By Nicole Wisler October 9, 2013
After a few languid days spent eating croissants and learning new things (surfing and motorcycle driving!!) in Pondicherry we’ve arrived at SAMSSS (the South Arcot Multipurpose Social Service Society) in Vikravandy. We’re here to conduct mini TMS classes as part of the Digital Education and after school programs run by Communities Rising, their (and our) amazing partner organization. My excitement for this week has been building up since I found out I would be working with TMS last spring- I spent a few weeks volunteering here at Communities Rising two summers ago and it’s just the most wonderful place. Seeing familiar faces at the schools, catching up with old friends and learning all of Vela, the cook’s, dosa-making tricks feel something like a homecoming for me but I know it’s been a great change of pace for all of us.
Nicole @ CR in the Summer of 2011
The laid-back, almost bucolic atmosphere at SAMSSS is appropriately tempered by the excitement of our new students. On Monday and Tuesday we went to Periyatachioor where we had an eager group of 5th and 6th class students who showed up even though they were technically on holiday. I was nervous about the language barrier but we were more than able to circumvent it with the help of song, dance, drawings, and, of course, our two excellent junior translators Seenu and Saran. Once we taught the students how to use the cameras, which they took to right away, they taught us about the village by taking us on a walking tour. We had such a blast producing this photo story about the animals of Periyatachioor and I’m so impressed that the students managed to finish it in two days! E-I-E-I-O, enjoy!
The Animals of Periyatichioor
Last summer, 6 student participants, 2 student co-leaders, and one faculty advisor traveled to Tamil Nadu on a Dalit and Women’s Rights-themed Alternative Break via American University in Washington, DC. While there, these students volunteered at the summer camp hosted by Communities Rising as counselors, lifeguards, and teachers. Here are some of their stories.
Watching my 15 children being whisked away by the school bus in the rain brought tears to my eyes. These children had been mine for the past 5 days. I had carried their wet swim suits for them, brought them to the nurse when they felt down, held their hands and danced with them. Letting them go was incredibly hard–they were all such wonderful, sweet kids. The day we put them on that bus was the first day it had rained since we had been in India, signaling the beginning of monsoon season. And it didn’t just rain; it poured. It poured and felt marvelous, especially on my feverish body (I was just getting over something). It poured and all I could think was that we came here for a reason. We came here to give these children a great summer, to help them socialize and bond with each other and with us. We gave them a vacation from their daily lives–many of which did not consist of three meals a day, or baths, and may have contained abuse, and especially discrimination. We gave these kids the freedom to laugh with each other while forgetting the hardships of schoolwork–we taught them to swim, to dance, to use computers, to express themselves through art, and much, much more. It poured that day because it was a sign to us that we had done well, and that the children had done well, for they gave as much to us–if not more–than we gave to them. These children loved us automatically, and it is this love that will bring us all back one day.
I would be lying if I said it was not an immense challenge and initial shock to work with so many kids who were not proficient in English. Of course they were by no means obligated to me or anyone else to know English. I am the one who came to their home knowing basically none of their language. Regardless, it definitely led to some very creative solutions. As a swim instructor in the U.S., my classes always came with a list of spoken rules at the beginning of each session. In India, although we did have some translators, I fundamentally needed to make sure that each child learned and enjoy swimming as much as possible while staying safe. A laundry list was not necessarily going to work. In occupying free time, moments that usually would have spent having a conversation with one person, were spent dancing and jumping around in a way that a child or a grown up could enjoy using any language in existence. One thing became very apparent. A smile knows no language barrier.
I remember how unsure I was when I boarded the plane to India. I had already flown from D.C. to Germany which was a very long flight. But this was the last leg. I was almost there. As I walked on to the plane and got to my assigned seat I settling in I was nervous and excited at the same time. I looked around to my fellow peers and felt relaxed. still nervous but in less of a scared way. Finally I departed the plane, with slightly bigger ankles and feet but with an eager smile. This was the start to a life changing adventure. Two short weeks I found myself going the other way around the world. Back to my home in the United States. Back to something eerily familiar. I was wearing a pair of pants I bought in India splattered with black and white little elephants and with my left hand decorated with an intricate henna design. But I was also wearing the lessons that I had learned. I was wearing the knowledge of the power that education can have in someones life. I was decorated with all of the smiles of the young campers that I had spent a week with. I was decorated with the power of what a community can achieve despite cultural differences. When returning to the United States, I wasn’t just returning from India. I was returning with a little bit of it too.
I am so thankful for the two weeks I spent in Tamil Nadu this summer volunteering with Communities Rising. Along with other American University and Dickinson College Volunteers I was able to help plan and conduct a summer camp for children in surrounding villages of Vikravandi. Together we led the kids in arts and crafts, dance, swimming, photography and lego robotics, but just being around their curious, positive, cheerful and thankful attitudes taught me more than I ever could have ever taught them. I have so much respect for the work Communities Rising does for children and teachers in Tamil Nadu. I may have left India, but the smiling faces who made the trip so memorable will always be on my heart.