Monday, February 18, 2013

We are simply giving them the opportunity to fulfill their potential

Like seemingly everything else in India, the slums outside Kalva are a place of contrasts.  It is almost unbelievable that this level of poverty exists less than an hour's train ride away from the opulence and cosmopolitan bustle of South Mumbai.  The sadness of seeing a homeless family living on the street outside a Ferrari dealership is jarring.

However, when I walk through the slums every day to teach, the thing that stands out the most to me is not the contrast of wealth and poverty that exists so prevalently and shockingly throughout this city.  It is not the dirt and waste-clogged streams, or the goats and chickens picking through trash along the road.  It is the smiles of the children, the way the people living there takes so much care to keep their tiny homes clean and colorful, the care the women take in preparing food for the children, the kindness and tenacity of the teachers.  It is the humanity of the place that is the most striking thing.  To a certain extent, I expected the heat, the smells, the lack of sanitation.  I did not expect to see a small alley with brightly painted walls and clean laundry catching the slight breeze.  I did not expect the laughing friendliness of the women when we showed up to 'help' them prepare food for the children.

The children themselves are wonderful too.  So smart, so sweet and funny, so excited to be learning with us.  We prepare a lesson every day to present to the class and they learn what we have to teach them far faster than we ever expect, pushing us to be more creative.  It is beginning to feel as if we are providing a service to the wider world as well as to these children, because as these bright and eager children grow up, they have so much to offer - they can become doctors, businessmen, scientists, politicians, or teachers themselves.  We are simply giving them the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and if we did not, the world would be that much poorer. 
Elana is a participant in the Gabriel Project Mumbai-JDC 2013 Spring session

All I can do is give my best efforts each day

Namaskar, Namaste, Shalom, and Hello - this is Mumbai!

Walking into a middle-school class of standing children is an inspiring experience.  The class full of young learners show a strong drive to work hard and respectful of the “Teachar!” inspire me to work harder at literally everything I try to teach in the classes of children living in the slums.

It is hard to grasp the Mise-en-scène of the class rooms deep in the thick of the Kalwa Slums North Mumbai but I can assure you is very basic… very basic. Conditions can only described as dire. But the smile I get when working with these children and their dedicated full-time teachers is ear to ear and completely reverses my grimace.  The staff and organization of the Gabriel Project Mumbai/ JDC/ REAP are dedicated to educating and feeding 500 children per day while supporting the distribution and cooking of the meals.  Even while the chalkboards are just pieces of plywood painted black, and 2/3 of the schoolhouses have little electricity there is a drive present that is so impressive- it is to work hard and succeed.

India is a land of contrast in many ways. The slums that are proverbially “on the other side of the track” are in fact across the tracks. The constantly encroaching slums and the absolute poverty that ensues, contrasts with some of the worlds most wealthy individuals who live in the same city.  In less than one hours journey on public transportation from my classroom in the heart of an 80,000 person slum, one can be in a heart of the 22 million populous of the downtown metropolis with all the joie-de-vivre possible for more than one lifetime…and several reincarnations. The awesome contrast of living and working conditions is just one obvious contrast in India It’s like comparing apples and oranges, or rather mangoes and jack-fruit, but the distinction of the distribution of wealth and the polarized conditions is a constant reminder.
One thing that is universal is the goal to have ones next generation live better than the last.  Knowledge is power and the Indian society here thrives on a need for a hierarchical power structure system in everything from street hawkers to doctors to even apartment complex societies.   This stratified system compounds with a motivation that is truly impressive.  Children everywhere in the slums are like thirsty sponges and I am glad to be apart of helping these children learn and absorb as much as possible ranging from geography to singing and everything in between.  All I can do is give my best efforts each day working in the slums and know that it will never be enough because of the will that these children possess to be successful!

Josh, from Moreland Ohio, is one of the new Spring 2013 GPM-JDC fellows.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's been really exciting to teach in the slums.

It's been really exciting to teach in the slums.  Before we started I had a million questions.  I wasn't sure what we would be teaching them, what is relevant to them, what they already know, what they would find interesting, how much language would be a barrier...

The children are so eager to learn and are learning so fast we almost can't keep up.  We start off at the beginning of the week with what we think are enough activities for the entire week and then by Tuesday or Wednesday we have to think of more things. 
Jessica (left) is a participant in the Gabriel Project Mumbai-JDC 2013 Spring session

Sunday, February 3, 2013

‘Slumdog Millionaire’? It's Real Life: A new volunteer’s perspective.

These past few days have been incredible. Words cannot even describe it - but I will do my best. Although I suppose I am used to the traffic here by now, the fact that I still desire to talk about it proves that maybe I'm not... Picture New York City traffic during rush hour, but about ten times more hectic - and that is Mumbai traffic. Now imagine a typical four-way intersection in America with traffic lights, pedestrian crosswalks, lines that tell cars where to stop, etc. Four-way intersections here have none of those. Rush-hour traffic literally results in a giant free-for-all where cars from every direction just charge down the road at each other and usually end up slamming on the brakes to narrowly avoid accidents. The honking? Enough to make one go deaf. Or just completely insane.

