The Hidden Magic of Volunteering

Three Women of Mumbai by Steve Evans@flickr

Author: Charlotte Buchanan

This summer I had the opportunity to spend a week’s placement at an NGO, volunteering with street children in Mumbai, India. If you had met me at the start of the summer, I would have told you that I expected this experience to be incredibly emotional, at times even upsetting. I would have also told you – in perhaps, an arrogant manner – that I was determined to try and find a way to help. I assumed that because I was educated and from a ‘developed’ nation that I was obviously in a superior position to help. However, these assumptions were based on mythical characteristics of volunteering in a developing country and consequently, my real experience was far from what I expected.

My placement was with The Vatsalya Foundation, a charity that works to help street children in Mumbai. On the first day of the placement, I was unsure as to what to expect. Nevertheless, due to my arrogant and ignorant expectations I felt prepared. Armed with tissues (for the upsetting, emotional side) and a notebook (for my plan of action) I walked through the door of the centre. Upon arrival the children were ecstatic to see me, instantly breaking any awkward, unknown boundaries that might have been present. I spent the day simply playing with the children and allowing them to show me around.  My tissues were redundant as the majority of the day was spent laughing not crying and my notebook only proved useful in providing paper for some of the children to draw on. Unsurprisingly, I left after the first day feeling very confused – and very tired – as it was not at all what I had expected.

Washing Dishes on the Street by Steve Evans@flickr

The rest of the week continued – much to my surprise – in the same joyous vain. The children and I continued to play games, we danced, we sang, we painted, occasionally looked at their education and one day I was even permitted to partake in a religious ceremony with them. I never once used my tissues, my notebook is full of pretty drawings, not a plan of action and when I look back at the photos taken, they are full of huge grins and gleaming eyes – to say my experience surprised me is an understatement. I had expected it to be emotional and it was, although not in the negative sense that I had anticipated. On the contrary, I found the experience to be incredibly happy and by the end of the week I found the charity a truly magical place to be.

Nestled in a quiet and green part of the city, its hidden location was magical enough, however, it was the children’s happiness that made it truly magical. Despite everything, everyday that week when I visited the children, they were overjoyed to see me and proud to show me their world. They had nothing, but, yet they had the most positive outlook I have ever encountered. The charity’s slogan is “street children without home, not without hope” and this message really sums up the whole attitude and atmosphere. While you sit and watch the children play (admittedly, surrounded either side by children) you realise that this charity is magical as the personal attitudes of the volunteers and children are optimistic and content.

My initial attitude, therefore, that I would ‘help the situation’ was redundant by the end of the first hour, never mind the end of the week. I realised that I was ignorant of what these situations needed. And yes, materialistic elements may be nice and make things more comfortable but they do not and cannot replace the ambiance that is created by the personal qualities of the people. However, please do not get me wrong, I am not advocating that these children should continue to have no material comforts. (If anything, they deserve more as they are truly grateful for everything they receive.) But the experience really educated me on the reality that it is the personal qualities and atmosphere that makes a charity magical and ultimately a success.

I entered into my volunteering placement with ignorant and arrogant expectations about charities dealing with poverty. Looking back now, I realise just how wrong I was. By the end of my week volunteering, I realised it was me who was being educated. And me who was being left feeling utterly humbled and ultimately inferior. I witnessed first-hand a contentment that is un-paralleled in a materialistic, developed world. I met people who are completely enchanting in spirit to the extent that their persona dictates the overall running and success of a simple a charity. The mythical characteristics I had expected were nowhere, instead existed a beautiful magic, the likes of which I had never seen before. This hidden magic associated with volunteering is, in my incredibly humbled opinion, under-documented and understated.

This is one of the winning articles of the Mladiinfo Article Writing Contest. The content of the articles does not necessarily represent the view or the position of Mladiinfo.

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