At the start of this year I resolved to do more volunteering. So in October 2013, I signed up to do a month of volunteer work serving at an orphanage in rural Nepal. I wasn’t able to do a month because I fell seriously sick, but I’m glad I got to do it still. It was definitely a life-changing experience, like what they all say.
The job description: Get the kids ready for school, walk them to school, fetch them from school, cook for them, help them with schoolwork, sit with them, spend time with them… While I was trying to do that, I realised they could do all that on their own. This little three-storey home in the middle of nowhere functioned exceptionally well, especially considering there were 15 children, and just one mummy – Mummy Nanu Rai.
They don’t need any ‘help’, really. The older kids take good care of the little ones, and Mummy makes sure everything runs well and most importantly, that all the children are loved. My being there felt not only redundant; it felt more like I was paying for a homestay experience, barging into their lives, than actually trying to make a difference.
In fact, let’s face it – there’s no way I can peel potatoes with a knife faster than they can , and I’m probably consuming way more food and electricity than I’m paying for. Exactly what good does that do? It didn’t feel right. I wanted to do more.
When a friend asked me, “Are you volunteering at an orphanage?” I replied: “Well, in the name of volunteering, but really I’m hanging out with a bunch of really awesome kids.” Kids who are respectful, jovial, exuberant, filial, who do their chores without one word of complaint, who love learning and take their studies very seriously, who have big ambitions, who help each other, who love their brothers and sisters dearly, who love Mummy dearly. And yet, still kids, who like playing with toys and cards, who like watching television, who like listening to One Direction.
These are children whose parents might have passed away, or one parent might have remarried and not wanted them around, whose parent might be an alcoholic, whose parent might have gone medically insane, or whose older siblings have to fend for themselves aren’t able to care for them. Mummy takes them all in, no questions asked, and loves them all, just like her own children.
And these are children who, when asked what they’d like to be when they grow up, tell me: A doctor, a nurse, an office worker, a farmer, a teacher, a policewoman, a mechanical engineer, a software engineer, an army officer, a pilot… And they know that if they work hard and put their minds to it, that, despite their impoverished background, they can succeed.
And yet, when you ask them what makes them the most happy, the one answer that I keep hearing over and over again has nothing to do with careers or making money; it’s “My family. My brothers and sisters here.” It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.
It wasn’t at all The Helpless Colony, it was more like The Happiness Colony. It was impossible not to be affected by their joyful nature. I felt so happy and blessed that they accepted me into their home and showered me with affection, more than I could ever give in return. Stepping in there meant opening your eyes to smiles, your ears to laughter, and your heart to love – love from all the members of this large family.
I come from a city where people need a national campaign to get families to eat together once a year. Here, everyone cooks together, sits together (even if it’s on the cold stone floor), enjoys their meals together and banters together.
Sure, they are poor. When I bought potato chips and offered them to the children, one little boy savoured half his portion slowly one chip at a time, and then kept the other half in his pocket to savour later in school. “When was the last time you ate potato chips?” I asked. “Last year, last month, last week?” He shook his head. “Never,” he said softly.
In the course of being there there were very obvious ways I thought I could help. Ahh, they need more storybooks, a potato peeler, some toys and games that aren’t broken or missing pieces, clothes that maybe actually fit them, new footwear, jackets (winter was coming) – and all these things aren’t even expensive to us.
But then I realised, that’s not really what they need. They’re okay with having no toys – they have each other for company and entertainment. They’re okay with no hot water, no flushing system, or eating the same rice with dhal for every single meal for every single day of their lives. At least they have some running water, at least they have the occasional electricity. Because they have so little, everything becomes so much more meaningful; they’re so grateful for what they do have. Of course, if we could give them more, that would be great. But at the end of the day, they don’t need fancy potato peelers. They need to go to school. They need to be taken care of.
Fact is, Mummy needs money to maintain the home. There’s house rental, electricity and utility bills, food (very very simple food), and school fees. Not to mention textbooks, uniforms, writing materials etc. Where that money comes from still remains a huge mystery to me. Somehow, between this volunteer programme and going door-to-door asking for donations, Mummy finds a way to scrape through every month.
But here’s the thing. I found out that of the money I paid to be there, a large portion of which was supposed to go to the orphanage hosting me i.e. them, they ultimately only receive a measly 5-10% of it! The money they get, I’m pretty sure, doesn’t even cover the cost of me staying there! This made me epic mad. You want to know that you’re doing some good. You don’t want to wonder where the money is going to. Beyond feeling cheated and disgusted, my next thought was this: So what can I really do?
I’d like to find a long-term solution to help them out. I’d like to figure out some kind of sustainable plan that will bring them money in the long-run, but without selling the kids out by making them work, because the whole objective is to ensure they can focus on school and become even more amazing people in the future. If any of you have any suggestions, please share them with me.
In the meantime however, here’s what I can do. #10 on my list (of 30 things to do in the 365 days before I turn 30) is Climb something. #20 is Volunteer. I’m gonna try and combine these two together, and Climb For Charity. I’ll be braving the Nepali winter cold and testing my lack of physical fitness on a mountain trek, so please show your support for my cause by donating freely. All proceeds will go directly to The Helpless Colony.
Unlike other donation programmes, I’m not looking to buy them fancy new things. I just want to make sure they can continue going to school and getting the education they deserve. Please help me help them by donating here.
On behalf of Mummy Nanu Rai, and the wonderful kids Sushila Pariyar, Ujjwal Rai, Alisha Rai, Alisha Budhathoki, Shrijana Panday, Kumar Rokaya, Kavita Tamang, Suroj Nepali, Tara Tamang, Bhim Tamang, Pabin Basel, Manju Basnet, Utsaav Rai and Kabir Tamang, I thank you for your kind generosity and love.