When waiting to cross the street, people do not usually stand on the sidewalk like they do in the U.S; they stand IN the street. Indians do not really believe in the concept of pedestrian right-of-way here so if someone is standing in the street, an approaching rickshaw will not slow down, but simply let out a shrieking, blood curdling honk for a few seconds to warn the pedestrian to get back. People push their produce carts and wagons directly through the center of the street. Motorcycles weave in and out between the cars and rickshaws and trucks. (It is not uncommon to see three, four, or even five people on one moped- or to see a very elderly person or young child driving one!) Vehicles are often no more than a few inches away from each other. The air is constantly thick with the smell of pollution - and there is so much smog, the sky here is constantly gray.

Anyway, two days ago marked the first day we visited the slums. We have not started work yet - we start today, but we simply went to introduce ourselves to the students and teachers we will be working with. The schoolhouses were probably the most decent part of the entire slums, and it almost brought tears to my eyes to see these bright children and witness firsthand their love of learning. Attending school could change these kids' lives. If they are not educated enough to be able to hold a real job one day, they will never leave the slums. Education is their only chance - I am so honored and humbled by the fact that I will get to help teach these kids for the next two months with GPM. A Western program called REAP that oversees the literacy classes for the children works with GPM to ensure a free meal is provided to each child per school day. For many, it is the only food they have, and on Sundays, when school is not in session, some of the children will not eat from Saturday until Monday.

Outside of the classrooms, let me just say, it was incredible. It is hard to believe that there are people in this world who live like these people do. Their homes are made of tarps, wooden beams, and scraps of metal. There are stray dogs everywhere.  Unkempt, half-naked children play in the streets (meaning a narrow trash-filled dirt path ). The air smells like a mixture of urine, excrement, rotting garbage and pollution. Farm animals walk down the streets. Families gather in the dirt around small fires, cooking what little food they have. People rummage through the trash on the sides of the street. Many people sit outside their shacks just staring into the sky.

As we began to leave, a huge lump formed in my throat. It was almost sickening to think that we come here, and are doing such good things for these people, but at the end of the day, we get to come back to our comfortable apartment.. and they have to stay. While a lot of them do hold some type of tedious, back-breaking, laborious job such as working the fields or picking up trash at the Kalva train station that marks the beginning of the slums, the large majority of them are too uneducated to even purchase a train ticket and journey into town in search of a better job. They have no skills, very little money, and no self-confidence. They are prisoners of their own poverty.

Once again, my thoughts turned to my hard mattress, my toilet that leaks... and my heart once again swelled with gratefulness. I have seen firsthand the lives of people who have absolutely nothing. We have oh so much to be thankful for, and it is very easy to take our good fortune for granted. We get so caught up in our petty problems, and think that our life is the world, when it's not. The world is so big, and even before I came to India, it puzzled me when I saw people I know worrying and fretting over things these people would love to even have the privilege to worry about. In future, whenever I feel that I have a problem, I will imagine telling it to an emaciated woman picking through garbage on the side of the street, and see what her opinion is on my "tough" life.

I look forward to continuing interaction with these beautiful people, and especially with the precious children. These slums have existed for hundreds of years, and they are the first generation of their people that are working hard to ensure there will be a brighter future ahead of them.

Erin, from Ashville North Carolina, is one of the new GPM-JDC fellows. She has just started the Spring session.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"You come to make a change…and the change comes from within you"

I came with no expectations. That is always a good place to start, no expectations. What I came to experience during my month and half stay in Mumbai, volunteering with The Gabriel Project Mumbai, was something that I definitely did not expect.

The first day that I went into the slums, I was numb to my surroundings. I guess this was a subconscious reaction as I was not ready to take in the reality of the situation. I remember entering the slums and seeing the massive piles of garbage, consisting of old clothes, shoes, food waste and then seeing as the locals were walking around in sandals and sometimes barefoot, after a heavy downpour of the monsoon season. After returning to the slums several times afterwards, the numbness wore off and I became fully aware that this was the reality of people living in the slums. This is how they lived everyday, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and this is when the change within me began.

As I worked with the local women, helping them to prepare food for about 500 school children in the slums, I experienced their compassion for the children. I could see the love and care they put into preparing the children's lunches. I knew that the children would receive their (and our) love from eating such invested meals. When I came to the huts that serve as classrooms, bringing the hot food to the children and serving them their meals, I was so touched by the children’s humbleness. Each child stood patiently in line until it was their turn to receive a serving of food. No pushing, no shoving, they knew their time would come when they would receive their meal and when they did; a huge smile would appear on their faces. These children knew the value of this meal; they knew how to appreciate the simple, but important, things in life.

Afterwards, I began to teach the children. We usually started with introductions, where each child had to stand up and tell me their names and then their favorite color. Then we would play a numbers game where the children would sit in a circle and would count from one to one hundred, passing a ball around to the child who would say the next sequential number. I loved their enthusiasm when they knew how to say the number in English and then, in turn, received the ball.

Saying goodbye to the children at the end of our lesson was always the hardest part for me. They gave me so much in the little time I had with them that I did not want to part ways, though I knew I would see them the following day.

I came to Mumbai to volunteer, to give something of myself, to help those less fortunate than me, yet I felt that I received so much more than I gave. Maybe this is the paradox of volunteering, you come to make a change and while you do, the change comes from within you. For that, I thank Gabriel Project Mumbai and the wonderful people who I had the privilege to encounter during my volunteer work in the slums. I know now, more than ever, that life is a precious gift and we must appreciate all that we have in our lives.

All the best,


Peninah R. participated in the Gabriel Project Mumbai Fall 2012 session.