Sheelalaxmi, or as her friends call him, Sheela, is staring wide eyed at Cora, as she deftly folds a piece of cardboard paper into a box. The other children gather around, and soon start to follow her actions. Sheela is too engaged to be translating what is said in English, and doesn’t bother with it, as it becomes apparent that the message is being received, by the number of boxes being piled up. Someone remarks that it is just like the puzzles Nikhil taught them that week, along with the geometrical shapes.
Cora and Nikhil are volunteers at The Learning Spaces, and Sheela is one of the many kids grateful for the extra pair of hands at their centre.
Shyness greeted the first batch of volunteers who arrived to the program and the children, along with stares from the villagers as to who the foreigners were. The facilitator acted as the translator and the children just nodded to every question posed to them, answers being confined to “Yes” “No” and a nod of the head. Crafts and games would be the maximum they could imitate, since the use of language could be replaced by actions. The strike of the bell at 4 PM would send them packing to their homes.
Fast forward two years, and the foreigners, now guests, are greeted by smiles and waves from the villagers, while the children gather around, offer to take their bag and bombard them with questions in English. “Where are you from?” “Where do you live?” “What are you studying?” The class leaders back up as translators, in case there are communication gaps. Every session is followed by questions, and when they are posed to the children, the answers take them by surprise.
Volunteers are an integral part of The Learning Spaces. Every volunteer comes from a different background, culturally and education wise, ranging from Germany to Mumbai. Apart from the wealth of knowledge they bring and impart to the children, they instil confidence in them to communicate with strangers in English, a big plus when they step out of their villages.
From creating wall mounts to outdoor games, exercises in English to Yoga, teaching them dance and organising street plays, volunteers engage the children in a host of activities. While the older ones collaborate on workshops, the younger ones learn in classroom etiquette and manners.
While the essence of volunteering is based on giving and not expecting anything in return, Cora, Nikhil and other volunteers have become part of the community’s memory, and keep in touch with the children through the facilitators. A volunteer learns to adapt the content to the surroundings, from language barriers to internet and power failures, along with customs and traditions of the village which find their way in the school environs. They also get a taste of the local flavours, from festivals to food, which show the diversity and beauty of Indian villages.
As Sheela picks up the pieces of paper on the floor, a conversation starts as to what everyone would like to do when they grow up. “Doctor” she says, looking up and adding, “and a volunteer in this village”.