It was only ten days but volunteering with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (Calcutta), has been an experience that really touched my heart. Although volunteering is meant to be selfless service I received a lot more than I could give. If you are looking for a place to volunteer in India then I can definitely recommend you to visit Mother Teresa's Mission in Kolkata.
Most volunteering organisations in India will ask you to pay money to have the opportunity to volunteer. At the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata you don't need to pay anything or plan anything in advance. All you need to do is show up and say "I want to volunteer." You will certainly be able to get busy doing really rewarding work.
After two weeks teaching yoga at a yoga at a Yoga and Ayurveda Retreat in Kerala I took a flight straight to Kolkata. I needed to do some visa paperwork but I also wanted to take this opportunity to volunteer at Mother Teresa's Mission, which was something that I've been wanting to do for many years.
This was my second visit to Kolkata. My first time in Kolkata was about ten years ago, during my first trip to India. On that occasion I also visited Mother Teresa's home. I felt very inspired by her work and her mission but at that time I didn't have the opportunity to volunteer.
My Experience Volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata
My first day as a volunteer
I decided to volunteer at a home called Daya Dan, a home for children with mental disabilities and handicaps, although I think Daya Dan chose me. I started on a Sunday morning and I arrived right on time for the mass. This was a special mass for children. The priest was really good at keeping the children's attention and explaining the Bible in an entertaining way.
I sat outside in the corridor "taking care" of some of the children. Some of them where sitting in special chairs. Some would be crawling on the floor. Some were crying then laughing, then crying again. "What can I do?" I asked myself.
I had absolutely no idea how to help them, how to take care of them. "What can I offer them?" I had nothing to offer them, and to be honest they didn't really need my help. There are plenty of volunteers coming to offer their help regularly. If I was there or not didn't really make a difference.
As I sat in a chair next to them I started thinking about how much in common I have with them. These little children, they are lost in their own inner world, apparently unaware of what's going on around them, disconnected from the external world, unable to take care of themselves, unable to express themselves, unable to control themselves, craving perhaps for some attention, craving for love.
"I probably need as much help as they need," I thought to myself. How dare I to think that I can help them? Indeed, soon I realised that I needed their help more than they needed mine.
I think I'm not a very compassionate person who is always thinking about the welfare of others, but these children helped me to heal in different ways and they helped me to get in touch with a part of me which I didn't even know it existed. They are the teachers, they are the healers. They taught me kindness, acceptance, appreciation, compassion, unconditional love and much more.
Moments that touched my heart
"Walk with him," one of the mashis (Indian helper) said to me later on during the day, pointing at one kid and his orthopedic walker. His name is Santhu. I walked with him for a little while using the support of the walker. It is good for him to develop the strength in his weak legs, he can't stand up by himself without some support.
He really enjoys walking and he has a lot of energy, but how beautiful was that rare unique moment when his lost eyes all of a sudden felt into my eyes with a big smile. That smile touched something deep in my heart.
Later on it was lunch time. "Come feed her" said another mashi. I sat in front of one little girl, Naina, and started feeding her. It was difficult, it took me about thirty minutes to feed her and half of her food ended up in the piece of cloth that they put on her to keep her clean. Just like Santhu her eyes were going in all directions, never looking at me except for only one brief moment when she looked at my eyes and smiled. Such a special moment.
That was my first day as a volunteer. In the next ten days I never again received that look from either of them, so I really treasure that unique moment.
On another occasion another volunteer asked me to help carry a girl back to her bed. Her body is completely deformed, she can't move at all. She is completely dependant on the help of others. "How to live like that?" I thought, but as I look into her eyes all I could think was how beautiful she is.
Yes, this experience really touched my heart. Now that I'm sharing this story with you and thinking about these little children again I feel tears coming to my eyes. They are so beautiful, so unique and although they didn't seem to care if I was there or not I do miss them. Santhu, Naina, Rakhi, Soyam, Puja, Gungun and so many others. Such wonderful kids.
