Do you want to go volunteering and feel its outrageous that you have to pay to work for free? I was surprised to learn, that if you want to volunteer somewhere in Asia, you have to pay. However, there’re many ways around it! Here is an example, how I got to teach English in a school in Kathmandu to the most wonderful Nepali kids.
I really don’t want to underestimate the work of volunteer placement organizations. They do amazing jobs, placing volunteers on interesting and important projects, helping local communities. For those traveling abroad for the first time, this could be a great ‘safer’, ‘organized’ option. But ‘rates’ look outrageous to me: usually one week would cost you $250, two weeks – $400, etc. Plus a lot of times there’s a non-refundable application fee (around $150!).
What is offered for this money (besides the actual ‘job’) can easily be arranged by yourself for much cheaper. For example, accommodation and food. Usually, they offer simple living, often shared; and food is something simple too, like rice and lentils. Also placement organizations may offer cultural orientation and a language class. When you travel though, every moment is a cultural orientation.
However, I’m talking about it in a hindsight:) I did pay for volunteering in a monastery (no regrets though!). I was placed with an awesome Nepali-Sherpa family, where I met another volunteer Paul. His friend from England gave him a contact of our host Chan, and Chan set up volunteering projects for Paul: at the monastery (same as mine) and at a local public school. So Paul was just paying Chan’s family for a room and two meals a day. It was about $5/ day. Big difference!
We taught a class at the monastery together and I asked to take me to school as well. When I came, I met the school’s principle Buddha and he immediately welcomed me to the school. Few times I was helping Paul with his school classes (checking students’ notes, etc), and few times I substituted him when he was away traveling. Teaching at school was a totally different experience compared to teaching at the monastery.
Shram Joti Public School. You would never find that school yourself. It’s located in a super remote Attarkhel neighborhood of Kathmandu, in the city’s very outskirts, from where you can see the footsteps of the mountains. And piles of trash too. The road to the school was so beaten, twisty and complicated, and you’d never ever see a tourist there, I swear. I loved this obscure location!
The school was founded “in order to provide a schooling facility for the children in poverty, disables, child laborers, street children and orphans“. A lot of kids are from Dalit – a marginalized ethnic group. That school year started with 350 students, aged from 2.5 to 14 years old. Over 50% student are on full scholarship. The rest pay less then $4 per month (there’s no free education in Nepal). Unfortunately, some kids eventually drop out and go back to the streets. But majority sticks!
Classrooms have dirt floors, no proper roofs, metal bars in windows. Kids wear uniforms, beaten boots and torn stockings. Books and equipment are scarce or non-existent. BUT the atmosphere is so lively and generally happy and welcoming. There’s a big soccer field where kids run during breaks, and on Fridays they have a half day dedicated to sports and games. Teachers are mostly young and dedicated to do the best job they can.
We had two classes: class two (kids 10-11 y.o.) and class three (11-12 y.o.) Surprisingly, you could really tell the difference in their knowledge of English and general knowledge. Mostly, we would do same activities and exercises, but would go more in-depth with class 3.
Paul was reading and (somewhat) discussing a simplified version of Riki-Tiki-Tavi from the Jungle Book with them. Note, that you need to bring all the supplies for the class yourself (markers, print-outs, paper for name tags, etc).
Then we did something great. It was Christmas time, so Paul organized writing Xmas letters to a real American teacher Mrs. Hayden from Colorado, USA. So that she then distributes these letters to real American students and they become pen pals. We also had a picture day, teaching them how to take pictures of one another.
We also brought in a map of the world to classes, and learnt about the world and the countries. Kids were so curious, they jumped up to see the map. They wanted to know and write down the names of the oceans, to learn what the continents are, etc.
Kids were very eager to learn. They were also way more disciplined than my monastery students and very respectful. You walk in the classroom – and they sing a little welcome song to you. The same in the end of the class. They would occasionally draw some pictures and present us (like a picture of a tree, or a dinosaur, or a toilet:)
In the end, we had a big Christmas celebration. Most kids are Hindu, some Buddhist, few are Christian, but all were happy to celebrate. A day before we put up a Christmas tree and some decorations (this was the first time they celebrated this holiday and had a tree).
Principle Buddha and the teachers did such an amazing job putting together a concert. The kids danced, sang, played musical instruments, recited, in the end they invited us, volunteers, Paul, Jennifer (another volunteer who lived at Chan’s) and myself to dance, and we were showing each other moves, and running in circles, and fooling around. One girl gave me a very elaborate card she made, saying I’m her favorite teacher and that I should never ever be sad:)
Paul was a true Santa Clause. For our two classes he bought books for each kid! That was such a big occasion to them. Now, that’s a great way to spend money: instead of paying some organization to place him there, he directly spent this money on the needs of the kids! He also bought candy for every kid in school and a projector for the school. Amazing gifts!
On our last day, Buddha gathered all teachers together and they acknowledged and thanked us, and gave us special ‘prayer’ scarfs that you get in Nepal, when you accomplish something. This meant a lot for us! On a break, all kids got out to the yard to say goodbye. A sad and yet such a happy fulfilling moment!
Update after the 04/2015 Nepal’s devastating earthquake: thanks God all kids and teachers are alive and well. The school though has partially been destroyed, including 4 classrooms and the hall. Currently they are looking for donors to help them restore it. The immediate need is $3,000. But life didn’t stop, they are running relief programs, do sports, health programs and therapies. Principal Buddha also wrote to me that they would love to have volunteers. Let me know if you would like to go volunteer at that school:)
So how to get on a free volunteering project?:
♦ I’d say the surest way is networking. If a friend knows a friend who has connections in Nepal or elsewhere, use that. Offer your services, get in touch. They’ll be most likely thrilled to have you.
♦ Or could be even better: where you’re already in the country, find an establishment that interests you, and go speak to the management directly. Be it school, monastery, camp, kindergarten, any other facility. This way you feel out the atmosphere and really pick where you wanna be. In my imagination the coolest places are in some lost remote villages, mountains… There’s just NO WAY they will turn you down. They might even offer you accommodation, or whatever they can. Also, they probably never even had volunteers and you’ll be a star!
♦ Local (Online) communities can help you find free volunteering projects. I found one talking to locals on couchsurfing.org, an interesting one too, but then decided to do the monastery.
♦ Try to get to live in a local host family though. This way you will get you the most unique insight. Sleep in their house. Share meals. Follow the lifestyle. Learn their language. Share your culture.
♦ Types of volunteering work vary: from teaching to construction. When you teach, for example, English, you end up (and you’re encouraged) not only to teach the language, but also a little bit of everything: geography, history, crafts, hygiene (!), etc.
♦ And like I mentioned before, I really do think that the money that you’d otherwise spend paying to the placement organization, you can better spend directly on the needs of the place where you volunteer, if you choose to do so. Buying books, toys, equipment, and what not. When you see joy in specific kid’s eye from your present, it’s priceless!
And truly, go volunteer. Make that difference! In all the reality, you’re first and foremost making a huge difference in your own life. It really shifts your perspective!
Here’re some pics from the Picture Day we had: