Avni Shah '07
Class of 1966 Dickey Intern

Employer: Utthan Talim Kendra Center for Disabled Youth
Location: Ahmedabad, India
Term: 2006 Winter

Volunteering in India: A New Experience in Many Ways

When I stepped off the plane into Ahmedabad Airport located in the northwestern state of Gujarat, it struck me that this experience would be all foreign to me. The people, the smell, the clothes, just everything was so unreal to me and I was so out of place. I went to my apartment that night, and fell asleep with a sense of apprehension of what was to come for me in the morning, meeting the people and visiting the place that I would be spending the next six weeks.

The next morning I woke up at virtually the crack of dawn. In India, everything starts early. So first we were woken by the person who delivers milk, then by the person who delivers vegetables, then by the person who delivers fruit, then by someone who just wanted to stop by, and mind you this was all before 8 in the morning. By 11 o’clock I was on the road via an auto-rickshaw (my soon to be daily commuting vehicle) and off to see my place of work, Utthan Talim Kendra (a center above the sun), which is a center for mentally disabled teenagers, many of whom are underprivileged as well. The main purpose of the center was to teach boys and girls aged 9-25 (mainly boys because of the social situation in India) that are moderately mentally retarded, vocational skills so that in a few years of learning these skills they will be able to go out in the job force and earn a living on their own. This is done by making many school-related supplies such as folders, notebooks, gift bags, calendars and cards, with everything being made from scratch by these students. For the two weeks prior to my trip to India, I had been doing research for the organization learning about the different mental disabilities and how to provide new activities for the children in order for them to develop and grow. I had collected quite a lot of information and was excited to present this all to my supervisors when I finally met them.

Arriving on the center, the smell overwhelmed me, as the building was in the middle of a slum village. I had been traveling in India for a few weeks now, but with my parents I had been involved in the tourist activities rather than spending time in this village area, so this was all new to me. I carefully made my way to the front door, watching my step so to not step in cow dung. When I first walked in I was greeted by a few boys who were extremely enthralled that there were so many visitors to see them. I then made my way to see the two directors, Bhavnaben, who managed the actual facility organizing, and Nita Nanavaty, the woman I had been corresponding with and the financial and marketing director of the center. They both explained to me that I would have to decide exactly what I was doing since they had never actually had a volunteer before. I remember taking a look at the actual facility not believing what I would be embarking on.

However, as the days passed, all the nervousness that I had been feeling melted away. The students were extremely funny and gifted in so many diverse and although they were mentally disabled in terms of IQ, they were certainly not affected in other areas. A lot of them were absolute terrific in sports and dancing, some were exceptional in the arts, and one boy in particular, Ankit, had a moderate case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and was pretty much the “quality control manager” as everyone liked to call him, as he made sure every label was stuck on perfectly straight and aligned. He made sure that everything they made, whether it was folders or notebooks, all had the professional quality in order to be competitive in the marketplace. There was also a boy named Dinesh, who won numerous art shows because of his paintings. He actually made a set of Diwali cards (a holiday during the fall that translates to, “Festival of Lights”) that ended up selling more than 16,000 copies throughout all of India. Dinesh was also paraplegic on his left side, and had no ability to speak, and in a country where sign language was an esoteric art outside of the rich, Dinesh’s ability to paint was probably his sole means of communication. Nevertheless, he was the class clown, acting very cheeky with everyone, especially the girls, flirting his way through the day, which was often an amusing sight to see.

One of the highlights of my volunteering experience was helping the boys and girls in dancing, something that I am very passionate about. They were competing in a dance competition that was for mentally disabled children throughout all of Ahmedabad (population: 5.2 million). We worked really hard on creating a traditional fisherman’s dance that would showcase their skills. And low and behold after about a month of practicing for 2 hours five times a week, the boys managed to grab a second place trophy. This was something they had never accomplished before, and gave them tremendous confidence! I was so proud that I could be part of something so special.

