Livvy Jefferson, from Cardiff, and Katherine Pickles, from London, spent three weeks volunteering at HEAL Paradise Village during the summer.
They each wrote accounts of their time teaching and interacting with the children and staff on campus, which can be seen in full in the Volunteering section of the HEAL website.
Here is a flavour of how they described their experiences at Paradise:
Katherine takes up the story: “I’d wanted to visit one of the HEAL villages for a long time and, having known [HEAL founder] Dr Prasad since I was four and having attended the fabulously decorative India Night in Peterborough last year, I was determined to finally go.
“My initial apprehensions were the remoteness of the village we were visiting; I’d never even heard of Vijayawada, and the nagging in the back of my mind that I wanted to experience other parts of India. I compromised and arranged a whistle-stop tour for my last week of the month around Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.
“It’s safe to say my experience at HEAL Paradise shrouded my previous angst. My HEAL experience in general was, above all, inspiring.
“I began to strip away my egoism and the desire for my own experience and discovered how we, in fact, were genuinely helping others. It was refreshing to distance myself from the privileged ‘gap year’ outlook and to realise the power we have to influence, even if that simply involves a 10-minute chat.
“Despite people’s initial confusion over my degree choice of modern European languages and thus the lack of relevance to teaching in a school in India, it was of no importance to me. You don’t need a degree in education in order to influence some excitable underprivileged kids and encourage them to expand their minds.
“Teaching was always a pleasure and what I looked forward to most each day. The brightness of the children’s expressions, their constant smiles, concentration and energy filled any room with joy. Our task was to improve their conversational English, which I feel we definitely achieved.
“There was even an opportunity to be dressed in traditional Indian dress, with which the housemothers occupied themselves meticulously, and this happened on the day of a health camp one Saturday.”
Livvy describes a typical day at Paradise: “The cooler early mornings are the best time for a walk. Katherine and I stroll along the track to the small village of Thotapalli and back, enjoying the sites of paddy fields and grazing buffalo. The 15-minute round trip is not lengthy, but by this time the sun has risen higher. The red and green hues of the hilly terrain that surrounds HEAL Paradise become more vibrant in the sun’s blaze. And we cool-climate dwellers are happy to retreat back into the shadows of the dorm.
“The school day passes in a blur of classes, break bells and lunch. At 4pm, the rushing around pauses and the school gathers in one of the school’s open-air auditorium areas for snack time. On this occasion, one of the teachers, Syam, has been persuaded to put on an impromptu comedy showcase and is doing various impressions, much to the delight of the students.
“As snacks are doled out in newspaper cones, the students chat to us excitedly about plans for their upcoming Independence Day celebrations. It looks set to be a riot of a day, with a showcase of poems, songs and dances by students of all ages. There are even some very impressive human pyramid displays. Having sat in on a few practice sessions of some of these activities, it is safe to say that their meticulous planning and rehearsal will pay off. Me and my camera are very excited.
“In the early evening the school divides. The younger children head to the playing field for some games. The older students continue with their studies. The atmosphere is more relaxed, and we wander between classes, chatting as we go.
“The students tend to be more reflective at this time. They enjoy asking about our daily lives and families. They love to learn about different cultures and their customs. However, they always seem vaguely bemused that we cannot offer them a cultural tapestry as rich as theirs. They seem particularly baffled by our lack of traditional British dances. Their expectant faces make me wonder if I should have learnt some Morris dancing, or even an Irish jig, at some point in my life. But HEAL students are more than graceful, and they accept our meagre offering of the Macarena as if it were a Foxtrot.”
And we leave the final word for now to Katherine: “All in all, three weeks at HEAL Paradise Village felt like an out-of-body experience, despite often feeling at home there. The hospitality was exceptional, as was every member of staff, the food was delightful and the location was a dream. But most importantly, the children were unforgettable, already drawing me back.
“I cannot wait to return and be surrounded again by the richness of colour and the sparkle of young faces.”
* The children enjoyed interacting with Livvy and Katherine during their stay at Paradise Village… read what it meant to them, in their own words, at HEAL Children’s Voice.