Where do I even begin with my trip to India? Do I start with the moment I realized it would change my life forever? Or maybe when the first child touched my heart? There’s no true way to distinguish when my trip truly began but for clarity’s sake – let’s start with the plane ride.
I was an emotional wreck as I waited in JFK. And it was no better once I boarded, or when I layed over in London. It was even heightened when I finally touched down in India.
I, a 21-year-old, blonde, pale, blue-eyed girl, was traveling internationally for the very first time…alone. Despite my jetlag, I was on my toes and alert the entire 3-hour ride to Shanti Bhavan. My heart didn’t rest until I finally stepped out of the jeep and onto the Indian soil. Waiting for me just beyond the beautiful palm trees and shrubbery were over 250 children, eager to meet me.
I unloaded my bags and without taking a second to breathe, found the cafeteria where smiles and arms welcomed me. The volunteers extended their hands and hearts. The children offered me their guidance.
It was nothing like I’d ever experienced. Usually, when you’re somewhere new, people look at you strange. They wonder where you come from, or why you’re there. Not Shanti Bhavan. The moment they open their gates for you, you are part of the family.
It was a Monday but classes weren’t in session. One of the board members had passed away and many of the staff members had gone to pay their condolences. It was the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the time to explore the campus and start on my lesson plans.
After my tour, the OSA led me to past lesson plans and textbooks. I was immediately thrown into prepping for classes. I admit, it was overwhelming. Having no idea where the last volunteer left off and where you should pick up is frightening. Knowing that tomorrow, you’ll have to walk into the classroom and not know what you’re talking about.
I didn’t get past that fear until I actually stepped into the classroom the next day. There, I was home. I’d been hysterical just the night before – I longed for America, my family, luxury, security. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. I knew that this would be life-changing but I suppose I didn’t realize exactly what that meant. The thought of it seemed exhilarating but in the moment, it was daunting.
But as it turns out, no matter where you are in the world, education is the same. Sixth graders will always be chatty Rugrats and ninth graders will always pass notes when you’re “not looking.” These kids are just like anyone else. The only difference? They are the most eager-to-learn children I have ever met. And that reminded me of just why I do as much as I do for She’s the First. Why I pour my heart into everything I do with this nonprofit.
I spent my days teaching Literature, Spelling, Grammar, Power Builder (reading comprehension), Computers, Civics, Persuasive Writing, and Creative Writing. My favorites were the English classes. But specifically, I was most excited to teach Creative Writing.
When I would wake up in the morning and know that I’d be teaching it that day, I jumped out of bed. Why? Because their responses to prompts were just so inspiring, so intelligent, so brave, so honest. For one of my assignments, I asked the students to write down their goals. What would get in their way? How would they overcome the obstacles? What would achieving their goal mean?
The answers blew me away. Their goals weren’t to score a goal or to make it through the day. Their goals were: to change the difference between the rich and poor in India, to become a robotics engineer, to make their parents proud, to buy a birthday present for their brother. They were so…selfless.
I wish I could’ve kept them. I wish I could look back at them from time to time to remind myself that goals are meant to be set high. That no matter what circumstances you’re faced with, you can achieve whatever it is you desire.
For another assignment, I asked them to write what they would do if they could change the world. The responses were even more heart-warming. They would get rid of guns, they would make everyone happy, they would give education to everyone, they would help people cope with their emotions.
Even on the PT field, they excelled. PT is like Physical Training, or gym class like you would’ve had in elementary and high school. They played a game called “Lagori” which is when they throw a tennis ball at a stack of rocks and once it’s knocked down, the opposing team has to try and rebuild it before being tagged by the ball. They create games like this without any sports supplies and they are so happy with them. They don’t need bats, footballs, or anything. They’re incredibly inventive.
It was treat, then, when I taught them some jumprope moves. After competing nationally for about six years, I though I’d never use the skill again. But when one of the volunteers picked up a rope in town, I showed them all they could do. Moves other than a crisscross? They couldn’t believe it. And they weren’t afraid to try, either.
My days were occupied from 6:30 in the morning to 8:30 at night and every moment was special. Whether I was down at the Pre-K playground for PT time or teaching class or having dinner with the kids, I was learning something new. I was having my eyes opened every second I was there.
This semester, STF*Hofstra is hosting their second annual Dance-a-Thon. Usually, we send the funds we raise to whichever school needs it most. This year, we’re doing it for Shanti Bhavan. We’re doing it for the kids I met, the dreams I was introduced to, and the lives that have changed mine forever.
India was the hardest, most overwhelming, wonderful, inspiring, heart-warming trip I will ever take. Nothing will ever compare to it. Ever. I think about the fact that I’m home now and I’m overwhelmed with guilt about all the luxuries I have. I think about the kids and how much I miss them. I close my eyes and I see their smiles. I feel their energy. I want to do so much more for them.
I think I left my heart at Shanti Bhavan. And I think I’ll be going back soon to get it. If they’ll have me. And if the words of fourth grade STF student Shormila mean anything, I think they will. “We love you. We miss you. The SB gates will always be open for you.”
Thank you, SB. For everything. I’m forever indebted to you.