Another thing that I contributed to the center was creating profiles of the ten neediest children with their pictures and brief life story. Nobody that I worked with had the computer and language skills in English, which would be their main demographic for sponsoring the children. I was able to observe the kids for a month and write down how they have improved at the center and what their background was before coming here. Hopefully over the summer, when I get a little more time, I will be able to fundraise a bit for these children and get the neediest children sponsored by people in America that I’m sure would love to help.

A couple of times during my 6-week stay, I threw a pizza party for the kids (some of which never tried pizza before this because it was too expensive). We had pizza and coke for everyone and let me say that the pizza flew fast. Kids were stuffing themselves because of how much they enjoyed, as they called, “a true American meal.” I think the funniest incident that stemmed from that was that I bought Pepsi and a few Coke bottles to drink, and for some reason none of the kids touched the Coke bottles. I was absolutely perplexed so I asked one of the girls why this was occurring, and she quietly explained to me that Pepsi had people like Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, and Preity Zinta (major, major actors and actresses on the Bollywood scene), while Coke only had Aishwarya Rai (an international icon). This made Pepsi better since all the really big stars and apparently the Indian cricket team were promoting Pepsi. I find that extremely interesting that the advertising industry was so pronounced in even the poorer parts of India.

On the last few days of my stay I organized a small talent show of sorts, for the students (and me!) to see some of their peers’ talents. We watched Vishal rollerskate, a gold-medalist in the sport, saw Parag do an exact dance from the major Bollywood movie Dil to Pagal Hai, and we saw Sarfraj showcase his musical ear by hearing him imitate about 15 different animal sounds with uncanny realness. He even managed to recreate two dogs barking at one another. I then got challenged to play ping pong by Special Olympic gold medalist Himanshu. He was going to China in 2007 to compete in the International Games, and so wanted to see my best effort. I remember hitting it softly to him, thinking that he wouldn’t be as good as I was used to playing, but to my surprise and ego-bruising, he smacked the ball so hard back at me that not only could I not return it, but all of the other boys watching (about 30 of them) all started laughing. We ended up playing 4 games, and let me say that I will be hedging my bets on Himanshu to take the International gold next year!

I think going to India was the best experience of my life. Despite having the most fun I can ever remember, I was able to exceed my goals for the term. I became fluent in Gujarati, my family language (I became fluent to the point that I remember arguing with the rickshaw driver in front of a family friend because I thought he said 17 instead of 7, and he ended up looking at my family friend who was dressed in American apparel, and said in English, “Let me guess she is from here.” Before this trip I was wavering whether I wanted to do medicine or psychology. After seeing many of those children with illnesses that went uncured and then resulted in severe brain damage leading to mental retardation, I know that not only do I want to be an Emergency Room doctor, but I plan on coming back here after my training for the Doctors Without Borders program, to hopefully cure some of these kids before they even get inflicted by mental retardation. After this experience, I also learned that life is not meant to be taken 100% seriously. These kids were disadvantaged in many ways, but never once felt sorry for themselves, in fact they had more fun than I had seen in a long time, playing, hugging, joking, dancing, and just being plain happy!

I viewed this internship coming in as a chance for me to help this small organization. It most certainly went the other way around, with them teaching me the life lessons that you just can’t learn in school. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to embark on this journey. I can’t ever express the full capacity of my gratitude.

Avni Shah is an '07 Psychological and Brain Sciences and Religion double major. Since learning about Dartmouth's unique D-plan system as a prospective student, she has wanted to volunteer in India during an off-term. This past trip marked her very first visit to India, although she plans to return much more in the future. Her travels in India and working at Utthan Talim Kendra have inspired her to pursue a career in medicine, and eventually return to this same area as a physician giving medical care to those in need. Outside of academics, Avni is a member of Dartmouth EMS, part of Vandana, the South Asian dance team at Dartmouth, and enjoys playing squash and running. She plans on attending medical school in pursuit to become an emergency medicine physician.