Main duties of the volunteers
But not always you get the opportunity to be with the children, or to help the sick and elders in other volunteering homes. There is a lot more work to do as a volunteer. Laundry (no washing machine available), hanging clothes, folding clothes, sweeping the floor, mopping the floor, cleaning toilets and anything else that might need to get done.
That's how you spend most of your time as a volunteer at Daya Dan, and that's pretty much the same in every other volunteering home. And how much work there is depends on how many volunteers are there at any giving time. Sometimes there is not much work to do. Sometimes there is plenty to do.
A normal day as a volunteer
The days would start with a mass at six o clock in the morning at Mother's House. It is not mandatory to come for the mass but if you do like to come, regardless of your religion, you are welcome to join. Most volunteers would come to Mother's House for the mass, or at least for breakfast.
|Mother Terasa's House. The headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity|
After the mass there is a simple breakfast: a banana, chai and a piece of bread. Then, after breakfast around at 7:30, before leaving for our respective volunteering homes, we would do a short prayer together. I can't remember the prayer but it was mainly about getting the ego out of the way, making ourself better instruments in the hands of God to be able to help others.
Right after the prayer we would all meet outside where some volunteers would be holding a sign with the name of the different homes, so we could all gather in groups according to the home that we had selected. Then we would go with our own group to our respective homes by local transport.
I actually came to Mother Teresa's House only on my first day. Once I knew how to get to my volunteering home I decided to get there by myself. Is not that I didn't want to join the mass or meet the other volunteers for breakfast, but I decided to keep up with my own meditation and hatha yoga practice before going for my volunteering work. Besides, chai and bread are not the best breakfast for me.
In the evening at 6 pm there is another one hour gathering at Mother's House. the sisters would sit in the prayer room in contemplation for half an hour and then another half an hour to recite the rosary, concluding with some chanting. It was beautiful to be there but I only did that on my first day.
A conflict of beliefs. What's your religion?
During my first day I got some strange looks from two sisters and from one priest. I had the opportunity to talk with the priest but he just couldn't stop staring at the mala (a string of 108 beads used to help the mind focus on meditation) which is typically used by Buddhist and Hindus, and the Om necklace that I was wearing on my neck. I know that look.
I got the feeling that soon I will have to talk with him again, and that's exactly what happened. Later on another sister told me that I should meet him, so I got introduced to him again. I sat next to him and of course we had the inevitable "talk."
He asked me, while staring at my mala, "Please Marco, tell me one thing, what's your religion?" I knew this was coming. I told him that I was baptised Catholic but I don't practice Catholicism, and that I am a yoga teacher. He tried to be as polite as he could and tried to understand. He avoided saying the things that he really wanted to say but he could hardly hide his shock when I told him that I read the Bhagavad Gita more than the Bible. Lol. Then he said, "You are not taking the Communion, are you?"
Later on the same day I had a brief conversation with a lovely sister from India. I asked her many questions about her spiritual practices. I was very interested in learning more. Later on I asked her if she could teach me more about the rosary. She said "Of course," and she added "come at 5pm and then I'll take off what you have on your neck."
I was not expecting this at all, we are in India for Christ's sake! (you get it?) I mean, there are so many religions in India and it is the birth place of yoga and vedanta, I would expect anybody living here to be much more openminded. Specially in Kolkata, home of the greatest Indian sages like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda.
Of course, this is a Catholic organisation, but I just didn't stop even for a moment to think about this before volunteering, so I was quite surprised, and a bit disappointed. Perhaps that's another reason why I never I came back for the morning mass or the evening prayers.
But please don't get me wrong. They were all super nice and they are open to all volunteers regardless of their background, but I guess it was a bit hard for them to understand that somebody from Ecuador, a mainly Catholic country, would have such different believes.
How To Volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata
There is absolutely nothing to plan ahead, perhaps only your accommodation. You can come straight to the mission and ask for the next orientation day which is usually around 3pm.
