The Spirit of Volunteering
For people who volunteer for a cause it is the ultimate sublimation. Volunteering is activity on a higher plane, an attempt at an idealized world – the involuntary instinct for the level playing field, breaking down barriers of inequity and deprivation, giving everybody a fair chance, the belief in bringing about systemic change in a system that under-performs, simply drags its feet or outright fails. It is an act of betterment and uplift. Those who have giving to those who do not.
Akshara regularly facilitates volunteering in education in Bangalore – at government schools, anganwadis and community libraries, or prepares the ground for homework support classes, English teaching sessions, a sports event. Akshara galvanizes the corporate sector, parents, the student community and citizens and is looking to expand the volunteering base exponentially.
The Larger Question
But looking at the broader scene in the city, is volunteering a case of isolated largesse? Will it remain the occasional wholeheartedness, the odd abundance, not a continuous stream of the spirit?
Says Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation, “For many years Akshara talked about doing learning programmes for children, about building a relationship with government schools. That alone is not enough. If we can get people who have had the privilege of education – teachers, parents, citizens – aligned to a common goal of equitable access to quality education, we can make an impact.
The problem is we always think of our glass as half-empty. Can we look at our Indian situation positively? Can we do something? There are 95 lakh people in Bangalore. If 40,000 people could go into a thousand government schools on a regular basis can you imagine the difference it will make? The larger question is: How can we together make the world a better place for government school children?”
What can be done to enlarge the volume of contribution and make volunteering a self-sustaining movement of substantive results? This is what two of the Target India employees who volunteered recently at the Government Kannada Higher Primary School (GKHPS) in Doddaholluru, Hoskote Block, giving freely of their time, energy and resources, had to say.
Ann: “Not many people like us know that such opportunities exist, that government schools need such diverse inputs. Everybody wants to help, but we do not know what we can do or which platform to go through. If there is a volunteers’ group that can propose volunteering projects to companies and facilitate the process, or encourage employees to participate in large numbers, that would be great. The message should reach people, and 99% of us – you can even say 100% of us – would come forward to help and support.”
Keshav: “We do something like this once in a while and sometimes forget about it. A more consistent approach is called for. A more dedicated approach – the same pool of volunteers in the same school repeatedly so that children and volunteers can come together. So that children can look on us as somebody they can count on. We’re setting all this up in this school – a library, a science room. But we don’t know how these resources will be used by the school and its students. We must come back. We want to come back.
If urban children come here and see for themselves the deprivation they will value everything they have much more. I think students in the city must volunteer. A lot of parents would want their children exposed to the other side of the world, the larger fact.”
Asha Sharath who handles donor relations and volunteering activities at Akshara says, “Every small step a volunteer takes is a great stride. A day makes a difference. For long-lasting impact, volunteering has to be on a regular basis.”
A Quiet Sense of Purpose
It is the 17thof September. A remarkable instance of volunteering is taking place at the GKHPS in Doddaholluru. The thirty five Target India employees who are volunteering here are enablers, providers of opportunity that day, as they go about restoring to pristine condition an old, disused library in the school and a room for science.
The school wears a discreetly festive air. There is a quiet hum of activity and purpose. Visitors are streaming in and Harshita and Manjula, Std. VII students, welcome them with a single red rose and a shy smile and fade tactfully away. Today it is the volunteers who are unwittingly centre stage as, with a hushed sense of mission, they take to completion their self-appointed task.
A Targeted Intervention
The Science lab before the make-over
The library used to be a picture of rundown depletion, sadly, for a school with no obvious infrastructure deficits. The volunteers are painting it and stocking it with books. The science room, once painted and invigorated, will accommodate the many projects the children undertake under the guidance of their tireless science teacher, Basavaraj, a live wire of a person. It will be a place for experimentation and discovery, for unravelling science, a subject that is one of the school’s singular strengths.
This is example-setting volunteering. Guru, the Target volunteer in charge of reconnaissance, made three fact-finding trips to identify and assess the school’s requirements. The day’s endeavour is a targeted intervention to provide something the school needs and will, hopefully, make use of. Not random goodwill.
An Image Make Over
An image make over is in progress in the large, light-permeated library. A preliminary coat of thinner has been applied, but the soiled walls show through the thin translucence, scooped out or peeling in places, which the volunteers have scraped and filled in even-handedly. A painterly landscape dominates, with brushes and big hammers, screw drivers and rollers, and large cans of thinner and synthetic enamel. Mugs half-filled with cloudy blue paint for the room’s many metal windows jostle in the assortment.
All bought through volunteers’ contributions, including the elegant, red metal racks and the 2012 books that will go on them. The number 2012 is significant. It signals the year of the library’s resuscitation.
“I too Have a Part to Play in their Growth”
It is a thoroughly professional approach, not least the painting, though most of the volunteers are first-time painters. Like Stephen, with a protective bandana round his head, about to go up a step ladder to paint the upper reaches with an intuitive sense of the work at hand.
A seasoned volunteer, Stephen says, “Volunteering is all about enhancing the next generation, making space for children to learn, providing opportunities for them. I too have a part to play in their growth.”
