I first visited Kolkata in October 2015 and over two weeks I had the opportunity to see some of the amazing projects that HOPE runs and carries out with its local partners.
Never before had I seen child poverty on the scale I had come across in my first few days. It was comforting to know that HOPE was working hard to try and tackle these issues. With facilities such as their own hospital, several protection homes, a vocational training centre and more, it was clear that this was a foundation on a mission. I wanted to do more myself and that meant coming back out to Kolkata a year later in October 2016.
I began to raise funds and prepare for my trip, which included cake sales, a Bollywood night and participating in the London triathlon. Heading back out to Kolkata for six weeks of volunteering was exciting to say the least – a journey of a lifetime to experience a different world. Dodging traffic, jumping onto moving buses, passing countless homes and bustling neighbourhoods as well as stopping for a well-deserved chai, Kolkata welcomed me with open arms.
The first day was all about orientation and meeting our volunteer coordinator. Luckily for me I was placed with another volunteer who had arrived on the same day and for the same length of time.
The day’s schedule included an induction with the child protection officer, a meeting with the current volunteers and a meet and greet at two of the boys and girls protection homes. It was great to see some familiar faces again and get straight into some of the projects that we were assigned to.
Our weekly projects included time at HOPE’s boys and girls protection homes, leading sports sessions for the children, which included football, rugby and fitness. The children quickly adapted to the sessions and it was great to see the energy in them – putting a smile on their faces was a special feeling indeed.
Apart from our time with the children at the protection homes, our timetable also included time with the fundraising team to assist in photography and video for social media to help with the awareness of HOPE back home.
We were also assigned with a team that went out to the slum communities to “address the unaddressed”. It was amazing to see the work involved, coming across communities that struggled to access basic needs and lived on the bare minimum they had, having only room in their lives for essential items.
We spent most of our lunches at the HOPE Café, which gave us a chance to reflect on our morning sessions and catch up with other volunteers to share our ideas. Obviously, the main reason was to try the great food on offer at the café, which is part of the Life Skills training centre run by HOPE.
This centre focuses on the wellbeing of women and young adults by providing English and computing classes as well as vocational training in areas such as tailoring, craft-making and hairdressing.
Down the road from the café was the HOPE shop, run by a local woman who had been trained through the Life Skills centre, with support from one of the volunteers in our group. Full of small gifts and trinkets, we stocked up on presents to take back with us.
Our evening and weekends were used to plan lessons for the coming week and exploring the city, which has an endless list of places to visit.
During our time in Kolkata we also managed to witness the great performances put on by the children at HOPE during the annual Foundation Day, a morning full of dance that the children had been practicing for many months.
My time in Kolkata came to an end in December 2016, however it was an experience that I will not forget and one that made me feel great. Meeting all the people that I did, making lifelong friends not only in Kolkata, but also the other volunteers who I’d experienced this journey alongside.
As a volunteer I feel I benefited just as much as the children did from the interaction. Before I left for Kolkata, I had been working in a fast-paced environment that was quite stressful, however I felt so captivated by the children that all the worries I had disappeared and it had given me an opportunity to develop and adapt to new situations.
One of the things that will stick with me the most is meeting a 13-year-old girl whilst on the Night Watch project with the HOPE team.
She was living on the street with her family with only the clothes she was wearing, a mat to lie on and a racket set. She approached us and asked if we would play racket with her and we did, and in return she asked for nothing.