I knew for a long time that I wanted to come to India, but I was not sure what would be the best use for my time and money. Fortunately, I came across the George Foundation’s website while looking for volunteer positions, and was impressed by its clarity and professionalism. Other organizations offered to place volunteers in various service projects for a fee, and seemed both poorly run and motivated by profit. In contrast, the George Foundation struck me as sincerely and admirably committed to improving the lives of poor people in India, and I volunteered my help in the hopes of contributing to this cause.

Mrs. Law, the principal of Shanti Bhavan, responded to my inquiry with friendly alacrity, and I was very excited at the prospect of helping teach English and music for five weeks during August and September of 2004. I must admit that I was somewhat anxious as well. I had little conception of what my daily life would be like.

As soon as I arrived in India, however, my questions were answered and worries put to rest. Mrs. Law met me at the airport herself and briefed me on Shanti Bhavan during the one and a half hour drive to school. Although I arrived late in the evening, Shanti, the assistant facilities manager, stayed up to show me to my room and give me a specially prepared meal. I was amazed at the care both she and Mrs. Law took to ensure that I was comfortable. The guest room in which I stayed was clean and spacious. The grounds of the school are beautiful – indeed, Shanti Bhavan reminds me in many ways of my home, Hawaii. I found the food healthy and usually enjoyable. During my stay, I was continually impressed by the thoroughness of the woman who cleaned my room. High standards of service are, in fact, a constant theme in Shanti Bhavan. All members of the staff are competent and efficient in what they do, whether it is teaching, cooking, cleaning or washing clothing.

Such skill and efficiency requires a great deal of effort, as I quickly discovered. On my first day, children and staff were amused by the fact that I slept until 1pm due to jet lag, and I was allowed to simply find my way around, meet the children, and orient myself to my new surroundings. Once I had acclimated, however, I found that my schedule was very busy. Mrs. Law allowed me to teach the 6 th and 7 th grade English language and literature classes independently, although she often observed and participated. I taught singing for each class from pre-school to fifth grade, instructed thirteen children in individual piano lessons, and conducted a choir. Since I have experience in preparing high school and college students for admissions exams, Mrs. Law asked me to teach the 6 th and 7 th graders strategies for standardized tests. My schedule was exhausting but extremely rewarding. I often thought of how lucky I was to be given so many opportunities to teach on my own, despite not having a degree in education. And by far the best part of my work was the constant, close interaction I had with the children of Shanti Bhavan.

It is difficult to convey how special the children are without sounding excessive or insincere. But they are truly special. Perhaps the best word to describe them is “bright.” They are not only bright in the mental sense of being curious, able to converse intelligently and learn quickly, but also in the emotional sense of being confident, loquacious and happy. From the moment I arrived they bombarded me with questions; not one was afraid to approach me or any other stranger who came to Shanti Bhavan. Their enthusiasm for learning is incredible, and their behavior is almost impeccable. Although they can be mischievous – two of my piano students made a game of hiding my belongings when I wasn’t looking – they are never malicious or seriously disobedient. It is often hard to believe that they come from extremely deprived backgrounds. Dr. George and Mrs. Law were kind enough to arrange for me a visit to several of the children’s villages, to see first hand the conditions in which they have lived. The children of Shanti Bhavan are quick to laugh and play, incessantly curious, clean, orderly, gentle and kind. In utter contrast, many of their home environments are depressingly barren, dirty, chaotic and violent. Poverty and hopelessness are linked shackles that imprison so many of these people. In the US and UK, children from such socially and economically disadvantaged homes frequently have mental, emotional and behavioral problems through no fault of their own but due to the deplorable conditions of their home lives. Shanti Bhavan, which appropriately means “Haven of Peace,” gives children a chance to escape that outcome.

The first person to thank for this possibility is, of course, Dr. George, who is one of the most admirable persons I have ever met. Furthermore, the staff members are uniformly committed to their jobs and especially to the children. Mrs. Law, the principal, and Ms. Beena, the vice principal, are skilled administrators and both should be commended for their dedication and hard work. In every circumstance, they consider the welfare of the school and the children before their own. They also know how to handle the inevitable conflicts among staff members and other managerial headaches with the right mixture of authority and kindness. The instructors and residential staff are similarly devoted to teaching and caring for the children in the best possible way. On several occasions when I went to Bangalore with the teachers on our day off, I observed that many of them spent their free time buying supplies to enrich their classes and gifts with which to reward their students. They also went out of their way to make me feel welcome – after my first real day of teaching, I was specially invited to an impromptu party for one of the teacher’s birthdays, and even danced with them a bit (despite my embarrassment)!

My experience here was wonderful and it is difficult to find areas in which I could make useful suggestions. Perhaps one thing that would make life better for the staff would be increased opportunities for them to stay in touch with their family and friends: private telephones, computers with connection to the internet, or more frequent visits home. They all work long hours and put in a great deal of effort, while battling the twin heartaches of homesickness and loneliness. Since I have not been educated as a teacher, I hesitate to make any suggestions regarding the education of the children. However, I occasionally felt that the children are almost too obedient, and that they depended upon me and the other staff for detailed guidance in many areas of their lives. Perhaps as they grow older and more independent, they will benefit from a slightly less structured schedule and an appropriately less sheltered environment.

I hope that I will be able to see these children again as they grow up. If there is anything that I regret about my time here, it is that I was not able to stay longer or do more. It is rare to find any organization that runs with such a clear sense of purpose, or people so dedicated to that achieving that purpose. Among those that do, it is even rarer to find one with such a truly valuable goal. As I run out of positive adjectives to describe Shanti Bhavan, I can only conclude by thanking everyone for their kindness and wishing the children all the best for their bright future.

Lindsay Oishi,
Brasenose College, Oxford, U.K

September 23, 2004

[ home | projects | news | volunteer | donate | contact ]