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Cross-Cultural Solutions - Volunteer Programs in India
Isabel Salovaara is from Chicago, Illinois, and recently graduated from Harvard University, where she studied history and global health. She will be spending next year working with a community health and development NGO in Delhi.
When: July 2010
Morning: Each day, the other health care volunteers and I traveled to different villages in the area to conduct basic health screenings on the children who attended local government-run daycares (anganwadis). We worked with a translator, who was a student about our age who lived in the area, and collected information on the height and weight of the children and other markers of health status. We also occasionally met with village women's groups to present health education modules that we put together on topics such as nutrition and sexually transmitted diseases. Traveling to different villages each day allowed us to see a lot of the beautiful mountain scenery as well!
Afternoon: My afternoons consisted of a variety of activities, including preparation for the next day's work, cultural enrichment activities (such as speakers, field trips, and Hindi language lessons), or hanging out and playing badminton with the staff and other volunteers. I usually spent some time each afternoon working on a special project I had proposed: digitizing the information we were collecting from the daycares.
In addition, I would write in my placement journal (one of the requirements of my internship) about the morning's activities, reflecting on things I had learned and noting down my ideas for the coming days. The CCS staff provided me with a lot of information about India's health system, which I was particularly interested in, so I also spent some time reading up on that topic.
Evening: I was living in a very rural area, so there weren't really opportunities to go out at night, but we generally enjoyed ourselves watching Bollywood movies, playing games, listening to Hindi songs, or just chatting with one another. There were a lot of people of diverse backgrounds and interests in my program, and the evenings were a great time to get to know them better.
Highlights: The highlight of my time as a volunteer was presenting to women's groups and talking to them about health issues. Hearing their ideas was really eye-opening. For the women that I talked to in the villages, health and sickness were individualized issues. Their personal aches and pains--rather than community-level issues such as sanitation--were at the forefront of their mind when they thought about the idea of "health." These conversations added the depth of practical perspective to my theoretical notions about health policy.
The highlight of my trip overall was probably my visit to Amritsar. I got to see the Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh (the site of a colonial-era massacre), and the ceremony at the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan--a really fascinating and exciting display of Indian patriotism.
Kimberly O'Connor is from Long Island, New York and is currently pursuing a Master's degree at Fairfield University. She graduated from Purchase College SUNY with a degree in psychology and enjoys Irish dancing, anthropology, and being a nanny.
When: Summers of 2009 and 2010
Morning: Every morning in Dharamsala a yoga instructor came to the main house and about an hour of yoga was offered. This was a great way to start the day! After yoga was time for breakfast. Some days we walked over to the main dining area for a hot meal that differed every day, sometimes continental and sometimes traditional Indian, with cereal and fruit always offered. Other, lazy, days I would make myself some eggs and toast in the small kitchen open to volunteers. The one non-negotiable in the morning was at least one cup of masala chai!
After breakfast we would finish getting ready and congregate in the main house to be driven to the volunteer placements. I was the only one fortunate enough to have my women's group placement at the main CCS house, so my commute was only down a few flights of stairs.
Afternoon: Volunteer placements would typically run into the afternoon. I would spend a few hours with my women's group until lunchtime. This involved teaching English grammar, computer skills, and general conversation skills (with the occasional zumba lesson). Once all the volunteers arrived home from their various placements, we congregated again in the main dining area for lunch. All food was served buffet-style with plenty of vegetarian options. We were always made aware of what would be served for each meal in a week so there were no surprises. After lunch it varied - sometimes we had a Hindi language lesson, sometimes a cultural learning program or field trip, and sometimes we had free time and took walks around our neighborhood of Lower Dharamsala.
Evening: Evenings were spent with the other volunteers. When the weather was nice we would sit out on one of the huge balconies and look out at our Himalayan surroundings. We would watch movies, play games, and read books. Often we would call a cab to take us to Upper Dharamsala, or Mcleodganj, which was a tourist hot-spot and had many shops and restaurants. We would grab an inexpensive bite to eat, often on the rooftop of my favorite restaurant called Carpe Diem, and do some shopping or socialize with other tourists in the area. There is also great hiking in the area and yoga, cooking (Tibetan and Indian), and language classes are offered quite often. Upper Dharamsala is the location of the Tibetan government-in-exile and is home to a large Tibetan population, so I got to learn a lot about both Indian and Tibetan culture.
