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”