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A US volunteer's grassroots experience - Gita Narsimhan's India visit
Anuradha Sharma-Gupta spoke to Gita Narsimhan, one of the volunteers of Lend-A-Hand India to write about Gita's volunteering experince in India.

Group of trainee Nursery teachers in a class room with whom Gita worked

Gita Narsimhan's story will inspire volunteers looking for an opportunity to translate their desire to make a difference into meaningful action. Indians who migrated to the US in 70's and 80's and are now well-settled, often look to spending time back home and doing grassroots work, besides contributing funds.

Gita, an Engineer from Chennai, India and a Professor at a college in New Jersey is settled in the US since the last 30 odd years. With less demanding family and time commitments at this juncture, she wanted to follow her dream and visit India periodically to volunteer. This is the story of her first experience which became a reality with the help of Lend-A-Hand India. Lend-A-Hand India helped by matching her skills, motivation, the time she was willing to spend back home, her background, and the language ability; Vanasthali was found to be the right fit.

In the class room � participatory way of learning

About the Indian non-profit "Vanasthali"
Vanasthali, founded in 1981, is a voluntary organization which promotes rural pre- primary education in Maharasthra by setting up balwadis (nursery schools) in villages. Vanasthali has set up as many as 3290 schools over the last 25 years benefiting thousands of children. The schools are staffed with village women who have minimal education, trained by Vanasthali as pre-primary school teachers.

Volunteer Brief
Gita's task was to document Vanasthali's work over the past 25 years. This involved visiting project sites, reviewing activities, gathering information from the staff, collecting data, and interviewing people in the field. Though she was not conversant with Marathi, working knowledge of Hindi and English was a medium of communication that everybody was comfortable with. Gita spent two weeks with Vanasthali. She has now returned to New Jersey, immensely satisfied, and is giving final touches to her assignment.

Gita's experience in India
1. Gita's thinks her India visit for volunteering was immensely rewarding on a personal level. She appreciated the work and the tremendous impact Vanasthali has made on preschool learning for children in the many small villages that have no access to such facilities. Gita thinks that the involvement of women in all aspect of running and managing the pre-school nurseries, is an important and powerful experiment in women's empowerment.

2. Gita developed a good rapport with the President and founder of Vanasthali, Mrs. Nirmala Purandare. Due to her first hand learning and observations of Vanasthali's work and the research that she did while working on this assignment, Gita apprised the President of opportunities and challenges that Vanasthali is likely to face in the years to come. This was an important input for Vanasthali. One example of Gita's feedback is: though research on education technology indicates that children learn and comprehend best while taught in the mother tongue, the aspirations of parents in this age of competition is to enroll their children in English medium schools as early as possible. Thus the challenge for Vanasthali will be to keep this aspiration of parents' in mind while planning its future development.

Young women and girls participate wholeheartedly in the training

Feedback on making one's volunteering experience more fruitful
1. Prior preparation - Gita thought researching and learning about the organization through its website and published reports before hand will on save induction time.

2. It will also save time on the part of the volunteer as well as the NGO if the terms of reference for the volunteer are finalized before hand. On arrival in India the volunteer can receive a brief induction and start the work right away.

3. The Place of work - Gita suggests that the volunteer should find out about the places he/she is likely to visit, its climate and culture. He/she should keep in mind that if they are visiting rural areas, they should be sensitive about the language and dress code related issues.

4. Clarity about one's goal - On the field Gita got a rich insight into rural India, the changes in the economy and people's aspirations and witnessed the work of many good organizations. The assignment satisfied her desire to be exposed to India and the thirst for getting connected with people, villages and projects. She also realized that in a country like India, lot of educated manpower is available, making her arrive at specifics about how volunteers can benefit themselves, but also benefit the organizations they visit.

5. Technically qualified volunteers - In Gita's words, "I could really contribute relatively less because there is enough trained, qualified and English speaking population available on the ground." Since there are already hundreds of graduates and job seekers, a volunteer with specific skills or training such as non-profit management, communication, and fund raising will be able to contribute more. No doubt exposure to people and culture of India is also a great experience.

6. Time on the ground - In Gita's experience, less than a month in India is not effective time spent - it is merely a visit and in order to contribute, one should spend a month at least. Because of heavy rain her mobility was a little restricted and actual time on the field was hampered. She feels that complete three weeks of working time is imperative hence it helps to keep a week aside for contingencies, reaching, settling down and winding up in the end.

