Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Summer with Youth for Seva

I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it – Rosalia de Castro

The Beginning of a unique experience
The email I received

My board exams had ended and I had a long stretch of holidays ahead of me. Inevitably, I thought, “What can I do with all this free time?” I had always enjoyed volunteering, having been with Youth for Seva since 2011. However, I had been involved mostly in the education vertical and particularly with government school children. Although I had enjoyed my experience thoroughly, I yearned to participate in projects beyond my vertical. Little did I know what was in store for me when I enrolled for the Seva Vacation program.

As was the protocol, I attended the orientation and was glad to see a couple of friends who had enrolled as well! We were told the benefits of volunteering and shown some inspirational videos – content I was already familiar with. But, I decided to treat this opportunity as a completely new experience and assimilated all the information like a novice.

A touch of Virtual Volunteering 
Cover Page of the Handbook

My first assignment came on 5th July when I was asked to work with Pavithra ma’am for the handbook on ‘Effective Volunteer Engagement’ which was to be released for the NGO workshop to be held on July 31st. This assignment was definitely a challenging one because there were very few books to refer to and almost none at all with respect to the Indian setting. The handbook broadened my perspective because I had to primarily think about volunteering from the NGO’s viewpoint. It was also a very dynamic process because we had to constantly adapt the content based on inputs and feedback derived from the rest of the team. I was not only involved in developing the content, but also interacting with the designer and the printer. Hence, I was able to gain comprehensive knowledge about what goes into the publishing of a handbook.

A Glimpse of the Inner Pages

Weekly get-togethers and Enrichment Sessions

One unique aspect of the Seva Vacation program was the weekly get-togethers consisting of enrichment sessions. I attended my first weekly get together on 10th July, which was coupled with a visit to the Gavipuram slum. As everybody else, I had this mental picture of a place with no water supply and poor sanitation, children running about when they should have been in school and generally unhealthy conditions. I will not say that what I saw was far from what I had imagined, but it was definitely much better. We went up to a couple of residents and asked about their living conditions. What we gathered was:
·  The water supply was regular in a certain part of the slum, but irregular in another. They obtained clean water on most of the days but when it rained they used to get muddy water.
·         The living quarters built by the government were sturdy enough to live in, but due to the large number of members in the family, they had to rent houses nearby
·         The children were enrolled in schools, both private and government. The residents we spoke to wished to get them educated to a good level
·         Girls were married according to the law, no cases of child marriage were reported
·         One of the residents was aware of the Sanjeevini Free Medical Clinic, run by Doctors for Seva (the health arm of Youth for Seva). She showed us the health card which contained details of the entire family. Another resident preferred to go to a private doctor for checkup. The residents we spoke to were not really aware of the medical subsidies being provided by the government and private hospitals.
·         Some areas of the slum were clean, and in others there was garbage strewn around. I realized that more than any other stakeholder,  it is the people who are responsible for their surroundings
·         In today’s world, with even rural areas becoming urbanized, the idea of a close-knit community is slowly fading. However, in the slum I visited, the entire community was cohesive rather than fragmented and seemed to stick together in times of adversity. For example, when the water supply was irregular, one household would help the other by allowing them to borrow their surplus water.

Thus, I was able to take back a lot from the Seva Darshan because I was exposed to a scenario which I had only previously encountered through the eyes of a third person – be it in books, documentaries or television shows.
 Let me shed a bit of light on the enrichment sessions that formed the crux of the weekly get together sessions. 
  • The first one was based on slums and rightly placed after the slum visit. We had Rameshji from Seva International who ran tuition centres in such areas as the speaker for the day. He enumerated the various aspects in which slums were different from the urban areas and pointed out that the lack of culture amongst its inhabitants, alcoholism and involvement in anti-social activities as a source of income were the reasons for the inferior living conditions. But he did not leave us with desolate pictures of poverty and apathy; he also made us understand that there is scope for change by narrating a few incidents, one of which is: In one particular family, the father, a daily wage labourer, spent all his income on alcohol. He used to fight with the mother and the children were left watching helpless. The girl who approached Rameshji was quite intelligent and wanted to go to school, but could not continue due to family circumstances. On one of his weekly visits, Rameshji was approached by the girl who requested him to visit her house. When he did, he was treated quite disrespectfully by the inebriated father and Rameshji quietly went away. When asked by the girl for a possible solution, he asked her to go and touch her father’s feet and asked him why he chose to do all this and neglect the family. This seemingly minor gesture made the father wake up and take note of the responsibilities he had to fulfil. When Rameshji met the child after a few weeks, he got to know that the father had turned a new leaf – he had stopped drinking and even went on to buy new clothes for the entire family for the upcoming festival.

