By Michelle Canon
Putting words together hardly gives justice to the experiences I have had in India to date. I am into my second week and already feel settled. I may explain the lifestyle here from my eyes and emotions, but it truly is something that needs to be experienced for oneself.
Before I came to India, I had many fears about what I would encounter, from the food, the weather, my safety, my placement, and the group with whom I would be sharing the next month. As a forty-seven-year-old woman and mother of four, I had concerns about my health and well-being. Was I in over my head leaving home for that long and so far away? What if I got sick?
It all started back in January when I was on Facebook, and saw SERVE’s advertisement: “Would you like to become a volunteer? Tick the box”. So, Michelle ticked the box. Within a day or so, I was back to work as a Health Care Assistant in the community, rushing around and thought no more about it. Until SERVE contacted me and I had an interview. Before I had time to think too much I was on the training days, meeting the rest of the group and leaders and preparing to start fundraising.
I held a Tupperware party, an art exhibition, and an auction, all of which were successful. In total, I raised €4156. The generosity of the people in my community was outstanding, and the support I received was fantastic! People had such admiration for what I was going to do; there was no backing out now, too many people would be let down – including myself.
When the bags were packed and the goodbyes were said, I left home at 3am for Dublin airport to meet the group of people that were to become my new family. We were all in this together to make a difference for someone, even if it was a small one. As Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people then feed just one”. I associated Mother Teresa with Kolkata, India and that was all I knew of India. Mother Teresa known in the Roman Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Kolkata. For me, that summed up all I knew of India – until now.
After a two leg, fifteen-hour journey, we arrived in Bangalore at 6am in on Thursday 11th July. In the airport, we changed our Euros to Indian Rupees and switched our phones to a local SIM card. We headed to our destination. We were now in “incredible India”. It was dry, 24 degrees and most pleasant. Taken by taxi, we arrived in Nava Spoorthi Kendra, our home for the next four weeks. All together in one room, we erected mosquito nets, and later ventured out to life in India on a rickshaw.
The roads were busy but safety was not an issue as we weaved in and out of traffic. Being cut off by vehicles and motorbikes gave me a sense of the crazy race on Indian roads. The Irish penalty point system would be gone off the Richter scale in five minutes! While frightening, it worked – even vehicles going in the wrong direction avoided accidents. The visual impact along with the cows, sacred in India, was overwhelming.
On Friday we visited my placement, APD also known as Association for People with Disabilities. Along with Zara and Sile we would work together here for the next month. Monday soon came and we began our journey to APD, led by the leaders who showed us the way. The walk to school was different to say the least, the air, the noise and the sheer volume of vehicles was a big change.
Walking through the school gates, we met smiling children at every turn. They moved in wheelchairs, walkers, with and without shoes, some plodding along on their own, or helped by the other children and helpers called ‘Aunties’. There was a great sense of togetherness. We were introduced to the therapy rooms, occupational, physio, and hydrotherapy – there was plenty happening, and people were moving in all directions. APD even assembles and modifies their own wheelchairs, Ankle Foot Orthotics, and walking supports. There is also a training centre for older children where they get educated in a skill and are guaranteed employment on completion.
I was placed in Early Intervention which diagnoses a condition, its severity, and the most appropriate care plan going forward. Its role is to empower parents to care for their children – they are their best advocates. I met with the other therapists, parents and children. The children in APD have varying birth defects and disabilities from autism to cerebral palsy. Their parents all have one goal: to give the child the best quality of life, with the abilities they have. No matter the severity of the condition, hydrotherapy is the preferred form of therapy as the parents find this the most beneficial for their child. There was a great emphasis on the well-being and good health of each individual child, demonstrated by the rapport therapists has with them. The dignity and respect they gave the children was inspirational. It was clear that inclusion was the central ethos in APD.
So often I asked myself before coming to India, what was my purpose in life? There must be more to life than what I am doing every day. I had gotten into such a routine that I couldn’t see beyond it and I felt empty and lonely at times. Since I had time to reflect on my life, and have such a change in a short time, it’s like the saying, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”. Yes, I miss my family, partner and friends, but being away from home has made me realise I have everything – and more. I had taken it for granted.
I am embarrassed to say that life is simple, people make it complicated. I was searching for something that was already in my hands. It was right under my nose but too blinded by my busy lifestyle and with no time for myself, I felt an emptiness inside me and a hunger for something more. It was not to be found until I met the parents of the children at APD. They have the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their children as I have. They realised what they had before I had.
