Volunteering in India can really open doors and help you get further towards your chosen career or professional path. Asia Options India correspondent, Siobhan Marsh, sat down with Michelle Bourke to talk about her volunteering experience with Tiny Angels, a school in the north east of India, and how you can follow in her footsteps.
First of all, what were you doing in India, where and for how long?
For the first half of 2012 I was a volunteer English teacher at a primary school in Takdah, Darjeeling, West Bengal. I volunteered through Lattitude Global Volunteering. This was my second visit to India and I was 25 years old at the time. I taught at a primary school called Tiny Angels – although sometimes the students could be little devils.
Tiny Angels is run and owned by the school’s principal, Mr Norbu Lama, whose late father, a well respected Buddhist Monk, built the school. Mr Norbu and another seven local teachers run classes up to ‘class 14’ (Year 8). The school has around 100 students aged between 3 and 14 years old, 11 of whom boarded in the ‘hostel’ on the top floor.
What did a normal (if there was such a thing) day look like for you?
As ‘Michelle Miss’ my day would start by being woken early by clanging bells, banging drums and chanting of puja (prayers at the monastery) plus the shouts of children playing and running up and down the stairs outside our bedroom window. A cup of tea was often brought to our door before we’d opened our eyes. We’d get dressed into our teaching clothes; brightly coloured salwar kameez (a traditional Indian dress). These were the perfect teaching outfit. They covered you enough to stay warm, cool and modest all at the same time, and with drawstring pants, they were like wearing pyjamas all day.
The school day started at 9am. Each child would come up to me, shake my hand and say “good morning miss”. The students would then sing a traditional prayer song and the national anthem while standing rigidly in line. Classes were always full of a mixture of frustration, laughter and confusion from both students and teachers and could get rowdy at times. I had never taught before so I largely learned how to handle a classroom on the go. With no textbooks, photocopier and very limited internet, we had to get creative very quickly but that was part of the fun. The school day would end at 3pm with the students singing a goodbye song at an afternoon assembly.
After school finished, the other volunteer and I would have spare time. We would fill this with a range of activities including reading; browsing the internet (if we managed to get internet access); supervising the boarder students’ homework; catching up with other volunteer friends; kicking a soccer ball around; gorging on junk food; hand washing our clothes; and even sitting in puja with monks. The boarder students were a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time with them: watching them break dance to Bollywood tunes; teaching them English while we played cards; breaking up their fights; and cuddling them when they were sad. We’d practice our bad Nepali with the boarders and laugh at ourselves and our terrible pronunciation, with kids who already spoke four or five languages.
It was like being the big sister to 11 sweet, hilarious little brothers and sisters who no doubt missed their families as much as we missed ours in Australia. It was an idyllic, intimate, family environment.
Where did you live when you were working at Tiny Angels?
I lived at the school, where we had the most glorious 360 degree view of a beautiful mountain range. The hills were often clouded by ever-moving mist and fog, and I felt like we were literally living in a cloud.
I shared a room with my fellow volunteer from Scotland. Mr and Mrs Lama generously donated us thick, warm blankets from their own home as it was freezing and our room had the only TV in the school. Two teachers who took care of the boarders, and a small family who cooked, cleaned and took care of the school grounds also lived at the school. We were fed three meals a day, and most of the time we ate dhal (lentil soup) and a huge plate of rice.
Do you think volunteering has opened doors for you?
Volunteering in Darjeeling was a fork in the road for me – it threw me on a path I didn’t expect. It laid the groundwork for where I am today, sparking an interest in international development.
Last year I volunteered in Papua New Guinea as an Australian Volunteer for International Development (AVID). If it wasn’t for India, I wouldn’t have felt bold enough or inspired to go to PNG. I was ready for the challenge of living overseas again. I am now pursuing a career working in Communications with focus on international development and human rights. India put my white, middle class life in perspective, and showed me the day-to-day life of people often struggling to survive. Whilst these people had very little options or power to change their circumstances, they were always still so happy and hard-working with religion and family at the centre of their lives. People like Mr Lama inspired me to use my skills for others. Even if it’s a small impact, it’s still worth the hard work. I will always have my little home in the mountains in my heart, it’s where I grew up, found connectedness, surprised myself with my own strength and found beauty in the little things.
What advice would you give to people looking for volunteer work in India?
I’d recommend doing some research before you go. My advice would be to go through a reputable organisation, or go to a school or institution you’ve heard about through friends and family. We were so lucky to have Mr Lama take such good care of us and treat us like family; not everyone has that. I’d personally be wary of short term volunteering, think about whether you’re the one benefiting more than the local people.
I would also say don’t listen to people’s horror stories about India. Don’t let them put you off. India is intense but it’s also an incredibly beautiful wild place with many people who will welcome you with open arms. You will come back home from India changed, it can really get under your skin. Warning: India often becomes a lifelong obsession!
Go with an open mind and a positive attitude. Be prepared for a wild ride with lots of twists and turns. Don’t expect anything to go to plan.
How can people get in touch with Tiny Angels?
Mr Lama is currently looking for volunteer teachers. His email address is [email protected]. I am happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in going there and has any questions. Mr Lama really values the impact of foreign volunteers and looks after them as if they are family.
Please contact [email protected] for Michelle’s contact details if you’re interested in volunteering in Darjeeling with the Tiny Angels School.