The above incident might seem commonplace to the layman, but for me it highlighted the need for ‘cultural’ education, in addition to the formal education that was being imparted in tuition centres, in order to bring about a meaningful change in the society.

  • The second enrichment session was conducted by Mr. Rajesh Padmar from Jaago Bharat. He highlighted the achievements, both past and present, India had made in the fields of science and technology, economy, literature etc. and motivated us to contribute to our motherland. 
  • The third enrichment session was probably the most thought-provoking one. It had Mr. Ashok, a young advocate, as the speaker and he discussed with us the provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. He also spoke about the emotional torment a child has to undergo, right from telling its parents that it has been abused to it being subjected to examinations and cross-examinations in the courtroom after a case has been filed. There was a heated discussion on whether it was right to award lesser punishment to a case of molestation in comparison to a case of rape, when the trauma faced by the child in both the cases is the same. There was also a debate about the misuse of such laws, and Mr. Ashok rightly said, “We know many offenders who are acquitted of the gruesome crime they have committed, but there are some who are wrongly convicted and languish in jail just because the ‘victims’ had their own ulterior motives.” Lastly, the topic of whether offenders of this kind can be successfully rehabilitated came up. One half the audience argued that it was the environment that influenced a person’s behavior and by controlling it, we could change a person. The other half vehemently objected by stating that the tendency to commit such crimes was deep-rooted and no amount of psychiatric counselling or medical intervention could rehabilitate the convicted. All in all, it was a session that left me with enough matter to think about.

My main Seva Vacation Project – Teaching at Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled 

Coming to my main project, I was assigned to teach at Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled located at JP Nagar. Samarthanam Trust was started in 1997 and it is primarily involved in providing support to differently-abled persons by:
1.        Providing quality education, accommodation and food
2.       Vocational Training
3.        Placement based rehabilitation
Apart from acting as a tuition and study centre for school children upto postgraduates, Samarthanam has various initiatives like: 1) Techvision, an IT facility where audio books are recorded and computer training is imparted
2) Srishti, where training for BPO jobs is provided

In midst of such a dynamic atmosphere, my responsibility was to teach 2nd PU students, who were pursuing their education through distance learning mode, History. The lessons I taught were on European and World history. I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity not only because of my pre-existing interest in the topics I taught but also because I had to explore a subject which I had lost touch with! Another aspect I must highlight on is the experience of working with differently-abled children. I had no previous experience, so I went in with an open mind – I was willing to learn and adapt. Here’s what I discovered during the course of my teaching:
  •            The students I taught were extremely enthusiastic and most were able to grasp the subject matter very fast
  •        However, retention of the matter was quite hard for them, possibly either due to lack of follow-up once they go home or unavailability of audio books in case of visually-impaired students. Hence, I had to conduct constant revisions
  •           I had both Kannada and English medium students in my group so I had to switch back and forth between the two languages when I was explaining. This was challenging but also fun!
  •            All of my students wanted to stand on their own feet and believed that they could achieve this through education
  •      In the test I conducted after the lesson, Manjunath, a visually-impaired student of mine scored the highest:13 ½ out of 15! He had no access to the audio version of the textbook and remembered everything from what I had explained in class. This incident was a revelation to me about how far a person can go if he/she has the will to do so.

Me with my wonderful students at Samarthanam!

During my volunteering, I also acted as a scribe for a visually impaired girl pursuing her BA at NMKRV Womens’ College. I feel that the atmosphere at Samarthanam deserves a special mention: I was made to feel that I was very welcome there, both by my students as well as the staff. The volunteer coordinator, Mrs. Vijaya, was always there for the volunteers in case we needed help. There was minimal intervention during my classes and I was given the freedom to innovate. The most important part would definitely be when I was asked how the class went at the end of the day. It is small gestures like these that make a volunteer feel like a part of the family.

