Shareen Patel AWARE Volunteer Work
On the 13th of September 2017, I started my volunteer work with the Aware Foundation in Ahmedabad, India. Alongside Mr. Rajesh Bhat, the managing trustee who runs the organisation in India, my first day consisted of getting to know the organisation and the work that they carry out in India. After familiarising myself with the work of the Aware Foundation, Rajesh took me to meet one of the organisation’s trustees Ms Leela Visaria. Leela is a well-known demographer, researcher and academic in India who holds a PhD from Princeton University. She has written many reports and literature on different topics and one of her reports is on the Status of Children in Gujarat. My task was to read the report and produce two summaries; one on the major findings and the other on policy recommendations, which would later be used for wider dissemination and press release. I found the report extremely interesting to read and gained knowledge on different aspects. To give some examples, I learnt how many street children there are in Gujarat, how many children go missing, the nutritional status of children, the sectors in which unfortunately children carry out labour and literacy rates. During my time in the office, children from the nearby slums would visit and spend a few hours learning and playing games. During the Diwali season, they each drew pictures that celebrated the festival, which later went up on the wall in the office.
Rajesh kindly asked me if I wanted to represent the Aware Foundation at a day conference held by UNICEF India and the Confederation of Indian Industry. At this conference, I was able to interact with other executives and employees of different NGOs ranging from those that fight for education in India to those that advocate better policies in order to improve the environment in India. This was a very good day and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to socialise and learn about different routes that NGOs take on achieving their goals, their successes and even how they overcame their failures and challenges.
During November, I visited ‘Karuna Gram’, an all-boys shelter home located in the district of Mehsana in Gujarat. I spent the day interacting with the boys and spent a few hours answering all the questions they had about England and London. Questions that went from ‘what’s the national tree of the UK?’ to ‘please can you sing us the English National Anthem?’. It was very fun and I learnt that all these boys spend their time learning academically as well as learning agricultural skills. They knew a lot about nature, trees and birds. After spending time at the shelter home, Rajesh took me to visit a school located nearby that is for de-notified tribe children.
Towards the end of my time as a volunteer, Rajesh and I alongside colleagues of the Aware Foundation and two men from the American India Foundation travelled to Dang. Dang is a tribal district located in Southern Gujarat but also one of the most economically distressed districts out of the 640 districts in India. In Dang, the Aware Foundation has set up hostels and schools for the children of migrant workers to stay at and study in. These children starting from around the age of 4 years old go 7 to 8 months without seeing their parents or having any conversation with them as there is barely any phone connectivity in Dang and no electricity - some nights, we ended up eating dinner in darkness due to the electricity fizzling out! This was an experience to say the least! A few of the days were spent participating in micro-planning meetings with the villagers and the council members of the different villages of Dang. I visited all of the schools and hostels and interacted with the children, who were very excited to have visitors. For 2 days during this trip, a famous photographer from New Delhi called Prashant Panjiar joined us to take photos of the schools and hostels. We also visited a sugarcane worksite and saw how the workers cut and transport sugarcane, using their heads to carry the sugar cane to the lorries instead of their hands.
Overall, volunteering with the Aware Foundation in India has been one of the best experiences I have had. It was very eye-opening and I visited places that I never would have visited otherwise. I learnt a lot and established good friendships with colleagues that I worked with. Thank you to the Aware Foundation for the work that they do and especially to Rajesh Bhat who shared a lot of knowledge with me and taught me a lot.