There is a Zen saying that “One cannot step in the same river twice.” With a bit of philosophical reasoning we understand the truth behind this statement. When we step into that river we impact a change not only on the river, but on ourselves as well. I, on the other hand, have stepped into the same river three times with more visits to the river yet to come. Still, change - I did. Still, change - I made.
My first visit to the river came in December of 2007 when I joined a Global Volunteer Team serving in Chennai, India. Consequently, I have stepped into the river every year since for good reasons. My journey has been a true love story and a story that has changed my life and I believe the life of one, small boy, affectionately nicknamed, “My Little Heart.”
Arriving at Assisi Illam, my first assignment with *Global Volunteers, I waded into the throng of “ankle-biters....” little people, really, aged 3 - 5. These were the day-care children; services offered to the local community that allowed parents the opportunity to work while their children were cared for in a healthy, stimulating environment. As a volunteer, my job was to assist the head teacher, Ms. Jesse, teaching English, counting and working on math skills, singing songs and reading books to small groups of children. It was on this first day that the currents of the river began to tug me, pull me, draw me to one particular small, wide-eyed, shy and isolated boy. Why I got caught in the currents is anyone’s guess. Even wearing my life-preserving vest, the protector of my heart, I was caught in the undertow of the river. Who can stop a fast moving river once the course of the river has been determined? But one thing I realized early on, one survives drowning by not fighting but rather by surrendering to the river instead...“go with the flow.”
During my time with GV it is hard to say who changed more - the little boy, who, although bright and had a desire to learn, couldn’t connect to the other children and so often retreated to “the wall” for comfort and safety; or me, who was desperate to make a safe home for this child in the comfort of my arms. By week three, “My Little Heart” and I had become inseparable. When the day of my departure came and I knew I had to withdraw from the river, I wondered would it hurt any more to have a limb ripped from its socket as I was being dragged to the van and as I handed-off a sobbing boy who, in the end knew that this was a long good-bye. How long would it take for a broken heart to heal - his heart, my heart? I worried for some time about all the disappointments this little boy would have to face, and was I just another in a series of people who let him down? What could I do for this little boy living so far away from my home in St. Paul, Minnesota?
After returning home and a month of ritualistic crying - early mornings and late evenings I looked into the possibility of adopting, “My Little Heart.” For a myriad of reasons the answer was NO. No, too old. No, single. No the boy has a mother. No way. It was then I decided, “if this little boy couldn’t come to me, well - then, I’d simply have to go back to him.” As I made plans for my second trip to the river, thinking another dip would certainly refresh my soul, I would soon learn the river took an unforeseen bend when his mother collected him from the orphanage to take him home to live with her. Although the main objective for my wanting to return to the GV site was gone, I still had plenty of other good reasons for wanting to go again. The art and culture of India is truly amazing. Another reason, as my niece who was to join me on my third trip to Chennai so succinctly pointed out, “If you need a boost for your self-esteem, there is perhaps no better place to be!” For the children, although poor in almost every way that I am not, without the care and love of their own stable family, are the first to unleash and lavish love on the volunteers and anyone who crosses their threshold. Their joy is contagious. You walk away dizzy-with-love and wonder who is really serving whom? The river changes us.
Still, I was not content with the knowledge that I would travel half-way-around-the-world and be so near, yet so far from my heart’s desire. I convinced my river guide, Stephen Raja Chinnappan the local Global Volunteer’s Country Manager whose role includes team building, managing the work assignments, scheduling and all-around miracle-working to go on a “boy-hunt!” His response was, “We will try.”
After a three-month search and upon my arrival, Stephen knew they were close to discovering the whereabouts of my little boy. The happy news came and I knew for sure I would be able to fulfill my year-long dream - to hold “My Little Heart, “ in my arms once more. How does one begin to cram a lifetime into four hours of play and laughter and hugs and kisses? Yet, at the end of the day when I’d have to withdraw once more, I knew as surely as one knows the sun will rise again tomorrow, that this river which united us, carried us, held us within its banks had a long-winding, beautiful journey ahead for the two of us.
This past spring I made my third trip to the river, this time boldly stepping-in without hesitation. The river welcomed me with babbling music, the sound of children gurgles, bubbling laughter. It welcomed me with diamond-light, sun’s reflection - the twinkle in doe-eyed children with mischief in their smiles. It welcomed me as only a favorite spot on map could, a coming-home feeling. It welcomed me with arms thrown wide as “My Little Heart” came running to throw himself upon me and once again climb all over my heart. Yes, he had returned to Assisi Illam! At his mother’s will he has been entrusted to the care of the good Franciscan Sisters and so that he can receive the best possible education. This is a courageous kind of love that I admire. And my little boy thrives! He is no longer the glum, sad, isolated boy I met my first year in Chennai, but he is a real character - fully capable of doing imitations of me, writing beautiful letters and numbers. The beauty of being a return visitor to the river is that one can fully appreciate the change a single individual or team of volunteers can make in the lives of those they truly allow into that life-vest, protected area of one’s heart. We do make a difference.
Therefore I dare you, and I make two promises to you: I dare you to make a trip to the river. And here is my promise (and I don’t give my promise lightly): if you do this thing you will never regret the experience when you go with the flow! And, both you and the river will never be the same again!
A word about Global Volunteers who just celebrated their 25th Anniversary in November 2009. Annually, over 2,500 volunteers work in more than 100 communities in 19 countries on five continents. Their philosophy is to engage volunteers in micro-economic and human development programs in close partnership with local people world wide. It is a private, non-profit, non-sectarian, non-governmental organization. To learn more about Global Volunteers please check them out at: www.globalvolunteers.org/