Other Activities I was involved in

During my Seva Vacation, I also ‘got my hands dirty’. If you’re thinking what I meant by that, well… I
The lush green Turahalli Forest Reserve
participated in a sapling plantation drive. It was a fine Sunday morning on the 20th of July. It had rained the previous day and the soil was moist. I and 20 other volunteers from Youth for Seva joined the RR Nagar Residents’ Association in the Turahalli Forest Reserve. We had two activities scheduled for the day - one was to build a small bund to ensure that the runoff after rainfall percolated into the groundwater table and the other was to, obviously, plant saplings. The bund was built with the rocks and stones available in the forest and we formed two teams for this. One team, which I was a part of, was responsible for scouting for appropriately sized rocks and the other team formed a human chain to pass on the rocks and ultimately build the bund. We were told that we might find insects and even scorpions under the rocks, but that did not deter us one bit! When we got to the sapling plantation area, we noticed pits had already been dug up by the people working for the forest department. Five kinds of saplings had been selected based on studies on amount of rainfall the area received and the prevalent soil conditions. Most of us had never held a shovel before in our lives, so we were given a proper demonstration of how we should go about planting. Needless to say, all of us were very enthusiastic about it and I myself helped in planting three saplings! I might have got some good physical exercise from this activity, but the most important message I took with me was the importance of teamwork.
Pits in which sapling had to be planted

Building of Tank Bund
Me assisting in plantation
Some of my fellow volunteers who also participated in the plantation drive
I was also given an opportunity to conduct the ‘YFS Overview’ session on the weekends as a part of the orientation for new volunteers. This experience not only boosted my confidence to speak in front of people, but also taught me how to respond to the questions asked by them. 

The denouement of my Seva Vacation – Youth for Seva Annual Day on 25th August

 Just when I thought my Seva Vacation could not get any more multi-faceted, the Youth for Seva Annual Day came along. I had been a part of the audience in the past, but this time I decided that I would be a part of it in any way I could. On 5th August, I received a message from Ajay, another volunteer: “Akhila, how good are you with theatre?” Though the message by itself seemed vague, I knew it was for the Annual Day and I agreed to help at once. From then on began a series of endless Skype calls and emails in order to finalise a script for the skit which would be shown on the Annual Day. We had a brief to fulfil and had to come up with a skit which would be engaging, while conveying Youth for Seva’s activities for year 2012-13. Scripting the play was not very difficult, but mobilizing volunteers to play parts was surely a daunting task. Moreover, we had to also take care of back-end work like powerpoint presentations, accompanying pictures and music, and ensuring the props are ready.

As fate would have it, I also got an opportunity to play a part in the play. We, the core team, practiced through videoconferencing regularly as we could not meet due to prior commitments. I must say that the senior members of YFS supported us through every step. Due to the large scale of the production, everyone was initially apprehensive whether it would work out but the theatre team, who had christened themselves as ‘Drama for Seva’, silenced everyone by putting up a spectacular performance on the Annual Day and garnered appreciation from the audience. And thus, my Seva Vacation ended on a high note.
Actors forming a bus during the skit
A scene from the skit

Today, when I am putting my experience down in words (and almost concluding it), I reflect on those times. I encountered some wonderful people during those two months and had some life-changing experiences. As clichéd as it might sound, this Seva Vacation has made me a changed person. As expected, it has made me socially aware. But it has also made me more outgoing, gregarious and a risk taker - qualities that were not originally associated with me. Another incident I must relate at this point is: On Teachers’ Day, I received a call. I picked it up, only to find out it was my students at Samarthanam. They all wished me ‘Happy Teachers’ Day!’ in chorus and even my naughtiest student, Karthik, asked me how I was.

That was when I realised that the ‘joy of giving’ is truly an ineffable one…


  1. very interesting to read your book and u enjoyed ill mised cz of my problems we joind same day in jayanagar u realy done seva and i miss it now i read ur book in detail ya its very intresting.


  2. Well written Akhila! Super:-) keep up the spirit always. :-)

  3. awesome akhila! its really fantastic :) as i read this along i could experience the joy of giving.. i can imagine how good you would have felt!

    1. Thank you Nivedita :) Yes I really felt very good :D

  4. Hey! A splendid article! Really nice :)