When I was planning my destinations in India, I was recommended by my friend Anne to stop in Kolkata and spend some time volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, as she spent a couple of months volunteering her time there during a summer in college. While I did not have a lot of time to give as there were a lot of places on my India itinerary, I was able to pencil in 5 days spending my time aiding the sisters in their work helping the less fortunate of India.
Anybody who is willing is able to volunteer with the sisters, and there is no minimum or maximum time. During my time there I met people volunteering from 2 days up to 6 months in duration! All new volunteers are required to attend an orientation, held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 3pm down the street from the Motherhouse. Here all of the logistics and rules are covered and the different volunteer placement options are discussed. There are 6 different sites to choose from, all of which cater to different ages/types of people and are located throughout the city. Since one is only allowed to volunteer with the same gender, a few sites are restricted to males or females only, since they only serve that specific gender. It is also possible to volunteer at two different places-one site in the morning and the other in the afternoon or to volunteer just once. I chose the former option as I had a limited amount of time to spend in Kolkata. Here is the website, as well as another site that I found helpful when making my plans to volunteer here.
At orientation I learned that Thursdays are the designated rest day for volunteers, and no one is allowed to go to the placement sites that day. Mass is held at the Motherhouse daily at 6am for those who are interested. After mass, at 7am, bananas, bread, and chai tea are available in the basement, and there is the opportunity to chat with some of the fellow volunteers. Volunteers who elect to not attend mass arrive then, with everyone departing the Motherhouse around 7:30am to go to their specific placements. Photos are also not allowed at the placements, which I completely understand. The people are at these sites because they are unable to take care of themselves and do not have anyone in their lives to do so. Some have also been abandoned by their families, as they do not want to deal with a burden. Taking pictures of these people robs them of their dignity as human beings, and treats them more like zoo animals. Some of these people are former beggars who were “owned” by pimps who would force them to beg on the streets and give them all earned money in exchange for food. Now lacking the easy sources of income, these pimps would do anything to kidnap the person from the center in order to exploit them for money. The sister who ran orientation explained that in the past, sometimes a person goes missing from the center with no explanation. Fearing the worst, they possibly have been kidnapped by their former owners. In order to protect these people’s identities and specific location of each center being revealed, they explained the importance of not posting pictures on social media (or taking any at all, frankly).
Since volunteering at the centers for children were very popular with other volunteers, I decided to spend my time working with the older men, where my help was more needed. I spent my mornings at Prem Dan, a center that housed around 300 men and women, many of whom were mentally and/or physically handicapped. My afternoons were spent at Nirmal Hriday (also referred to as Kalighat), which is the home for the destitute and dying, the first center that Mother Teresa opened here in Kolkata.
We would arrive there every morning around 8am after making the half hour walk from the Motherhouse. At Prem Dan we followed a daily routine more or less, as there were specific things that needed to be done. Upon arrival, I would head up to the roof along with a few other volunteers to aid in hanging up the wet laundry to dry. Laundry was done daily, and clothes, sheets, towels, etc needed to be hung up in the sun to dry. Even with multiple hands at work, this would still take around an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the day.
Once finished with the laundry, we would head downstairs to help the more seasoned volunteers with the grooming of the patients. Tasks here varied from shaving, cutting finger and toe nails, and moisturizing and massaging the arms and legs of certain patients with creams. Having to rub and massage an old man’s feet is not generally my cup of tea, but doing it as an act of love and humility helped me to be able to complete the job. After a couple of days it even became second nature. Pee bottles would also be collected if full and needed to be disposed and rinsed out before being returned to the patient.
Tea time and biscuit time occurred around 10:15. Chai tea and biscuits needed to be distributed to all of the 150 or so patients and then their dirty cups needed to be collected and washed. After cleaning up from tea time, the volunteers had a 15 or so minute break to have our own tea time and to rest a bit. Here I had the opportunity to chat with a few of the other volunteers and to learn more about their backgrounds and stories.
After break time was over, it was time to serve lunch to the patients. A few of them were not able to feed themselves and would have to be spoon fed by a volunteer. This task required patience and dexterity to not make a mess while feeding the patient. Plates and cups then had to be collected and the excess food properly disposed. The patients are then ushered to their beds for nap time and the outside areas were swept of food and debris and then thoroughly washed. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned with volunteering with religious-based organizations (I spent 2 months in Guatemala back in college working at a shelter for migrants), is that they take the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” very seriously. The center was always clean and spotless. After everything was all cleaned up and the patients all in the sleeping area, our work was done for the day. This could be anywhere from noon to as late as 1pm, depending on if lunch was served on time and how many volunteers showed up that day.
Nirmal Hriday (Kalighat)
My afternoon shift started at Kalighat at 3pm, allowing for some time between shifts to grab a bite to eat and have a brief rest. Kalighat was fairly far away from Sudder Street, and I had to take the metro in order to get there. The atmosphere at Kalighat was remarkably different from Prem Dan. There were about 80 patients here, 40 of them male. While this center was originally created to serve patients who were in their last dying days, there has been some improvement in recent years, and it is not unusual for patients to spend some time here before being released back to their family upon receiving the care they need.
About half of the patients here still had all of their mental faculties, even if lacking some physical abilities, and you could tell how appreciative they were for our help. A few could even speak English and would happily chat with us, or interpret for us what a fellow patient needed. Since many of the daily chores were done by the morning volunteers, one of the most important things we could give to the patients in the afternoon was our time and attention and treating them with dignity and respect. Greeting them with a smile on our faces and sitting down next to them to make sure everything was alright went a long way in boosting their morale.
Of course, there were other patients that needed a lot of help. Urinating and defecating in their clothes was a common occurrence. In fact, 15 minutes into my first afternoon at Kalighat, I was instructed by one of the sisters to escort a man from his cot to the bathroom and to change his clothes and clean him off, wasting no time in jumping right into the thick of things. To complicate things a bit, a couple of these patients were particularly unruly, and they definitely tested my patience trying to get them cleaned up.
Medication and dinner was also served during the afternoon shift, and once again some patients needed to be spoon fed. Medication could be particularly difficult, as the most misbehaved patients seemed to be the ones with the largest number of pills. It would take coaxing to get them to open their mouths so I could slip the pills inside.
I enjoyed serving at Kalighat more than Prem Dan as my time at Kalighat was mostly spent in direct service to the patients. Here we were basically at their beck and call to make sure everything was running smoothly. Helping patients walk around the room to get some exercise, fetching water, changing wet or soiled sheets and clothes, ushering the patients to the bathroom, or simply massaging their sore arms and legs, everything was done to help aid their comfort.
There was a small sign at Kalighat that said “Doing small things with great acts of love”. That quote really resonated with me, as the tasks that we worked on were all very small and routine in nature. They were all necessary though in order to keep the centers running, and the sisters could definitely not do all of the work themselves. It was a very humbling experience to work alongside these sisters who dedicated their lives to support these disenfranchised people, and I have nothing but the highest respect for them. The days were long and tiring as well, I would be exhausted at the end of the day and never had any trouble falling asleep.
Even though I only spent 5 days volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, I learned a great deal and it definitely had an impact on me. I highly encourage anyone who ever has the opportunity to go to India and to donate their time to this worthy cause, as it is highly needed and necessary!