By Anwesha Dhar:
One fine evening, when I was about four years old, my mother draped me in a sari too big for me and announced that I need to dance in front of people on a big stage. The idea of twirling under the spotlight and being appreciated with beaming smiles from the audience thrilled me. Five minutes later when the initial excitement died and I asked her why, she said it was for a function organised by her NGO and I was volunteering. Two big words I had hitherto never heard of let loose chaos in my little world. Before I could make much sense of it or stomp my childish pride under my feet and admit that I did not know what it meant, I was dragged to the stage to put up my little act which received warm accolades from everyone present. That day, unwittingly, unknowingly, I felt proud of being a ‘volunteer’.
Around twelve-thirteen years later, when I was done with my school finals and like every single adolescent in the world, bored out of my skull, I found myself randomly searching ‘volunteering for NGOs in India”. By now I had performed in many such shows, visited old age homes as a part of my school’s social service programme and donated gifts on Christmas to an orphanage. I did not do it because I suddenly felt a surge of philanthropy or altruism. I did it simply because I was bored. I registered for a couple of NGOs and forgot all about it within the next two days. I was persuaded to attend the recruitment drive for one such organisation by my friend, who was perhaps more bored than I was and I gave it a shot. Needless to say, that proved to be a stepping stone for me in the long run.
It wasn’t like my views changed overnight, I just happened to turn up for a couple of classes. Then, I couldn’t stop. The ‘perks’ of being a volunteer, if you were to ask me to list them down like all other lists we see on social media these days, can range from three to three hundred. It’s a matter of perspective and I surely can’t list down anyone else’s experiences for them. But what I can say objectively, without a modicum of doubt, is that volunteering helps you to come out of that shell so many of us live in because we are just generally, quite cowardly. When you volunteer to teach or clean wards or serve food, you realise the responsibility you are shouldering. You realise that there are people who are looking up to you and hiding behind that shell is no longer an option. The first ‘perk’ is, therefore, possibly this, you learn to be unafraid.
Once there, for the first time, you are given a platform to voice your thoughts, your views; you are given a chance to inspire others. From someone whose hands grew clammy on the thought of taking the mike, you learn oratory.
Another; possibly the greatest perk is that you meet people from all walks of life, from different corners of the country, from different strata of the society. They might be radically different from you in the way they dress, in the way they speak, their choices in food and music. What will strike you is that, at the core, those people hold the same belief system that you do. Their passion, their zeal, their spirit would be a mirror image of yours.
Most important of all, you learn that volunteerism isn’t just about going to the orphanage or old age home or the slums and fulfil those two hours of duty you signed up for. It’s not about donating clothes or food or books and feeling morally uplifted. It is about learning patience when the child cannot get the spelling of crocodile correct despite several attempts; it is about learning to care and spend some time just asking them about how they spent their day at the old age home; it is finally about caring enough to not donate old clothes or tattered books and thinking about ways to procure new ones.
Volunteerism is not life-changing in the sense that it makes a philanthropist out of you. It is life-changing in the sense that it helps you realise more about yourself and those around you. It teaches you patience, public-speaking, kindness-all of which are life-skills and will stay with you long after you have finished your programme and got that much sought for certificate. It teaches you that ‘orphans’ are ‘children-at-risk’. And the difference is as subtle as that.
Here I am today, several years after my first stint as a volunteer, aware fully of the implication of those two big words. My pride still refuses to stop inflating.