Now my motto is “live to love life, and life will love you to live it”
By Fiachra Brennan
SERVE is guided by the vision that every individual, regardless of their ability, should be able to reach their potential and make a meaningful contribution to society. SERVE’s volunteer programme plays a key role in delivering our mission. Volunteers are assigned with the goal of building partner capacity, fostering global solidarity, and facilitating knowledge exchange and cross-cultural learning. In July 2019, 8 volunteers were assigned to our partner projects in Bangalore, India. 6 volunteers worked directly with the Association of People with Disability (APD), a pioneering organisation that strives to promote the rights of people with disability (PWD) through the provision of specialist services and by engaging in effective advocacy and policy formation initiatives.
Volunteers included Elaine Houlihan, a qualified physiotherapist. Elaine was able to use her specialist knowledge to support the work of the physiotherapy department at APD. This was Elaine’s third time volunteering with APD, and in 2019 her specific objective was to help build the internal capacity of the team working in the hydrotherapy pool. The hydrotherapy pool is newly opened, but the team lacked the specialist knowledge and experience to deliver classes to a high standard.
Elaine took on two roles. Firstly, she facilitated classes with children from APD’s early-intervention unit, working with children with cerebral palsy. These classes were well received, with parents noticing notable changes, commenting that their children were more relaxed and less tense. Secondly, Elaine was asked to facilitate specialist training for the newly formed hydrotherapy team. Over a week, she provided a detailed introduction to both the theoretical and the practical applications of hydrotherapy. Participants were able to practice in the pool in real life situations, substantially enhancing the capacity of the team to deliver their classes.
Elaine found the experience to be beneficial for all involved,
‘Seeing the impact the hydrotherapy had on the children was heart-warming. I really started to notice it when parents said it to me about the improvements they had seen in their children after only one week of sessions’
Elaine’s work with APD demonstrates the clear and measurable impact of a well-organised and targeted short-term volunteer project. Elaine’s placement was only 4 weeks and yet she was able to deliver tangible outcomes for our partner organisation. Children benefitted directly from Elaine’s classes, which can now be continued by a better trained and better equipped team. This approach underlines the importance of partnership – Elaine was invited to help develop the capacity of the team delivering an ongoing project that they had identified as a priority. She did not seek to impose her own solutions. Rather, she worked within the framework of the existing project to deliver tangible and impactful outcome for the participants. Elaine’s contribution builds on SERVE’s development work in India, with volunteerism seen as a core part of achieving our mission.
By Fiachra Brennan
Sumanahalli, meaning the Village of People of Good Heart, is an organisation based in Bangalore, India. Their project offers integrated social, educational, and healthcare supports to the most marginalised and stigmatised groups in society. Their work particularly supports people living with the after effects of leprosy. Discrimination and social exclusion are widespread problems experienced by leprosy survivors, as they are treated as the lowest of the low in India.
Sumanahalli seek to help integrate these people into mainstream society, with a range of holistic supports including medical care, the provision of sheltered accommodation, and skills training and employment opportunities. The organisation has established manufacturing units, producing items such as candles, eco-friendly shopping bags, and leather garments, allowing the survivors to earn a decent living in a safe and welcoming environment. These activities also generate an income for the organisation and promote their work within the broader community. Clients include the state government and several of the large technology companies based in Bangalore.
Accommodation has been developed both within the Sumanahalli campus and at suitable sites out in the community. This sheltered housing model supports people who would have little chance of securing a tenancy in the private rental market, as a direct result of stigma and discrimination.
Sumanahalli also provide on-site residential care, primarily for those who have developed a range of disabilities and health issues due to their previous leprosy diagnosis. The Ava Maria centre offers on-site medical and social care, providing a decent quality of live for people.
SERVE and Sumanahalli have been working together in partnership since 2005. SERVE have placed over 20 volunteers and supported a range of initiatives, with the support of institutional donors such as Misean Cara. These include the development of sheltered housing in the community, the renovation of existing housing on site, and the construction of the Ava Maria recreational hall, that is used for a variety of activities including garment making and rehabilitative care. SERVE’s support has enabled Sumanahalli to sustain their work and offer new and innovative opportunities to a very marginalised group of people.