That's the first thing I was told to do, to go for the orientation meeting. We were divided by groups according to our native language and then another more experienced volunteer would tell us, in our own language, about the rules and give us information about the different homes where we could go as volunteers (one of the rules was no pictures allowed, that's why you won't see many pictures in this post).
There are several different homes around this area where the sisters are working and where volunteers can come to help. Some homes have children with disabilities, others elder people and others adults with handicaps or diseases.
In the introduction talk we were told that we have to choose one home and then we will have to stick to it for the length of our stay. Only those who stay for long time, perhaps a month or more, could decide to change house after some time. We were also told to choose a shift.
There are two shifts, one from 7:30 till 12:00 and another from 15:00 till 17:30. You could choose either shift or both if you wanted. If you choose to volunteer for two shifts you could either work in the same house or in two different houses.
You can find everything else you might need to know in: Volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata
Where to Stay in Kolkata
You can't stay at Mother Theresa's House, only the sisters stay there. You need to find your own accommodation around Kolkata. There is a list of accommodation given at Volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. Many volunteers stay around Sudder Street.
After reading the trip advisors review I decided to stay at the Baptist Mission Society. It was not very cheap. I was paying 500 rupees for a six bed dorm with no AC, but it was very clean and comfortable. There was actually room service. Everyday somebody will come and clean the room while we were doing our volunteering work. They also have single rooms, double rooms. AC or non AC.
What I didn't like is that they didn't have lockers, but everything was all right. I think everybody who was staying there was volunteering either at Mother Teresa's Mission or volunteering in other organisations. Most of my roommates had been there already for a few months. So it is always the same people. It feels pretty save. And the good thing is that it is like two minutes walk from Mother's House.
I would recommend you to stay for at least one month, but be aware that Kolkata is very polluted, way more polluted than Bombay or Delhi I think. Although a part of me thinks that I would have loved to stay longer, two weeks were enough at this time. I have lived before in Kathmandu for almost a year, which is also a very polluted city. I think with that I have had enough of living in such polluted cities, at least for now.
Different Experiences of Volunteers at The Missionaries of Charity
There are many blogs out there of personal experiences volunteering at The Missionaries Of Charity, some are very positive and some are quite the opposite. Some are very critical about Mother Teresa's work. All I can say is that I had nothing but a positive experience, and from what I could see from the volunteers working at other homes, who were volunteering for longer term, they were really enjoying their experience. But if you like to have a different view you can read:
- Living And Working With The Missionaries Of Charity
- Volunteering At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying
- Hemley Gonzalez: The Truth About Mother Teresa
Volunteering at an Indian Ashram
This experience reminded me of my time doing the The Four Months Yoga Course at Bihar School of Yoga. We did all those same things and more. Laundry, hanging clothes, folding clothes, sweeping the floor, mopping the floor, cleaning toilets, cleaning rooms, carrying boxes, cutting vegetables, and anything else that you might imagine.
We did it all and we also had the opportunity to work directly helping others for two weeks during a special celebration in Rikhia. That was actually my first time volunteering in India but in a very different environment, in an Indian ashram. Now I was working with a Catholic group, with different believes but with the same intention.
In an ashram this is called karma yoga or more specifically seva, selfless service, which means working to serve others without any selfish interest. According to the yogis selfless work purifies the mind. So living in an ashram like BSY is another option that I can recommend to volunteer in India. You can read more about that experience in: Yoga and volunteer work in India: a rewarding experience
In my opinion, if you are looking for a place to volunteer in India I think you should definitely consider going to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata. Like many other volunteers have experienced before, this is an experience that can change your life.
The volunteers come from all around the world and from all ages, but I estimate that about 90% of the volunteers where in their early twenties and maybe 80% from Spanish speaking countries or Japan. I hope that by sharing this experience more people from different backgrounds will be motivated to volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity, and if you are a yogi like me then please do wear your mala and show off your Om tattoo. Lol.