Teaching material created from easily available materials around

Gita speaks
Gita recounts some other details of her experiences, her observations about Vanasthali, a couple of meetings she attended and very movingly summarizes how she sees Vanasthali fulfilling its mission. "

About Vanasthali

The founder, Mrs. Nirmala Purandare or tai (elder sister) as she is affectionately and respectfully called realized that rural children unlike city children do not experience a learning environment until they enter primary school and are therefore unprepared for school both in terms of basic skills and psychological readiness, hence the high dropout rate in schools. She founded VRDC with the goal of establishing "a balwadi (nursery school) in every village".

The dual purpose Vanasthali serves is to empower rural women at the same time. The way this is done is to train rural women with some basic education, specifically up to eight standard, as balwadi teachers. The model also uses a mobile training programme in that the training is conducted at small towns, which are easily accessible to women in the villages. The teachers, through their training and empowerment have become multipurpose workers - agents of social change who carry the message of education, hygiene, nutrition, and family planning into the homes of their community.

Trainees learn to sing and dance also in order to be effective nursery teachers

Innovation at its best
I saw displays of crafts and hand made teaching aids. The creativity that was displayed was impressive. Later I learned that part of the training required the women to make their own classroom materials not only to keep costs down but also to show the children and their parents that ordinary materials around the house could become teaching aids.

A ceremonial meeting
I had the opportunity to attend a ceremonial meeting at a small town called Lonikand about 60km from Pune. The ceremony was being conducted to release of the latest issue of the publication of Vanasthali Vartha, a bimonthly magazine of articles, poems and stories written by teachers and students. At the meeting location we were ushered into a room where about 50 women dressed in brightly colored sarees were seated on the floor. We joined the dignitaries at the front who included a Panchayat member, district education supervisor, a Rotarian, and a doctor who runs a private school.

The event was conducted with great enthusiasm by two women who were VRDC trained balwadi supervisors. I was impressed to learn that the arrangements had all been made by the supervisors including getting the dignitaries to attend. The balwadi teachers in the audience were beaming with confidence. VRDC had truly empowered these women.

There is a tremendous enthusiasm to learn and participate in training

Attending a training program, a strong support system for teachers
In Pune I observed two training programmes, which were being run in slums. The space was donated by charitable organizations. The women belonged to age group between teens to late twenties, some had walked long distances to get there. I was touched by the warmth and respect with which they welcomed me. The women demonstrated some of the songs with hand gestures that they would use in their classrooms. The trainer explained that the trainees were taught about how to actively engage the attention of the young children by using song and dance. I was shown samples of alphabet charts and crafts that these trainees had prepared, using ordinary materials such as seeds and grains, for their future classroom.

We had a question answer session. I asked them why they were taking this training and did they have the support of their family. Most of them expressed a desire to work outside the home, some to help their own children do well and most said they had the support of their family. Gautami said " I would like to work. I look forward to come." Archana Sonone added " my in-laws help with house work, my husband helps with projects." Vaishali was an exception. She broke into tears as she pointed to her children in the room and said "My in-laws object, they are against my going out of the house" Her husband who is a tailor is not supportive either so she has to bring her children with her. But another student jumped in and said her mother-in-law had sent her to the programme, which made us all feel better. All the women gathered around Vaishali and comforted her and reassured her that she was doing the right thing.

I could see that the programme supervisor, Nanda Barbhai, clearly enjoyed her job . Later I found out that she has been with VRDC for 20 years, 10 years as a teacher and then a supervisor and trainer. For me, these visits were my first hand experience of the challenges that the non-profit organizations in India face. It was my first close contact with people in India in a professional setting in a long time. The dedication of Nirmalatai and her staff, Bharathi, Anjali and Shakala, to their work is what has allowed VRDC to thrive for 25 years. Knowing the difficulties of getting around it cannot be easy to run an organization with activities in 12 far flung districts.

When you look at issues in terms of statistics then the impact made by one small organization seems to hardly make a dent. But to those communities and teachers and children where VRDC has opened a balwadi or empowered a rural woman, who before that saw a bleak future, it has made a world of difference. This is Tai's philosophy. She wants to carefully sow the seeds of change and nurture the change so that the impact is lasting, it enters into the hearts and minds of villagers and they see the value of education for all their children."

Gita, second from left with the President, Vanasthali � Mrs. Nirmala Purandare (first on the Left) and the staff

About Gita
Gita lives in Moorestown in New Jersey and teaches Physics and Mathematics in a Community College. After arriving to the United States about 30 years back she studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and launched her career. For the past few years has been nurturing the desire of volunteering in India which materialized in 2005. Gita was lucky to find a compatible NGO - Vanasthali - to work with. Her growing up in Pune and familiarity with the language and culture proved to be useful in the work that she undertook.

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Here Vaibhav and Bhargav learn the art of heavy metal welding. Vaibhav failed his 9th grade exams in school. He never liked sitting in classrooms and listening to theoretical lectures but loves the focus on practical skills.


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