Julie Mehta: Volunteer Ahmedabad
SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009
Julie Mehta, August 2008 Fellow
Indicorps seeks to inspire Indians from around the world – abroad and local – to give their time in service of the country. As a part of Indicorps’ commitment to engaging Indians to contribute to the progress of their country, Indicorps has been piloting a city-wide volunteer mobilization effort in Ahmedabad – the city where Indicorps is headquartered.
In 2007, Volunteer Ahmedabad (VA) was formed as an effort to encourage the people of Ahmedabad to develop civic leadership and personal responsibility. VA has been geared towards engaging the youth to do something for their city, and as a current fellow on this project, my primary task is to pilot initiatives to get high school students, housewives, families, corporate employees, and senior citizen groups involved in VA efforts.
One challenge mentioned in the project description was as follows:
‘ “Social work” is often belittled as a task for “others,” and not respected as an activity in one’s own household. In general, the majority of people in Ahmedabad do not encourage their family members to volunteer.’
Unfortunately, I did not take into consideration that if a successful organization is telling me that what I was about to apply to was not at all going to be an easy task, chances are they would know what they were talking about. Being born and raised in America, I grew up in a world where volunteering was never criticized, in fact, it was just the opposite. The high school I attended had a “Key Club” with many active members that had partaken in regular volunteer activities that occurred throughout the year. Living in New York, there were plenty of organizations to volunteer within, choosing from a vast variety of activities. A great example would be New York Cares, being a huge success in the city, by offering it’s volunteers numerous events to take part of, from tutoring underprivileged students, feeding the hungry, to spending time with the elderly; the projects get filled with volunteers in no time. That’s exactly what I was expecting when I signed up for this project, however, I soon realized that volunteering is heavily ignored in the country. Even my own family here in Ahmedabad do not understand what I’m doing, and laugh when I tell them about cleaning up a local park. People do not see the value in helping others or the point in helping develop the city, while others believe they have better things to do.
Goals & Plans
For the next four months, I am going to continue encouraging Ahmedabadi’s through different “action items” throughout the city. Action items occur every Sunday, where the core VA members rally crowds at a public area, perform street plays on a major issue, such as cleanliness, and encourage others to help solve the problem instead of contributing.
Currently, we are busy planning for the Youth Leadership Course, which a six-week, free of cost, summer program. The ultimate goal of the program is to help the youth of Ahmedabad develop themselves through developing the city. This will involve different workshops on management, professional skills & personality development, alongside a series of projects relating to citywide issues.
In the past month, I have been involved with outreach for our summer program, and although most students respond that they have nothing to do over the summer, they would rather do nothing than take a free summer course that would benefit themselves as well as the city. However, I hope we have at least twenty passionate members this year, because I see what the impact of only one can be.
In addition to the summer program, I wanted to begin a new initiative with municipal schools in the city. The goal of this initiative was to create an environment that is conducive to students’ learning. I wanted to work with schools to create an enjoyable atmosphere for students to learn in, while encouraging them to think more about their environment, and take more of an effort in being responsible citizens. I also want them working on creative projects such as making their own trash cans from re-usable goods and planting trees/flower gardens to beautify their school.
A few months ago, I began to work with ten 7th –standard students in a nearby municipal school, and this was also huge challenge. The municipal school cancelled on us (myself and a few volunteers) four out of eight sessions that we had set up. Since we were granted permission in February, the principal only allowed a month with the students, due to March being exams time. As I learned, one month is not enough time to encourage 12-year olds to take an active role in their community. The principal has granted me permission to work with her students during the next school year, so I am hoping to be given three days a week, one hour a day with students, over a longer period of time. I’ll need to find volunteers who are willing to commit as much time with the school, and befriend the teachers in the school, instead of trying to win over the principal. I am hoping that the teachers will be able to take part in activities and help with disciplining students. This will also be a hard task, since many times, teachers do not see the point in engaging students in activities other than rote learning.
Understandings & Personal Growth
On the first day with the students at the municipal school, we discussed the importance of keeping their environment clean, and later asked them to draw pictures on what they observed as the effects of pollution, but the students in the class had absolutely no idea what to draw. We explained that they should draw some sort of picture depicting the effect of trash on the streets/pollution in the air, and they still were confused. So, I drew an example on the board, and it was only a stick figure throwing away a banana peel in a trash can. After allowing the students a few minutes, we walked around the classroom to see their pictures, and we found that the students copied the example that I drew on the board, including my name. It was much harder than I thought to get these students to think outside the box, and use their creativity. To be honest, I did not expect this to be a problem, but it was an eye-opening experience to the reality that students in the schools are rarely encouraged to tap into their creative side.
The reason why I originally wanted to work with municipal schools was to create a better environment for students to learn in. Coming from a background in education, I have stepped into many schools, and not one has compared to the horrid conditions that municipal schools in India are in. The students that attend municipal schools usually are from families that do not have much money. The students I worked with would go home and help their parents, who were hard at work during the day, before sitting down and opening their books to study. When I began working with the students, I realized that these students may need more than just a better environment; they need a place where they can just be kids, which is another goal I have set aside for this school project.
The word “inspiration” has been used endless times these past few months, so much so that it has lost all meaning for me. But it took only ten minutes watching a street play done by VA for me to realize what it is that inspires me. When I went to the first “Action Item” with the VA members, way back during the August Orientation, I didn’t understand the point. I assumed that cleaning the lake in Ahmedabad to spread the message about throwing trash in the trash can was probably as effective as talking to a tree. After spending five months with the group and partaking in a number of these Action Items run by the volunteers themselves, I realized just how much of the work they did impacted the city. At the start of each rally, there are only ten of us, and by the end, over 12-15 more have joined us. We have had people tell us that they see the difference in the areas that have been cleaned, the municipality has provided more trash cans for use at Vastrapur Lake, and more important than anything else, are the relationships we have formed with many people who have joined us in other events. I now understand that a small group of individuals do in fact have the power to do great things.
Living in India has also had a tremendous influence on my personal growth as well. There are so many aspects about my childhood that I never understood until I came to India on my own. One of the main reasons why I wanted to come back to a country I call home was to understand more about my parents, as well as myself. It is a greater understanding of some of the obvious questions I used to ask, such as why did my parents forbid me from talking to boys for years? As well as more of an answer to why did they make me celebrate Diwali when no other child knew what it even was. I now understand why nothing in my house ever goes to waste, why my parents wanted my siblings and I to be doctors, accountants, or computer engineers, even why my dad yelled if even a finger was out our car window.
I understand just how lucky I am to have clean water from a tap back home, warm clothes on my back, and a roof over my head. I have never gone to bed hungry, nor have I had to work because my family depended on it. I now know the true difference between a necessity and a luxury. I have learned that not everyone has positive intentions, but that not everyone has negative intentions either. I have learned that there are things beyond my power that I cannot change, but more importantly, there are many more things within my power that I am capable of doing something about. The question now is, at what length will I be willing to go to accomplish what it is I want?