Notes From The Road: The Volunteer Diaries

As you guys may know, one of my secrets to cheap/fullfilling/non-stressful travel is “go some place and then stay there for a while.” But what do you doooooo while you’re “staying there for a while”? I like to volunteer. Not because I’m a particularly kind or awesome person but because I get bored sitting in my hostel room watching HBO and because I came to India to meet Real! Live! Indians! … not to sit in my hostel room watching ‘True Blood.’
For the last three weeks, I’ve been volunteering with the Brindavan Education Trust. It’s a non-profit school that works with students who are slipping between the cracks in the large public schools – specifically kids with ADHD, Aspergers, Autism and Dislexia. Learning disabilities are very under diagnosed in India; a lot of people don’t even know what ADHD or Aspergers are. Kids with these issues are frequently written off as ‘naughty’ or ‘a little bit off’ when what they really need are trained teachers, small classes and heeeeaaaaps of patience and understanding.

Brindavan does a great job of providing all of the above. Classes are often as small as five students and the teachers are saint-like in their patience.

Before I started teaching ESL, I actually worked with EBD kids (emotional behavioural disorders) and I worked at a group home while I was in college. It’s oddly comforting (if that could possibly be the right word) to be working with this population again. I love working with Asperger’s kids – their non-stop questions, their disregard for social mores, their total unswerving commitment to The Topic That They Want To Talk About RIGHTNOW! They can certainly be challenging, but mostly I just want to hug them and be all “I totally get you, dude.”

Some of the highlights with my favorite student from the last three weeks:

“Ma’am? Are Americans very hygienic? Can you throw rubbish in the street?”
“Yes, we’re clean. We get into trouble if we throw rubbish in the street.”
“Ma’am I think too hygienic is no good.”
“Oh, well. We like things clean.”
“Are you allergic to dirt, Ma’am?”

“Ma’am, I think Christmas is nonsense. And is Valentine’s day a bad day?”

“What’s your favorite German heavy metal band, Ma’am?”

“Ma’am, this is boring I don’t want to do it.”
“Oh no? It’s boring?! You hurt my feelings!” (followed by dramatic sad face)
“No, Ma’am. I didn’t hurt your feelings.”
“Yes. Yes, you hurt my feelings.”
“No. Nope, I didn’t” (emphatic shaking of the head and arm crossing)

(fevered and impressive nose picking)
“Oh, yuck. Please don’t. Please take your finger out of your nose”
(finger is immediately replaced with a pen. Nose exploration continues with ballpoint pen)

Have you ever volunteered when you’ve been traveling? If you have, leave a link to the program you did in the comments!

PS do you want a postcard, package or thai temple blessing from me?

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  1. Anisha

    Oh Sarah, I'm not entirely sure whether I ever mentioned it but I adore people like you. I wish the world had more courage and caring people in it!

  2. Tina

    I agree with Anisha! Just wondering how you choose where to volunteer. Do you research and decide ahead of time?

  3. Chelsey

    Yes! I volunteered for a few weeks with La Tortuga Feliz in Costa Rica. It was wonderful and I got to hold a billion baby sea turtles.

  4. Karen

    They can certainly be challenging, but mostly I just want to hug them and be all "I totally get you, dude."

    Love this quote of yours. It's how I felt when I was coaching disabled children in track and field some years ago. 🙂

  5. Amy --- Just A Titch

    I cut my "teaching teeth" teaching adults with developmental disabilities and emotionally disturbed girls ages 12-17 and it really is a special population. The questions are amazing…you'll never be bored! Reading your stories was fun. Hope the rest of your trip is going well!

  6. Betsy

    Aw, it sounds like you're having an amazing time! 🙂 I really respect/envy people who are passionate about teaching.

  7. Issysue

    Wow, what a great experience you're having! I'm a behaviour therapist for kids on the Autism Spectrum, and I've always considered going abroad to teach / volunteer… hmm, you're giving me ideas!!

  8. fawn

    I love it! I spent time teaching in Peace Corps. The students always cracked me up so much.

  9. Aimee

    This sounds like a great experience! I work at a private school that has quite a few kids with ADHD and Aspergers- they're a fun and quirky bunch. 🙂

    When I traveled in Benelux in 2009, I did a workcamp through SCI-IVS ( I spent three weeks living at an asylum seeker center in the Netherlands and organizing activities for the kids there. It was one of the best experiences of my life- I loved getting to know the kids and the other volunteers (all Europeans).

  10. S and R

    Sarah…this sounds amazing. I love India and cannot wait to go back there…unfortunately i did not get to volunteer there, but back here in Oz, I've volunteered at a couple 'Flexi Schools', similar to the children you are working with, but some are also homeless, in trouble with the law etc. Look foward to hearing more about your adventures. Keep up the great work.
    Tone –

  11. Anonymous

    Are you going to share and Diwali stories!?!

  12. Clare

    Hi Sarah & all,

    While I admire your willingness to do good in the world, I fear that you may not be fully aware of the damage that short –term volunteering does to host communities. Short term volunteering may be an enlightening, interesting and exciting experience for the volunteer, but host communities are often exploited leaving children suffering from abandonment issues and emotional distress.

    I work in development and am passionate about making the world a better place. However, I believe that young, good-hearted people are exploited by NGOs and organisations who use volunteers for financial gain but disrespect host communities.

    I’ve written extensively on it here:

    In summary, I believe that short term volunteering deflects resources from the communities real needs, displaces local labour, is unimpactful, insulting and reinforces a colonial ideas. This view would be shared by many people who work in the development/non profit sector.

    I hope you’ve a wonderful trip Sarah and enjoy meeting the people of India. But, I would really discourage you or any of your readers from volunteering.

    Best Regards,

    P.S. I’d be happy to answer any questions you guys have on this.

  13. Sarah Von Bargen


    Thank you for your input – I can see that this is something you are passionate about and have obviously given much thought to and I'm sure that you are frequently right about this.

    I have been teaching for 7 years and have my MA – in all of the places that I'm volunteering I'm working with understaffed schools, if I wasn't teaching these kids, they'd be mashed into larger classes. In Nepal, I'll will be working with refugees who are about to be resettled in America, helping them get comfortable with the American accent and talking with them about the reality of life there – again, if I wasn't working with them, no one would be. Obviously, a fellow Nepali can't speak with expertise about American life, governmental expectations and American English classes.
    These are not volunteer opportunities that I am paying to take part in, they're experiences that I've organized through my personal contacts.

    Again, I appreciate your thoughts and I can certainly see where you're coming from. However, I do believe that there are still volunteer opportunities abroad where people can really make a difference.

  14. Clare

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your response to my comment. I can see that you're a very thoughtful volunteer who selects your placements carefully. I was heartened to read that you organize your volunteer work through contacts, and presumably you cover the costs rather than the host organization. And, you're certainly qualified to do the work.

    My only hesitation is that while there's an important role for both NGOs and volunteers, the fact that you are providing for these children does excuse the Nepali government from doing so. NGOs allow populations to circumvent their governments effectively making them powerless. I know this is a much greater problem and not something that can be solved easily, but I think it must be borne in mind.

    I hope you've a wonderful experience and continue awareness-raising work on your return.


    P.S. I really enjoy your blog.


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