Highlights: The highlight of my volunteer experience was getting to know the experiences of the women in my group. We would often have very open and honest discussions about what it was like to be a woman on opposite sides of the world. They shared with us so much about themselves, the good and the bad, and asked us to do the same. It made me so glad to see and hear how proud they were to be Indian women, wives, and mothers. They were so proud to share their culture and customs with us, and eager to learn about ours as well. Learning English was an important tool in empowering them to feel that they could get a job if they wanted or needed, and that they could communicate with more people to continue this cultural exchange outside of the classroom. I loved teaching them zumba routines, and I think they got a kick out of it!
The highlight of my experience overall is hard to pinpoint, but I would have to say the location. I am a sucker for beautiful sights and my mouth was hanging open for a month. Getting to live and work in the Himalayas was something most people never get to experience - it felt completely unreal to sip chai on my balcony in the morning looking out at the snow-caps of the Himalayas. Taking a weekend trip to Manali, I did nothing on the several hour car ride but look out the window. I have never seen such natural beauty in my life and never expected it to be half as breathtaking. I felt so fortunate to have spent so much time in a place like this, and go back to it in my mind countless times when I need a 'happy place'. I would gladly return tomorrow if I had the opportunity.
Marianne Schroeder is a 53 year old health educator and nurse with passion for women and children's health issues. She currently lives in Asheville, NC where she thrives while practicing yoga, gardening, and hosting pot-luck dinner parties with friends and family.
GO: Why did you decide to volunteer with CCS in India?
Marianne: I had researched a number of volunteer organizations and always came back to CCS; they have been in the business longer than most, had more countries to choose from, and provided a host of amenities in their price. I also really liked their mission statement and values; the idea of a true "cultural exchange" appealed to me.
GO: Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Marianne: Placement began by 9 a.m. My assignment was providing health exams to school-aged children (5-12 year olds) at Vidya, an NGO located in one of Delhi's slums. Because of my work, I had a translator with me which gave me additional one-on-one time to get to know some of the staff. I followed the school schedule, including playground time, which afforded me time to interact and have chai with many of the staff at Vidya. My work at Vidya was usually done by noon.
For lunch we gathered as a group, staff and volunteers alike, followed by a brief rest period. Then depending on the day, we'd have either a cultural class or a trip; we practiced Hindi, learned about the various religions, politics and history of the country, or took excursions to temples, market, or museums. We always had top-notch professionals as teachers and guides escorting us.
GO: What made this volunteer experience unique and special?
Marianne: India was a "bucket-list" destination for me. As a child I dreamt of seeing the Taj Mahal (and did!) and later in life as a healthcare professional I viewed volunteering in the slums of Delhi as a personal and career challenge; the healthcare need is so great in India but the healthcare system is incredibly overwhelmed. Being able to provide competent care required a great deal of resourcefulness on my part.
On the flip side, because of the country's conditions, I got to see medical conditions that heretofore I've only read about. It's pretty exciting working with high-risk populations in these challenging environments. Also, as a holistic provider that utilizes integrative medicine, I've been fascinated by India's ancient healing practices and wanted to learn from the source. During my 8 week internship, the staff worked with me to arrange a tour of a private and public hospital, and tutored me in Ayurvedic and indigenous medicines so I could apply relevant cultural health practices to my Western care. The staff's "feedback" loop assured I obtained my objectives and honed my core cultural healthcare competencies.
But what ultimately made this experience unique and special were the people. Yes, CCS staff was professional but they were also warm, friendly, and exceptionally hospitable and made me feel like family. My fellow volunteers also made a huge contribution to the overall experience. I made deep friendships with some incredible individuals that I will always cherish.
GO: How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?
Marianne: Thanks to the positive experience working with the people of India, I've made the decision to do international healthcare work. This trip validated my desire to be a citizen of the world. I'm currently in the process of organizing a worldwide trip in 2013 to find the best "fit" for my skills and interests and plan on spending 3-5 years abroad, hopefully in India or Southeast Asia.
About Cross-Cultural Solutions
The Cross-Cultural Solutions Volunteer Abroad experience allows students and travelers to gain valuable experience overseas while working side by side with local individuals and communities to make an impact.
Since 1995, over 30,000 people have volunteered with Cross-Cultural Solutions, providing meaningful and sustainable volunteer services to international communities, and contributing responsibly to local economies.
Volunteers gain valuable experience working in areas such as education, healthcare, and social services. Visit the Cross-Cultural Solutions website to learn more about how we're changing everything.