The idea of volunteering in another country has long been considered the province of students and recent graduates; images of intrepid twenty-year-old Peace Corps workers in a remote Sierra Leone village might spring to mind. Today, however, the idea has reached far beyond that to become accessible, and highly popular, among travelers of all types and ages. Volunteer travel has grown so popular that a term has even been coined for it: Voluntourism.
Foreign destinations are luring American citizens who want to sightsee, while at the same time engage in community service. Companies and websites specializing in voluntourism have sprung up by the hundreds, and volunteer vacations can be found in all parts of the world, doing all kinds of activities – from digging wells for clean water in South America, protecting the elephant population in South Africa, or working with children living in orphanages.
It was this last type of volunteer vacation that hooked me – in fact, inspired me to write a book about my experiences. In 2004, I became involved with a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas called The Miracle Foundation, which manages orphanages in India and recruits sponsors and donors to support the children living there. I began volunteering for the foundation and sponsored a child, a ten year old boy named Santosh, living in the state of Orissa in northeastern India. The founder of the organization, soon invited me to accompany her and a group of other volunteers to Orissa. And so it was that in March 2005, I found myself in India for the first time – a ten-day volunteer trip that I was to make, it turned out, many more times over the years since.
The village is remote, and it took forty-eight hours of exhausting travel to arrive at the ashram where the children live. By the time we arrived, all ten volunteers in the group were suffering from sleep deprivation and culture shock; the overwhelming throngs of people, the smells and sounds that awakened all the senses at once. The streets filled with bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows with the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns that rose above it all. Mostly, the frantic poverty that does not let you rest.
Caroline had briefed us well on both India and expectations for our week at the orphanage, but nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when we turned through those gates. Dozens of children were lined around the drive in a semi-circle, waving and chanting “welcome” over and over. I climbed out and they swarmed all over me, reaching for my hands and touching my feet in blessing. I was overwhelmed, lost in the sea of small bodies; smiling, barefoot children who asked nothing from me more than simply being there.
As I would soon come to find, in India these “invisible children” are everywhere – they fill the streets, the railway stations, the villages. Others have been trafficked or taken into indentured labor to pay off an old family debt. They are orphaned by AIDS and malaria, simple infections or sometimes, nothing more than poverty – their parents cannot afford to feed them. Many are homeless, overflowing orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. Amidst the growing prosperity of India there is an entire generation of parentless children growing up, often forced into child labor and prostitution – more than twenty-five million in all.
But there in Choudwar, a small town about a hundred miles south of Calcutta, one man named Damodar Sahoo had dedicated his life to providing a home and family for some of these children. Before The Miracle Foundation, he had constantly lacked enough food, clothing and supplies to adequately provide for those he had taken in – children who had nowhere else to turn.
Mr. Sahoo, known to everyone simply as “Papa,” greeted the volunteers heartily, chewing the betel nut that turned his teeth red. He gave us a tour of the compound while the children trailed us, rushing past each other to claim a volunteer’s hand. They were everywhere, always underfoot, craving our attention. As I walked along four or five clung to each arm; when I sat down they filled my lap, their slight frames making barely an imprint against my skin.
I spent the following days just being with the kids, befriending them, playing with them. Our days at the ashram were filled with games, reading, dancing and laughing. It felt a lot like summer camp. There were puzzles, English flash cards, hopscotch, frisbee and the hokey-pokey, which the children wanted to do over and over once it was taught to them. I began to discover who they were – their individual personalities and dreams. I watched the shy ones come out of their shells and self-confidence blossom.
As it did, their “best behavior” fell away and they were normal kids, not always sweet and perfect but often mischievous as well. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would shove each other out of the way or bestow thunks on one another’s heads in annoyance. They used the language barrier to their advantage, pretending at times not to understand when the adult volunteers said it was time to put a game away, reminding me of my daughter when she was young and seemingly deaf to the word “no.”
We began to make friends, and I discovered that they were just as curious about us and our lives as we were about them. The kids spoke varying levels of English, largely dependent on how many years they had been living in the ashram and attending school. Some had a large vocabulary and conversational skills; others spoke little more than a few words of English. I found it was surprisingly easy, however, to communicate without sharing even a word of common language.
In many ways they were just like other children I’ve known with homes and families of their own – except for their neediness, their raw hunger for affection, love, belonging. In the midst of the games, laughter and silliness that we engaged in all day long it became almost easy for me to forget that they were orphans. When that reality came crashing back it never failed to hurt my insides with the same breathless intensity as it had the first time. Especially when it intruded unexpectedly, as happened one afternoon.
Caroline and Papa had arranged an ice cream party. Two tables were pulled into the courtyard as the frozen cartons were delivered. The kids lined up eagerly from youngest to oldest to be handed their paper cups of ice cream as we scooped it out in a battle of time against the sun blazing overhead. As we served the icy treats and listened to the kids slurping away, I noticed that Santosh, the boy I sponsored, was nowhere to be seen. I asked some of the other boys about him, and they pointed toward the top of the stairs.
I went up and found him sitting alone, seeming sad and listless. He wasn’t interested in the ice cream. A house mother named Madhu passed, and I asked her to help me find out what was wrong; I was afraid Santosh was hurt, or sick. Madhu took him into the boys’ dorm and talked to him for several minutes.
“He misses his mother,” she said simply when she came back out.
I felt it in my heart, and knew that although they loved us being there it could sometimes only make them miss the presence of their own parents. The good of all these caring surrogate parent figures – Papa, Caroline, the house mothers, the volunteers – outweighed the heaviness of sorrow, to be sure. But it was easy to miss the sadness, at times, in the presence of love that filled the ashram. I was reminded anew that these children all carried secret grief and damage inside them, often hidden or temporarily forgotten but never erased entirely.
I sat with Santosh on the edge of the concrete walkway outside his dorm room. Draping my arm around his shoulders I squeezed reassuringly and held him against my side. I knew that his mother had died when he was so young he couldn’t possibly remember her, not really; but to mourn the idea of a mother, that huge absence in his life like a great gaping hole – that was another thing completely. We sat together, not speaking, while in the courtyard in front of us the other children slurped up their ice cream noisily.
Shelley Seale has written for National Geographic, The International Ecotourism Society and The Voluntourist, among others, and is a contributing author to The Voluntary Traveler. She is also the author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, which tells the true stories of some of the inspiring children she met on her journeys through the orphanages, streets and slums of India.