Growing up in a small, midwestern American town of only 900 people, India and its booming population of one billion came as quite a shock. Although I can say I was more “eased into” India than some- having taught in northern Thailand for over a year as well as spending several months backpacking the rest of Southeast Asia prepared me, at least in some sort of way, for the chaos I was about to experience.
I spent the first four weeks of my India trip in the north, seeing everything from the majestic Taj Mahal to the holy city of Varanasi, to the yoga-driven city of Rishikesh. I experienced the dreaded “Delhi Belly,” although not in Delhi- instead, in northern Mcleod Ganj, where it was so cold that it snowed outside, but no hotels offered heat, and few offered (working) hot water. Despite that, like my experience volunteering in Kerala, my time in Mcleod Ganj working with the Tibetan community in exile was a highlight of India for me.
I found R.R.U.P. through a friend. I knew I had a few weeks of time and the skill of teaching English as a second language, so I wanted to give back. I started researching volunteer organizations in india, only to find that many of them were charging hundreds if not thousands of dollars to volunteer, on top of the time I was already serving for free. This was money I just didn’t have. I put a feeler out on Facebook to see if anyone knew of any free or low-cost volunteer options in India, and a great friend from back home happened to previously work for a man by the name of George John. George was born in India, but moved to the U.S. at the age of 7. He now owns a successful engineering firm in St. Louis. His family started the school long ago, and each year, George takes a group of fellow entrepreneurs to visit. I asked him if the school would be interested in having a volunteer English teacher, and told him that I would of course be willing to pay for my own food, accommodation, transportation, etc., but that I just couldn’t afford many fees on top of that.
His response was better than I could’ve hoped for: He told me they would love to have me, and that my accommodation would be free at a house right next door to the school, complete with Wi-Fi, hot water, a local village woman to cook and assist me with daily needs, and that there would be a local man there to assist me in getting to and from wherever I needed to go. I couldn’t believe it. I knew I wanted to volunteer in India, but I had no idea that a volunteer opportunity this perfect existed.
With my hopes high, (although, a little nervous,) I arrived in Kerala. I spent the first night in Kochi and took the train to Trivandrum, where Shaji, the local man, picked me up from the train station the next day. I arrived, dropped my bags at the house, had an amazing breakfast that Pon Amma, the local village woman, home cooked for me.
I was greeted at the school by Geetha, the headmistress. She gave me the tour, introduced me to the classes, and gave me my schedule: I was to teach each class, (there are 3 classes,) a one hour lesson each day, meaning that I taught for only 3 hours a day, leaving me plenty of time to plan lessons and activities.
I was the first native English speaking teacher the kids had ever had exposure to, and their eagerness to learn blew me away. The kids were fun-loving, good-spirited, and loved to laugh and joke. My lessons covered everything from basic verbs and pronouns to weather and several other topics. We used games and songs to help review what we had learned, and did an art project just before I left.
What I was most blown away by was how welcomed and at home everyone made me feel. From the headmistress taking me sari shopping and buying me my first sari to inviting me over to her house for dinner and tea several times a week; from Pon Amma waking me up with hot chai and breakfast on the table every morning, to the beautiful children that loved being around me so much they just wanted to hold my hand and sit as close to me as possible. I helped Pon Amma’s granddaughter learn English and watched Planet Earth with them in the evenings on my computer, and they taught me a few words of Malayalam. We laughed hysterically about our miscommunications, an when I left, I teared up- Pon Amma felt like a grandma to me. In fact, her name, literally, means “Golden Mother,” because she takes such amazing care of everyone that visits the school, and has for years. I still miss her, (and her cooking!) every day.
At the end of my two week service, (believe me, I wish I could’ve stayed longer, and will definitely be back!) they had a PTA meeting at the school, at which, little did I know, I was the guest of honor. They said the kindest words about me to the parents that anyone has ever said and presented me with beautiful gifts to say thank you and goodbye.
I was bombarded with hugs and well-wishes on my last day, and countless “Please come back!” requests. I ended my volunteer service with a cruise through the gorgeous Kerala backwaters on my way back to Kochi.
I’ve had some of the most ridiculously amazing experiences in my life- from driving 4x4s on the world’s largest sand island in Australia, to exploring the hills of Scotland, to relaxing at amazing resorts in Mexico, to living and traveling through nearly all of Southeast Asia, but having the amazing opportunity to volunteer in Kerala was an experience that I’ll never forget and will be forever grateful for.
That’s why I took the initiative to start Kerala Volunteer. I believe that other qualified teachers interested in volunteering and teaching abroad should have the same opportunity to work with such an amazing group of students and teachers. More importantly, I feel like the kids deserve exposure to a native speaker to learn a language necessary to excel in their studies and obtain a job outside of their small village. They so desperately want to learn, and I feel honored to have the opportunity to help connect valuable teachers with R.R.U.P. to give these children a better tomorrow.