Archive for the ‘Volunteer vacations’ Category

When ‘slumdog’ isn’t a millionaire

September 18, 2009

The Weight of Silence book cover

Fellow freelance writer Shelley Seale, of Austin, Texas, writes about traveling with a purpose. Her recently released book, “The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India,” chronicles the lives of some of that country’s 25 million orphans and the people, mostly volunteers, working to better the children’s lives. “Weight” is a more accurate version of the “Slumdog Millionaire” story.

Because virtually everyone I’ve spoken with who has traveled to India mentions the poverty and especially the young children begging for money, I asked Shelley if she would write something for this blog about what we travelers should do when we encounter young beggars.

Her reply came in the form of this thoughtful essay. As you can see, there are no easy answers. But, then, you didn’t really expect any, did you?

In Plain Sight but Invisible (written by Shelley Seale)

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.

In Plain Sight but Invisible

Young faces of India

Two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

Shelle Sheale (left) with the invisble children of India

Shelley Sheale with some of the children she got to know in India

When brought face to face with them, it becomes impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul. No matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation.

Child advocates will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like these, or in fact anyone in desperate need, supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

Author Shelley Seale

Shelley spent years researching her book

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to groups that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

Within moments after we board the train, there is a knock on the window. Two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station.

As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.

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Returning to El Salvador, together

December 4, 2008

Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Nov. 9, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

Now this is the kind of girls’ getaways I’d like to see more of. What a wonderful family activity!

Allisa Whitman (left) and her sister Rachel Whitman surrounded by boys living in El Salvador.

Allisa Whitman (left) and her sister, Rachel, surrounded by El Salvadoran boys.

WHO: Allisa Whitman, 19, of Northampton, Mass., her sister, Rachel, 23, of Brookline, Mass., and their mother, Terry Phillips, 54, of Hollis, N.H.

WHERE: El Salvador.

WHEN: June (Allisa for three weeks and the others for one).

WHY: To volunteer with Epilogos Charities helping the people of San Jose Villanueva.

Allisa (left) and Rachel with Daisy Hernandez (center), community worker for the village in El Salvador that they visited.

Allisa (left) and Rachel with Daisy Hernandez (center), a community worker in San Jose Villanueva.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY: Mother and daughters had visited the village an hour south of the capital, San Salvador, before, but never together. The municipality has about 12,000 residents, many of whom live in mud or aluminum-sided homes. Through friends, the family learned of Epilogos, a New Hampshire nonprofit organization that works on community development issues. “We keep coming down because we meet people and keep connecting with them,” Allisa Whitman said. “It’s almost like home. This was first time I was there for an extended period of time.”

NOT JUST YOUR LIFE: “Although I’m used to going there, it’s still an overwhelming experience. It takes you really sharply out of your own life,” said Whitman, a sophomore at Smith College. “Although it takes you into a different world, you realize that people are all the same. Us three being there together was nice, and we could talk about everything we did and saw.”

Rachel (left) and Allisa teaching the children of San Jose Villanueva's Literacy Program

Rachel (left) and Allisa teaching the children of San Jose Villanueva

SCHOOL BOOSTERS: They worked with schoolchildren through a literacy program, helping students with coursework and also teaching some basic hygiene skills. “One of the other things we like to do is go to the ninth-grade class and talk to them about high school. Compulsory education goes only until ninth grade.” Epilogos provides scholarships for school, which costs about $150 a child. “That’s a lot to them. So we explain about the scholarships. A lot of time families feel they can’t afford to send kids to school not just for the costs, but losing them as workers. We try to show them how, if they get an education, they can do better later.”

HANDS-ON HELP: After her sister and mother left, Allisa spent the next two weeks at the health clinic. “I have an interest in medicine and I did a lot of things I couldn’t do if I was in the States,” she said. “I gave injections, I helped clean wounds, and I did a lot of observing.”

WORK AND WALLETS: “You can change some things with talk and work a little bit, but it’s money that really changes things,” Whitman said. “But I can take my experience in the clinic to help raise awareness.”

Nursing students’ “holiday” in Haiti

March 25, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published March 23, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I was so impressed by these young women, especially Keziah, who organized this trip and has given much of her time to helping others. I hope they all continue along this path of generosity.

WHO: Keziah Furth, 22, of Jamaica Plain, Mass., and 10 other nursing students from Northeastern University.

WHERE: Haiti.

WHEN: A week in December.

WHY: To volunteer at Hope for the Children of Haiti orphanage and Grace Health Center medical clinic.

Keziah Furth (center) with Milouse (left) and Edeline of Port-au-PrinceFARAWAY CO-OP: Furth learned about the orphanage from a fellow churchgoer who was on the board there. “I took two short trips and loved it, so from January to May 2007 I did my co-op there,” she said of the Northeastern work-study program. “The people are just so warm and so welcoming. They have absolutely nothing, but the tiny things they do have they want to share with you.”

MANY HANDS: Although the trip, which Furth led, wasn’t connected with the school, all the volunteers were nursing students, and all women. “We went through friends, family, churches, and hospitals to raise money and supplies,” Furth said. “We ended up with $4,000 more than we needed for ourselves, so we gave that to the clinic and orphanage.”

Julie Aleksa (left) with Monsanto Georges of Port-au-PrinceEYE OPENING: The women spent their first and last days at the orphanage, in an impoverished area of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the rest of the week at the clinic, in rural Cazale. Most of the students had never been to a developing country; Haiti is the least developed in the hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. “A lot of the girls were overwhelmed by the poverty and the trash and how different it is, but they handled it quite well,” said Furth, the only one in the group who could speak French, one of country’s official languages. “I was really impressed.”

NURSES IN CHARGE: At the clinic, headed up by an American nurse, the students rotated basic roles. “We checked blood pressure, did weigh-ins, well-baby and prenatal checkups, consults, and emergency rooms,” Furth said. “The girls had to learn some of the French Creole vocabulary, which they picked up insanely fast. They loved every minute of it. It was cool in particular because this clinic is nurse-run, without a doctor, so it was fun to see a nurse in charge and making all the decisions.” Malnutrition is a big problem in the area, as is lack of care. “People would leave their homes in the mountains and walk all night to get to the clinic in the morning.”

Amy Stachowski (right) teaching JeanineCAREER DAY: Back at the orphanage, they showed the older children what it was like to be a nurse. “We did basic CPR and nurse training. Some of the kids are going to finish high school soon, and we wanted to take the opportunity to introduce them to what nursing was like,” Furth said. “They loved it. You should have seen them with that blood pressure cuff. They went crazy. My girls really bonded with them over that.”

Keziah Furth (left) with Nehemie of Port-au-PrinceTO ALL A GOOD NIGHT: Later that day they hosted a Christmas party for the children. “They always get one group gift, so we brought gifts donated from our nursing class so every kid could have an individual gift. We had brought over 22 suitcases that all weighed over 50 pounds,” Furth said. “The kids put on a little pageant and decorated our team like we were Christmas trees. We’d filled stockings for each of the kids earlier, and an intern put one on each bed so they’d be there when they went to bed.”