Early childhood staff volunteer for the first time

A team from Challis Early Childhood Education Centre volunteered in India for the first time in January. The team consisted of 15 volunteers from teaching, nursing and speech pathology backgrounds. One of the volunteers, Heather Sinclair, describes her experience below.

Our whole experience in India was extremely positive. Arriving in Kolkata our senses were immediately awoken travelling from the airport to our hotel. Our four cars left the airport at the same time, we travelled in absolute crazy chaos for 40 minutes and amazingly all arrived at the hotel at the same time. This happened each time we went out, whether to the orphanage Shishur Sevay or Mother Teresa's convent, the Loretto School or the Loretto Convent.

We met Dr Michelle Harrison who founded the Shishur Sevay Orphanage. Her vision to help her rather large 'family' of 13 girls with varying degrees of learning difficulties to reach their potential was very inspiring. We were lucky enough to have had amazing support in our fundraising efforts at Challis (Early Childhood Education Centre) to purchase two sewing machines for the girls and sewing kits, fabric and lots of notions. Our time spent at the Orphanage was to show them how to use the sewing machines, music, literacy, testing the girls to give an idea of their learning levels to Michelle, and iPad apps for learning difficulties. Meeting the girls and understanding their personalities was great and they loved to show us their dancing skills.

The staff at the Loretto School were very proud to explain their program to us, especially the Rainbow Children's project which aims to get all children into school. This results in various satellite programs which are aimed at empowering the mothers by teaching them skills to earn money to help keep the children at school and to bring in the seasonal workers' children from the brickfields. We were very honoured to be invited to the Loretto Convent to meet Sister Cyril Mooney, a feisty 84 year old lady from Ireland who was the principal of the school for over 20 years and worked alongside Mother Teresa to achieve her vision to educate these 'Rainbow' children.

We then took a four hour train ride to Katwa in rural West Bengal and arrived to a huge welcome at Anandaniketan. Anandaniketan is an orphanage and also a home for people with physical and mental disabilities. It is in a very peaceful farming area. There are 152 people living there and they all love and care for one another like one huge family. It is very well organised with the residents working in the garden, weaving, on the printing press, caring for the animals, helping prepare food and in the tailor's shop. With the money so generously raised in Australia, our team was able to purchase a computer, sewing machine, harmonium, chairs and lots of West Bengali books for the school, clothing, two DVD players and other items requested, including a clock for the printing shop. There was also some money left over to pay an Education Assistant for a year at Equal Health's partner site in Chennai.

We worked alongside the teachers at the 'Special' school, and had lots of interaction with the ladies and girls who were all just as curious to learn about us as we were about them. Various morning activities were organised for these ladies. In the afternoon we met with the men for Chai and Chat and we played cricket each afternoon at four o'clock with the boys. We were included in the annual sports day and on the final evening we were treated as guests of honour to a lovely and very emotional concert by the residents.

During our time there we had two days 'out' to visit a Hari Krishna temple at Mayapur and have a cruise on a local fishing boat on the Ganges. Most mornings we walked out into the nearby villages and were made most welcome by the people who brought their children out to meet us. We were very honoured to be invited in to a family home.

We added two days on to our trip so that we could visit the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Agra. The Taj Mahal is every bit as inspiring as everyone says and I loved visiting the Red Fort where the Mughal royal family lived.

I went to India prepared to 'give' and to help people and I came away having received so much more. This is just a very short article and I could fill volumes of our time there. I will never forget my time in India or the wonderful people I met.

We were a team before we left Australia and we got so much stronger over the time. I hope we made a difference to some of the people we met. I know that the people I met made a huge difference to me.

Heather Sinclair, Primary Education Assistant, Armadale, Western Australia
India Camp 2014 volunteer