Even having previously heard and read stories of Raphael I had no real idea what to expect when I began volunteering there. What I found and experienced lived up to and surpassed any expectations I’d previously had. I came away with a new found understanding, a love of children with mental and physical disabilities, some basic Hindi, an increased confidence within myself, a possible career change and a different outlook on life. Not bad for three months.
Arriving in the hot, sprawling, congested city of Dehradun and crossing the horribly polluted Rispana River I accepted that I would be spending the oncoming months in a slum area. I was pleasantly surprised when the auto rickshaw drove up through the gates on the edge of the forest and into the oasis of calm that is Raphael.
It is quite an extraordinary, beautiful place with tireless help being given in so many directions. Generations have now lived here, learnt here, worked here, gone on to become teachers here or branched off with similar projects.
The whole place is very committed to its cause, the people are strongly connected and there is real sense of community. To be part of that is a very special feeling.
Meeting other likeminded volunteers, most as equally inexperienced in this field as myself was refreshing. The quarters provided are basic but comfortable with excellent food three times a day.
On my first day I was placed in a classroom within the school and happily stayed there for a month. This was out of choice but there are many other options, for example, the candle and bag making, the early intervention centre and physiotherapy department. Afternoons can be spent in ‘The Little White House’ where children of leprosy parentage have a hostel. The school has eight classrooms with 40 resident children aged between roughly eight and sixteen and 40 day pupils. They are described as intellectually challenged and have various forms of autism, learning difficulties, Down’s Syndrome, physical disabilities or multiple issues. I immediately warmed to them and found communication was fairly easy. I soon found what I could offer and helped with the computer classes up-loading hundreds of photos and even giving the teachers basic computer skills tutorials.
In the evenings I joined the children for sports and learnt all their names. For me this was the best part of the day. Stepping out of the volunteer’s quarters with a plastic bat and ball and having the kids run over beaming shouting my name was worth every ounce of energy I gave them.
My second and third months were after a monsoon break and spent in an older class. Here I became more of a teacher’s assistant having the confidence to help with their day to day lessons. I spent hours in the evenings creating interactive wall posters, puzzles, teaching aids and photo id’s of the children on the doors of the classes (which they love to see).
In a country where corruption causes development to suffer seeing a place like Raphael succeeding is really inspiring. Saying that they are only just getting by, resources are not in abundance and donations and help are still vital to the place’s continued existence.
India is racked with poverty and providing these essential life skills to the children is incredibly important when facing the tough world out there.
I have already asked to return next year and I can see myself returning year after year as not seeing these incredible children grow up and progress is quite unimaginable.
Perhaps just from a lack of publicity there is a shortage of volunteers at Raphael. I think if more people knew about it they would be queuing up to be part of this remarkable place.