Mormita, part of the painting crew, says, “I feel strongly that what we’re getting we should give back. Everybody should, in whatever way, big or small. I feel satisfied and happy seeing the smiles on children’s faces.”
“It’s a Pleasure Doing This”
Outside the library a section of the verandah has been unofficially cordoned off. There, on sprawling mats are the 2012 books meant for children up to Std. VII. They are in Kannada and English primarily, and some in Hindi, straddling fourteen classifications – stories, comics, General Knowledge, science, computers….There are books that build skill-sets too, in grammar and essay writing, for instance.
Every book is being labelled with a unique code that will ensure that they do not all end up in a disorderly mélange where nothing can be found. Thick, plastic-coated brown paper is being fitted on the racks and the books will be arranged on them.
“It’s a pleasure doing this,” says Samyukta who is leading this group. “Children come up and say they didn’t have access to such books before. I believe that knowledge shared is knowledge gained. Even we are getting to learn a lot.”
Shivaprasad who is sorting and labelling the books echoes much the same sentiment. “I have a passion for volunteering. There is self-satisfaction and fulfillment. I enjoy giving back to society. When we were young we got so much.”
The library was a crumbling institution in school. When this ensemble comes together – the fresh newness of paint, the scenery charts, hand-painted inspirational quotes on education, the gleaming books on smart racks – it will symbolize renewal and create a space for children to read, learn and grow.
“I will Improve my Knowledge”
Kantalakshmi of Std. VII is excited about the new ordainment. “I am happy. I am looking forward to reading in the library. I will get to understand from library books what my teacher tells me in class. I will go there and find out. I will improve my knowledge. What I don’t know I will get from there.”
Harshita has to be goaded into thinking about the benefits of a library by her teachers. She begins hesitatingly and is nudged along. “Library books will be useful for reference, as guides to class lessons. I like reading jokes and short stories very much.”
Jayalakshmi who teaches all subjects, including Kannada and English, in Std. IV, V, VI and VII says, “It is good to have a library. Every class, I-VII, has a library period once a week. Library books are important for children to learn language, improve reading skills, for understanding and communication. The English books in the library will be particularly useful. Children will learn different kinds of words, difficult words. English is their second language. They have an English period every day.”
In volunteering there is also the not-so-exalted department of the mundane – the logistics, the hot food, the cold drinks…… All the eminently forgettable nitty-gritty at times like this. Anantha volunteered magnanimously to organize and provide and clear up. “Too many challenges in that,” he says affably. “What to source, what to provide, at what time. I got beverages, but how would I keep them cold when the school has no refrigerator and there has been no power the whole day?” He worked his way ingeniously around that constraint.
Anantha overlooked nothing – not the drinking water or water cups, the plastic spoons, paper plates or napkins, not the first aid kit. Then there is the humdrum everydayness of garbage, which needed some astute planning. Anantha will take ten bin bags with all the day’s debris back to Bangalore for disposal.
A Science Room – “It will Instil Scientific Discipline”
At the far end of the rambling school building is the Science Block, announced in thick, black, declaratory lettering. It underlines the scientific temper of the school, personified by the motivated Basavaraj who leads his students in curiosity-driven exploration. He teaches in Std. V, VI and VII.
Propelled by Basavaraj, his students have creatively designed a water recycling plant, a mobile phone tower, a hydel power generating dam with smaller check dams along a river stream to harness water to the fullest. And many more items, besides.
Children crowd around their projects eager to explain the scientific principles of each. Now there is a room Target volunteers are recasting and assigning to science. Says Basavaraj, “We did not have a place for all these projects. Earlier I would take the material to the classroom to educate the students. Now there will be a room in honour of science where students can gather and learn. A specially designated space will help children; it will instil scientific discipline.”
“I Like Science”
“I like science, “says Kantalakshmi, showing off the periscope she and her classmates have made. “It is used underwater during war. I learnt how the heart functions also.” Basavaraj was instrumental in spurring the children to make a simple instrument out of a plastic bottle, straws and a piece of fabric. “All low-cost material,” affirms Basavaraj. Kantalakshmi blows through the straws, then takes an inward breath and the pleated folds of the fabric in the bottle expand and contract, simulating the operations of the heart.
Harshita too confirms that she likes science, her earlier reticence melting in a flood of words. “I like learning about the heart, about health and nutrition. We carried out an experiment in class that demonstrates the force of air and water. I observe things through the microscope,” she says in wonderment.
“I Enjoy the Act of Giving Very Much”
The Target team is in an act of consecration in the science room, dressing it up, painting it. Samir, Anu and Noor also team up to embellish with their art the two pillars that jut out, hand-painting the universe, the earth, a space ship, a rocket taking off.
Samir is in Development at Target. He has a speech and hearing impairment. This is his first experience of volunteering. “I am an artist,” he says, hands flying in communication. “I want to do art with children in schools.” A paint-flecked khaki smock over a long-sleeved, dull red shirt bespeaks a heightened awareness of colour. Samir is painting a half-sun on the edge of a pillar in the science room, a yellow semi-circle with dancing orange flames – half the world in light.
“I like it very much,” he says. “I enjoy the act of giving very much. I am extremely happy doing it.”