Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Summer abroad: Volunteering in India

30-year-old Maeve Heslin is taking a summer out to coordinate a group of student Suas volunteers in Kolkata

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 10:30


Maeve Heslin

It was odd hearing reports of a heatwave back home in Ireland a couple of weeks ago. Since arriving in Kolkata, India in May, my definition of the word “heat” has changed dramatically. Pale and pasty, I’m no sun worshipper, so it was particularly unsettling to find myself yearning for that cool – nay, chilly – 25 degrees in Dublin.

My journey to Kolkata started at the beginning of the year. My brother Dermot works for an Irish charity called Suas Educational Development, and every year he oversees a programme that sends Irish students to Kolkata and Delhi to work as teaching assistants in local NGO schools. While he was busily planning the 2014 volunteer programme, I was enjoying a mini quarter-life crisis. Having turned 30 the year before, that ol’ chestnut of “what am I doing with my life?” had reared its ugly head. Though I was working away in a wonderful advertising agency in Dublin, I wanted… something. But I had no idea what.

Dermot casually mentioned he was looking to fill the final slot of Kolkata team coordinator – and would I be interested? It would mean heading across to India with a team of ten, and living together for the duration of the ten-week programme. I’d oversee the students’ school placements, and ensure all went smoothly on the ground. Excited and a little bit terrified, I officially applied, was interviewed and accepted.

Six intensive weekend training sessions later, I found myself packing a bag and boarding a flight which would take me over 5,000 miles away from my family, friends, boyfriend and life in Dublin. And what a summer it’s been so far. I live in Kasba, South Kolkata with my amazing team; Aisling, Aodhan, Brian, Emilie, Emma, Lesley, Laura, Nicola, Oisin and Rita.

We share a cosy (ie cramped and sweaty) apartment, and work with an amazing local NGO, Development Action Society. Established in 1989, the organisation was set up by Sheela Sengupta and Perubi Roy, two social workers who seek to empower underprivileged women and children in their local communities. Among their many initiatives, DAS run schools around south Kolkata, and it’s here the Suas volunteers lend support.

Working with children aged 3-17, many of whom are first-generation learners, the volunteers teach English through lessons, games and songs. More than that though, they boost the children’s confidence and hopefully encourage them to understand that education is an important step towards challenging the extreme poverty they see around them every day.

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Though it’s an intense programme, it’s also incredibly rewarding. We’re completely immersed in a culture we’d only ever read about, and are lucky enough to catch a glimpse into day-to-day life in the chaotic, colourful and crazy city that is Kolkata. And while school presents the volunteers with innumerable challenges every day, living with a team has also provided its fair share of ups and downs.

Arguments about dirty dishes aside, the intensity of the programme has bonded us all more than I could have imagined. Far, far away from our beloved home comforts – in no particular order, step forward make-up, duvets, jeans, hot showers and drinkable tap water – our conversations now revolve around such glamorous topics as diarrhea, vomiting, hand sanitiser and of course – sweat. So much sweat. The incredibly humid Kolkata weather adds an extra layer of intensity to an already very intense programme.

But often when I feel I might keel over and melt, a sudden cold breeze appears from nowhere, ominous dark clouds descend, and the heavens open. Monsoon rain pours down, and afterwards, a wonderful coolness embraces the city. In a similar way, when emotions are running high in the house and those same dark clouds appear, it often takes nothing more than a joke to suddenly lighten the mood and release the tension. Such is the way on the rollercoaster ride that is the Suas volunteer programme!