The Sikkim Himalayan Academy is a small school nestled on the Hills in Buriakhop, a little village up in West Sikkim.
I returned with a few friends a few weeks ago, having volunteered there for a week. As in most instances, the immediate response or recounting of an experience soon after it has occurred tends to be very “reactive” and all “rosy”. I did start to write and then paused to see what of that experience really mattered to me, what did I retain, and how it impacted me.
I started out thinking that “I will do something FOR the school, through my volunteering “. I have returned having learnt a LOT more and with the following insights. I think some of this will apply to most of us who volunteer if we paused to reflect.
- Takeaway 1 : People and organisations deep down KNOW what they want and HOW they want to do stuff- for the most part. They will always prioritise in their heads whats really critical. This can never be judged by what people say BUT only by the actions they take. I learnt to pay attention, better. Listening better. Picking up on cues from conversations that we had with the children, the community and the teachers. If one really wants to help, 90% of the time must be spent is LISTENING, UNDERSTANDING AND BUILDING TRUST. I always jumped to “solutioning” like a “know it all” and usually would get frustrated at the lack of pace in the engagement.
- Takeaway 2 : Understanding the difference between “helping” and “interfering “. This is a tricky one . People are polite and rarely will they turn you away to say I dont want your help. I realised that giving them comfort of being able to say NO I dont want your help , not now, not in THIS way is critical to being really useful. engaging in a manner that the ORGANISATION wants and NOT in the manner that I believed they must seek help was an eye opener. If one is NOT REALLY careful in understanding this, one could end up doing greater harm than good.
- Takeaway 3 : Respecting the person behind the wheel. Not applying this is like back seat driving for a short distance without knowing the path ahead or being able to drive. Organisations are built by the sweat and blood of their founders . As an outsider, I would always be really quick to judge over one conversation, one interaction. Spending the week there, trying to build an equation with the founder, just trying to understand, what his motivations were, what his aspirations for the organisation included…and then coming to some conclusions I think will be a far more useful approach..and of course checking back NOW if those conclusions were correct or not.
- Takeaway 4 : Asking simple straightforward questions. I have NOW become far better at this than I used to be earlier. Walking into a community , into an organisation and asking direct questions is not always easy. One fears being misunderstood. If that fear is strong, then its best NOT to volunteer with doubts and uncertainties in mind. A community is always more direct in its response if one is equally direct with them. No beating about the bush. I found this really really liberating . I hope that I can apply some of that in my “urban” context too.
- Takeaway 5 : I can survive only on potatoes. I realised how spoilt I have grown up to be. Choice of what to eat, how much to eat, running water being available, being able to hail a cab…the village grew only potatoes at this time of the year . Those who ate vegetables only, this was it. Till the next seasonal vegetable/ crop I walked 7-8 kms, everyday, mostly complaining . Running hot water is a luxury. I learnt to bathe in half a bucket of hot water that the caretaker of the home stay took the effort to make everyday. The fact that ALL of the above was so easily possible . I have come back to implement the same to some extent in my life now.
Volunteering – if each of us introspected on what it does for us …the journey towards being a better human being each day will just get easier and better.