Johanne S HeadTo describe the people of Raphael, Ryder Cheshire International Centre, Dehradun, India, I have two words, pride and happiness. It has been a huge privilege to have had the opportunity to volunteer at Raphael.To fall into bed at night exhausted with this overwhelming feeling of contentment and fulfilment after a day’s work, is indescribable.

Johanne SRaphael does a wonderful job of nurturing and care-giving to hundreds of residents and day pupils. These are for sure the lucky ones.  When you walk under the archway and become part of Raphael you begin living a structured busy day where not a moment is lost.

Night earplugs, a necessity as the monkeys dancing on the mess roof all vying for the green unripe guavas that load the tree beside the mess, are hell bent on keeping you awake. It is a constant battle between the children and the monkeys as to who is going to have a taste of this delicacy – green, unripe, indigestible, but highly sought after.

I wake at 5.00 am. The shower is plentiful and hot, if I had remembered to switch the water cylinder on.   Yes, we have a western toilet and toilet paper, but also the choice of bucket and jug. Left hand for personal care, right hand for eating.  I hear from home each a.m., checking in to be sure mum is OK.

The day also begins at 5.00 am for the residents. Personal care, bed making, breakfast, pray, yoga, with the school day  and day care centre beginning at 9.30 am. The ratio of carers to residents is about five to sixty. The policy is ‘show me; teach me; don’t do it for me’. To stand back and observe the amazing independence of residents is overwhelming.   A young girl, wheelchair dependent, will put herself onto the floor and with the use only of her upper body will make her bed, and get herself to the toilet and bathing area. This lass dresses herself and puts on her own shoes – and happy to do so.  An amazing feat.  The staff encourage this independence.
Johanne S - Raphael 1 039 as Smart Object-1The bustle of children arriving from the community to join in the Centre’s activities begins. Teachers arrive, eager to teach. Greetings are exchanged.  Such happy people.  I assist in Academic 1 class. The children are grouped according to intellectual ability. We have ten pupils in a very small room, Madhu Mam and me, and constant visitors. Not a lot of room.  Teaching is in half hour blocks –  self help, functional reading, communication, art/craft, domestic and music. Hindi is difficult. I quickly learn one word communication -suno/listen, baitho/sit, acha larka/good boy, bahut barhia/excellent! And a few more to be able to congratulate the students, and words relevant to class work. Most speak reasonable English.  What an amazing place – a teacher keen to teach with students desperate to learn.

The day seems never to finish as activities continue – English classes, sporting events, domestic responsibilities, meals, free time, visitors coming and going, and time out if that is what is needed. Everything and everyone is well disciplined and time is managed to the precise minute. There is no time to waste.  The day finishes at 3.30 pm having had an hour’s break for lunch. I am exhausted but feel I have done very little!
Food. I am over chapatti, rice and dal very quickly. Thank God for the Hari Store who cater generously for the western visitors. Chocolate bars, biscuits and Fanta become part of my diet.

I am asked what were the best and worst things about being in India?

The best:
  • by far were the people; such happy proud people who are very generous with their time and hospitality.
  • I was made to feel valued for such little input.
  • At no time did I feel at risk or unsafe.
  • And a bonus – I didn’t get a belly ache!
  • Indian culture and environment is very diverse and brought a huge awareness for me.
  • I had a lot of free time to travel outside of Dehradun and took every opportunity to venture out and experience India.
The worst:
  • but that is not the right word, is that I don’t feel we are as happy as we should/could be in our lives.
  • I had to put a lot of effort into conserving my rubbish.
  • What I accumulated in a week they gather in a month across the whole of Raphael!

So as you can see, I didn’t have much to complain about.

Why do I volunteer?

Don’t think only billionaires and world leaders can change the world.  Anyone with time and energy can make a positive impact.  Volunteering enables you to journey off the beaten path, make friends, learn new skills and feel really good about yourself while doing so.
My visits to Raphael were a huge thing for me, and anyone can do it.  Be flexible, professional and open minded, make sure you learn about the culture, and go for it!