Having visited India in 2001 I was so impressed with such a vibrant and culturally varied country that I was keen to do some voluntary work there. Most of the projects that were available were either politically/ religiously affiliated or charged huge administration expenses, where the money would never reach those who need it most. I heard about HEAL through some friends at Oxford (Manu and Hiten).
The project appealed to me straight away because it was a completely voluntary project which genuinely seemed to have the childrens’ interests at heart. We immediately started getting a group together including my sister, and friends of Manu and Hiten. We had a few meetings before our trip to brainstorm ideas, what each of us would need to bring etc. Although most of us didn’t know most of the others in the group, by the time we had left for India, we had all spoken to each other. I can honestly say that the 6 of us got along very well and worked well together, since we all had the same objective-to spend quality time with the children at HEAL (not forgetting to have some fun too!)
Arrival in India
A few initial visits to the orphanage helped us to decide what equipment would be needed, how much time we would have with the children and hence what activities would be most appropriate. It also gave us an idea as to where we would be staying for the next 6 weeks. I was really not sure what to expect but I, for one, was pleasantly surprised. The Village is set in very idyllic surroundings. It is well looked after (covered with Mange Devi auntie’s wonderful plants) and is surrounded by mountains, which makes the whole environment very calm and relaxing. It is like a sanctuary!!
A few early morning jogs gave us some beautiful views of the area too! The first thing that struck me was how well the children were looked after-the housemothers and other staff were very caring and treated everyone with the same love and respect. The children were very friendly and had a lot respect for everything and everyone around them. They were always smiling which made the whole experience so much more pleasant. Everyone was so welcoming, refusing to let us do any chores and constantly feeding us with delicious food. We could not have asked for a better welcome!
Working at the HEAL Village
We were able to spend time with the children between school and dinner time, as well as on weekends. We split activities up into music & drama, literacy games and sports. We also thought it would be easier to split up the children according to age. This made the task a bit more manageable because all the children seemed to have an endless supply of energy and enthusiasm! Deepti and I took charge of the music and drama.
The children absolutely loved musical chairs. During these activities was when the children came out of their shell and were at their most confident. They would always ask lots of questions about England, as we would about Hyderabad. The elder girls learned a Justin Timberlake routine and Steps was another favourite too! At the same time, we also managed to learn some Telegu dancing, which the girls were very eager to teach us. The sports also proved popular, including rounders and badminton.
It was good to see so many of them getting the hang of frisby too! It became obvious to us that each child had a special talent in something or other. Therefore, we planned a Cultural show for the last week of our visit in order to end on a memorable note and to give the children the chance to display their talent. The actual day was excellent and for me, could not have turned out better. There were initial worries about the weather but the sun came out just as we started the show.
All the children were very excited and all had big smiles on their faces as they finished performing! Performances included Telegu dancing and singing, the Justin Timberlake routine, a ‘comedy’ version of Cyclops, a dance from Lagaan which we choreographed (till the early hours of the morning!) and a hit from one of the summer’s biggest Tollywood film-Johnny. They had worked very hard for this show and were very dedicated. No show would be complete without some dancing and we ended with a disco, making the most of the Village’s new sound system. Everyone, from the teachers and the children, to the house mums, danced to all sorts including Lagaan, Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake.
Leaving the HEAL Village / Afterthoughts
The few weeks we spent at the HEAL Village were absolutely amazing. It went so quickly and towards the end I had started realising how much I would miss everyone. The children were so friendly and warm (they had started calling us aka and ana – sister and brother). I felt I had so much to learn from them, the way they enjoyed life, whatever it threw at them. They always had a smile on their face.
They are very brave children, considering what some of them had been through. I was glad that we were able to spend time with the children in such a way that they were able to open up and just be themselves around us. They joked around, played pranks on us-it felt like we were all the same age! Parting was very emotional and the few days after leaving the Village were very sad. I came away thinking how great it is to see so many people working to make HEAL such a caring and inviting place.
Is there anything I would change for next time? Exercises that help to improve the children’s self confidence are very useful-encouraging them to have an opinion and to think about how they feel, how they act. Planning the free time you have with the children is important because otherwise the kids have so much energy that you will find that the whole 2 hours you had with them was spent running around the field playing chase! As fun as that is, games that make them think and improve their language skills will also help to improve self-confidence.
But the most important thing is to just get to know them and have fun with them. That will be easy, by just spending time with them.