japanese volunteer, Hide, a trim, middle-aged man, who commands the Kalighat dishwashing operation. He has been working for the sisters in India, and also in Ethiopia, for several years. He has left Japan in the prime of his working life to help the poor. So serious and competent is he at the primitive dishwashing station (obviously a critical operation in any such institution), that I can easily imagine him as a quality control officer in a state-of-the-art semiconductor plant.
Later, I learn that many of the patients have tuberculosis. I have a small son, and I worry about getting the disease. When I express my concern to a Canadian doctor named Luke, he assures me that it is very unlikely that I will contract TB from such limited contact. "I worked for months with tuberculosis patients in Nigeria, and my markers still haven't turned positive," he tells me, referring to a test for antibodies that show exposure to the disease. He almost sounds disappointed.
I am not Catholic, though many, probably a majority, of the volunteers are; nonetheless, no one has tried to convert me or anyone else that I know of. Indeed, the sisters are probably too busy, and anyway, their example is probably as good an advertisement for the faith as one is likely to find. Nonetheless, I start each morning with 6 a.m. mass at Mother House, where we volunteers sit to one side, cross-legged on the floor, already drenched with perspiration. The nuns, in their white saris, and the priests in their cassocks, suffer silently. A few electric fans stir up the humid air. After a shared breakfast of bananas, white bread and the sweet, milky tea known as chai, we sing devotional songs, say a prayer and then it's out into rush-hour Kolkata for a bus ride to our "jobs."
Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengal, is renowned for its music and arts. It ranks in size behind only Mumbai and Delhi among Indian cities, with a population of about 14 million people in its wide orbit. Proud locals argue that the city's reputation is worse than its reality, and there is something exhilarating about moving about this sea of humanity. But even a first-time visitor with wide experience in Asia may find the scale of misery overwhelming, and hunger is evident in the faces of the hundreds of people I see sleeping on the sidewalk every morning on my way to the Mother House.
A visitor with no experience of the developing world is apt to face a period of adjustment, in the petty rip-offs, the fetid air, the choking crowds, the open-air baths and toilets. I arrived in early June, just as the monsoon was getting under way, and I spent several hours one morning huddled under a flimsy roof, soaking in the pouring rain as traffic throughout the entire city was halted by thigh-deep floodwaters. It's all part of the experience.
In the end, Prem Dan, the convalescent facility, is the place where I feel most useful; the volunteers really work, and unskilled laborers (i.e., journalists) are valuable here. Back at the laundry station, clothes done, we recycle the soapy water, scooping it up in buckets and carrying it out to scrub down the sidewalks and driveways of the facility. By the time the sidewalks are clean the heat has left me distinctly woozy. At least I thought to wear a hat.
At mid-morning, we bring the patients a snack of hot milk, and after a quick cup of chai, I find a new job preparing lunch. I swap stories with a young Bengali man and a couple of thoughtful American volunteers as we work the slippery pits from the flesh of gooey yellow jackfruit. After we feed the patients, we help them to the bathroom, and after cleanup, our day is done.
It's all I can do to eat lunch myself and then collapse for an hour or two in my hotel room.
Going to help out with the Missionaries of Charity might sound daunting, but nothing could be more simple. I showed up at Kolkata's Netaji Subhash Airport after 10 p.m. with no hotel reservation, not knowing anyone. A taxi got me to Sudder Street, where I found a hotel - it won't show up in any luxury travel guides - and learned everything I needed to know about volunteering by asking.
I had the chance to travel in India before my time at Mother House, but I met quite a few volunteers who had come directly to Kolkata and planned to spend their entire trips there. That seemed a shame, because they would see little of India's famed cultural and artistic riches. Volunteers work hard, and the heat, pollution and scale of the city make it easy to spend a lot of time lying in a hotel room bed, staring at the ceiling fan.
What I can say, is this: The organization she created in Kolkata attracts a lot of interesting and warm-hearted people as volunteers, and I feel lucky to have been a small part of it.