By Cormac McCarthy-Hann
Vernam Timbini is a 38-year-old man, married with two young daughters, from Zimbabwe who joined SERVE in 2008 and has been working for the organisation in Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe ever since. Trying to give Vernam a job title is no easy task. He is everything from a construction site manager to a translator, a mentor to a counsellor. A once off encounter with Vernam is enough to leave an indelible impression on anyone, imagine then how attached one becomes after four weeks with this incredible man. I find myself racking my brains for an appropriate word to describe him but to no avail. The man defies description, he may only be written about in superlatives. He is the jolliest, the most optimistic, the friendliest, kindest, funniest and most insightful man I know, but his uniqueness lies in his ability to combine all of these and roll them in to one Zimbabwean pastor with perfect teeth.
‘Ok guys’… That was all it took. Two simple, seemingly insignificant words suddenly turned the pathetic departures lounge of Beira airport into the backdrop for one of the most emotional goodbyes of our young lives. He hugged the person next to me and as he did, she burst into sobs. ‘I will miss you’ he said, sombre and monotone. As he offered these words of comfort, I could feel my eyes swell and sting with tears. My chin quivered and my brow furrowed as I tried to restrain the emotion of the moment. He ended his embrace and slowly turned towards me. I could not meet his eyes, but I knew he looked into mine, red and bloodshot with sadness. He wrapped his arms around me and hugged me as though we were brothers. ‘I will miss you. I love you’ he said. As he uttered those words, I heard the slightest hint of a crack in his normally solid and jovial voice. I surprised myself as I mustered a reply, barely able to squeeze the words past the lump in my throat. ‘I will miss you Baba’ I said. He let me go and moved on to the next. I tried to look at the faces of those opposite me, careful to make sure our teary eyes didn’t meet. Their faces were a perfect mirror of my own, puffed up and red with the tears of an unwanted goodbye. I traced his movements as he embraced one and then the next, leaving emotional wrecks in his wake. Finally, he turned to us all. Two tears erupted from the corner of each of his eyes and raced to his jaw. He raised his arms and wiped them both with his shirt cuffs. Waving his hands above his head he said ‘goodbye, thank you, I love you’.
He turned and walked towards the automatic doors. A walk that lasted an eternity. The doors slid open and he left. Silence hung heavy over the group as we stared into space or at the ground, trying our best to remain composed. A packet of tissues was passed around as we gathered our suitcases and began our homeward journey.
A wish that we all share; one day we will see Mr Vernam Timbini in Ireland.
By Fiachra Brennan
Disability Awareness for School Children (DASC) is a pioneering initiative by the Association of People with Disability (APD) in Bangalore, India. The project aims to tackle stigma and discrimination towards people with disability (PWD). It strives to do this by engaging school children in sensitisation training, an experiential learning experience that allows the participants to get a glimpse into the challenges and obstacles faced by those living with a disability. Students participate in a 90-minute session, taking part in activities such as using a wheelchair, walking whilst blindfolded, and learning basic sign-language. They get to learn directly from people living with a variety of disabilities, many of whom work for APD.
At the end of the day participant feedback is gathered to assess the impact of the training on the participants and gauge how their knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) have been altered as a result. The project has been active since October 2018. 2,226 students and 213 teachers have taken part so far, with overwhelmingly positive feedback.
This project is co-funded by SERVE (through Redemptorist International Solidarity), with the support of Misean Cara. Fiachra Brennan, SERVE Volunteer and Fundraising Coordinator, recently completed a monitoring visit to India and had the opportunity to visit the project, observe the progress achieved, and engage in planning for the next stage of the initiative. According to Fiachra,
‘This project is a ground-breaking initiative. It makes students aware of the difficulties faced for people with disabilities in a very interactive way. It is completely different from reading about it in a book. More so than that, this project is designed to inspire change. Students return to school armed with additional knowledge and a fresh perspective, ready to do their little bit to make the world a more inclusive place’
‘The programme hopes to positively influence and impact the attitudes and behaviour of the youngsters towards the differently-abled. They are after all the next generation of decision-makers – employers, service providers, business owners, advocates, policymakers – teachers, colleagues, neighbours and friends’
SERVE and APD began working together in 2007. Since then SERVE have successfully placed over 35 volunteers and secured several rounds of institutional funding to support a range of APD initiatives including an educational outreach programme for out-of-school children with disabilities, the renovation of key training facilities, and the provision of specialist equipment.