Desmond Ryan writes about his experience in Kolkata
“I never really considered myself to be one of those do-gooder types. In fact I can be quite materialistic and self-absorbed. This isn’t some kind of 12 steps article, I’m just putting things in context. Bearing that in mind, it came as a surprise to me that I found myself looking to do something along the lines of voluntary work overseas. I’ve tucked into plenty of champagne and canapés in the name of fundraising in the past, but had never really rolled up my sleeves.I had been familiar with The Hope Foundation and their work for some time, so quickly found that they were planning a week-long painting trip to Kolkata (Calcutta) in early November. I signed up to go about four weeks before the trip so had a very small window within which to fundraise. To say that the support from this point was incredible is an understatement. In particular, colleagues right across the bank were unbelievably generous. From individual donations, to a very generous contribution from the 3rd World Fund to the HR and Internal Audit teams bracing the cold to sell chocolate on Grafton Street.
What we did in India: I left for India along with seven other volunteers on Saturday 29 October, arriving in Kolkata the following morning. We worked in a number of HOPE’s facilities, painting crèches and homes every day and in the evenings we visited some of the projects Hope have around the city. These included girls & boys homes, (catering for orphans, abandoned children or children whose parents are unable to care for them), a rehabilitation centre for children from the railway stations, many of whom are solvent abusers, the HOPE Hospital, which gives people otherwise outside the system, access to healthcare and a home for children with special needs. We also visited a number of slum areas where we saw specific projects such as community toilets and finally took a trip to one of the city’s largest dumps where we watched adults and children pick through mountains of rubbish.
Most moving experience: One of the most eye-opening experiences was on my first night, when I had the opportunity to join a “night watch”. Three HOPE staff spend 4/5 hours driving around the city essentially keeping an eye out for children in particular – but anyone for that matter – in distress. We drove through slums and along streets and I saw people live in conditions I never imagined possible. It seems so removed in the media here. In reality it hits you like a train. I saw families huddled under motorway bridges, in doorways, on straw mats on street corners and in huge “tent cities” where homes were cobbled together from bits of bamboo, plastic and if they were lucky the odd sheet of corrugated iron. On this particular journey we stopped at Howrah and Sealdah, two of the city’s main train stations. Here, many orphaned / abandoned / lost children live and make a “living” on boarding trains as passengers alight, to take any recyclables in order to sell. Many are addicted to glue and other solvents. A small group in their mid teens approached us to ask for money. The HOPE staff spoke with them in an effort to encourage them to move to one of the shelters / rehab centres. Unfortunately on this occasion, they declined the offer.
The scenes were heartbreaking. People are living in abject poverty and squalor. Children are sleeping rough on the streets with mothers begging with sick infants. The scale was overwhelming.
A glimmer of hope
The small glimmer of positivity was seeing the difference that HOPE has made in its time in Kolkata. While the numbers of children helped grows annually, the sustainable nature of what HOPE does, focusing on education and healthcare as being paramount to development means that children are given the chance to hope for a better future. One in which they will be able to break out of the poverty cycle and make their way in the world.
For me the experience was overwhelming and so incredibly humbling. I came back feeling somewhat helpless in that the little I did was really so small in light of the scale of the issues. I felt so thankful for all that I have here, and I don’t mean the Nespresso machine. Thankful for clean running water; thankful that my son sleeps in a warm comfortable bed with a roof over his head and thankful that I have never been hungry. It put any problems or concerns that I have into a perspective that I never truly had.
During my first week home my wife Suzanne was watching me like a hawk, afraid that I would start selling off our worldly possessions and wearing sandals. While she clearly had nothing to fear on point two (I would rather sprout webbed feet) seeing things like that firsthand did make me evaluate priorities here. Sure, things are tough and not getting a whole lot better. In the greater scheme of things though, we’re still among the luckiest people in the world.”