My Volunteering Experience with HOPE
Catherine Devine is a journalist from Donegal who volunteered in Kolkata with her mother Siobhan in 2019
My mum and I had always dreamed of volunteering abroad so we were delighted when the opportunity came up for us to work together with The Hope Foundation in the summer of 2019.
At first when we arrived in Kolkata, everything seemed like a contradiction. In the dark and damp slums, there were children filled with the biggest and brightest smiles. In the city surrounded by poverty and suffering, the buildings were vibrant with colours and lights. Outside rooftop bars and four-storey malls, there were people and animals starving on the pavements.
From day one, my mum and I were immensely impressed by the organisation of The Hope Foundation. We got a chance to see some of the 60 projects that the foundation runs for poor and disadvantaged children and it was amazing to see how the money we had fundraised was going directly to the children and HOPE’s projects.
During my three months volunteering I had the opportunity to work in different projects but my favourite was teaching English classes and visiting the PBK Girl’s Home. The children are all so eager to learn and they grab each opportunity that Hope presents to them with both hands. Some of the children are truly inspiring and they were the ones teaching me at the end of the day. The teachers and staff that HOPE employs are also a credit to the foundation as they ensure that each child is motivated to achieve their full potential.
I also got to experience the night ambulance, where the HOPE medical team tends to the people sleeping on the streets at night. While observing the work of the night ambulance, I witnessed poverty and neglect I didn’t think was possible. Young children are laid out to sleep on the ground with rats running around them and cars honking their horns in every direction. In the volunteers’ apartment, we all jumped (and occasionally screamed) when we saw a gecko on the walls so it amazes me how these children have become so resilient to their surroundings. On one occasion, the medical team also tended to a 21-year-old mother-of-three who was sleeping on the streets with her young children. On the same night, we also had the opportunity to laugh and dance to ‘Ring a Rosy’ and ‘Hokey Pokey’ with street children whose smiles were brighter than the street lights.
Every day in India something surprises you. The biggest culture shock for me was that there were people everywhere who constantly stared at us. At the Victoria Memorial, people formed queues to take selfies with us! And I don’t think I will ever recover from the thrill of the roads. In Ireland there is a phrase ‘drive like you’re late for mass’, but in Kolkata they drive like they’re competing in rally weekend and seat belts just aren’t a thing!
Kolkata has the nickname of the ‘City of Joy’ and while at times the experience can be upsetting and eye-opening, the resilience and community spirit in Kolkata is truly awe-inspiring. As volunteers, we can’t change a whole lot in Kolkata but I think our biggest achievement is to make one child smile or laugh for even a short time. My experience in Kolkata will stay with me forever and I would encourage anyone young or old to come and volunteer with The Hope Foundation.