Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lights... Camera.... Volunteer!!!

I remember my father advicing me everyday to drink coconut water and that it cooled the body. 'Don't drink junk like Coke and Pepsi. One glass of coconut water will keep your body chill in this searing heat,' he used to say. I lived in Madras, the heat capital of India where temperatures in peak winter touch forty degree Celsius.

But coconut water was a strict no-no for me. I just did not have the patience to stop by the roadside and wait for the vendor who usually sits behind a pyramidal stack of big, green, and shapeless coconuts. He would then take a sickle and slice the top of the coconut, and pierce it with the nose of the sickle to make a hole, insert a straw in it, and give it to me. Though I was not really averse to drinking it, I drank it only when my dad brought it home at times or when I went out with him when he would stop by to buy it.

Cut to ten years later when I grew up to be a software engineer, just like most in my generation. While at a supermarket, I saw a label in a bottle that read 'Voted the best bottled drink of the year'. Intrigued, I pick it up and see that is is bottled coconut water. 'Cools your body and refreshes like no other drink. 100% natural' . (Yes, that is how colourful the script looked to me)

Wow! Wasn't that something? I immediately bought it and in fact made it a habit to drink one daily. After all, it cooled the body and was 100% natural isnt it? Not realising what I was doing, I told my dad about it, completing forgetting what had happened a decade ago. He raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and muttered 'This younger generation,' and went about his chores.
Later on I understood why he said that and as as I went through life's motions, there was a lot more I understood about this ubiqitous phenomenon.

One lucky day in my life, I chanced upon a few great guys and one lucky moment, a bright idea struck us all, and together we started teaching children living in nearby slums and a year and a half later, we had turned into an NGO. It did not require any great quality like people usually believe, just the will to make a difference to a few kids who dont have it all, like many of us do. We managed to pull in a few of our friends when we started off. Slowly we began to realise the importance of what we were doing, and so we spread the word to everyone we knew and at times, did not know.

We came out with our own weekly newsletter and e-mailed it to a lot of friends with a request to join us in helping these children or children living near their own houses. We stood near the jogging track, the church, the local school, and many other such places and distributed these newsletters to the passers by, trying to spread the message, entreating people to join us in our weekend venture, so that together we could teach more children.

Our message was very simple. 'Two hours of your time a week would make a huge difference to these kids.' Very few would join, fewer still would continue. It took us a whole three years to gather a group of around 200 volunteers who stuck to the task and worked on the field tirelessly. And we are proud of the achievement. Though in the beginning I used to get worried about why not many joined us, in all these years, I have understood that it is not easy to convince people into spending their time in the field of social service.

It is at this juncture that the Times group recently started a venture called Teach India. Advertised extensively, it promises to alleviate poverty in India by making the public participate in the program and teach poor children all around the country. But more than anything, it was one of the opening sentences in their website, their mission, that stunned me! 'Just two hours from you can change a child's future.' It didnt take me long to realise that it was the same message that my friends and I have been trying to thrust into people's consciousness for years now!

I couldn't wait to see how the response to this campaign would be. The ads were on TV, in the newspapers, magazines, basically everywhere. It did not take me long to see the results. A friend mailed me an ad for the programme and also added that his friend had also joined 'signed up' for the campaign to teach kids. Soon his friend would be on a weekend mission to teach kids and be part of the nation building process, the same friend who knew for three years that we have been teaching kids during weekends and also asking people to join us in our efforts. I was speechless.

The next day, another guy I knew mailed me. 'Anna(brother), Did you see the ads for Teach India? They are doing an amazing job. I have 'signed up' for the programme.' ('Signing up' for something is fab isn't it? It is not quite like joining or attending. The phrase has a higher, classier sound and feel to it I suppose. How else do you explain so many people using the same phrase???) I almost laughed out loud in my office. This was the same guy who kept giving me excuses about having lots of work whenever I had asked him to volunteer in his spare time during the weekends. But when Teach India asks him to sign up, he does!

Do not get me wrong. I am not blaming anyone here. People have their own reasons for doing or not doing certain things and I would be very unfair to judge them for their actions. In fact I have no right to. But being the inquisitive type, I could not but help see a pattern here that was not very healthy. A trait that I saw in myself at the incident of coconut water. That of being attracted to a neatly packaged material but more importantly, that of rejecting something not neatly packaged.

We usually tend to ignore the values of a product or an idea or even an activity which is being professed or practiced at a micro level, and end up doing the same thing, when it has the backing of a more popular establishment. I would attribute this nature to the attractiveness of the latter, the way it is packaged. The former is usually raw, more like a roadside coconut seller, the latter
is a more refined product - a blood red, trendy can of Coke.

While it is in no way wrong to go for the Coke, we should understand that the people I have quoted as examples waited a long while to get the opportunity that they always had. There is value in everything and when there comes an opprtunity, one should weigh the pros and cons of it before deciding to go for or against it. And the best way of doing it is to be very objective and find out if the chance at hand would satisfy our need - be it a volunteering opportunity or a glass of coconut water.

Playing down the experiences that can be derived out of having a brush with the things that are local and micro can only be termed foolish. The only things that they dont posess are scale maybe and professionalism - whatever that word means. But when it comes to making an impact they are very efficient. The local vegetable vendor might not have an air conditioned showroom like Reliance Fresh, but he sure does offer fresh vegetables and a friendly service, maybe even give you goods on credit the day you forget your wallet at home. Your neighbourhood newspaper might not have the same appeal as the Hindustan Times, but it might just cover local news in more depth.

Teach India programme is a great idea. Lot of children will benefit out of this, and the creators of the idea do deserve a pat on the back. But people did not have to wait for a TI to happen. There were thousands of Teach India's in every nook and corner - College and school alumni groups, groups of working professionals, social welfare organisations started by the elderly - these were always present. (There are some long standing organisations that my friends and I are associated with - iVolunteer, SOSVA to name a few - who do the exact task that TI will do now - that of matching budding volunteers with local NGOs).

We just fail to recognise them, or turned a blind eye when they were before us. Once we begin to appreciate things for what they are worth, give people and ideas their due and then make decisions, a lot more people will get happier and the benefits that we personally derive wont be put off to another day and age. After all, I missed keeping myself cool by drinking a 100% natural drink all the years I disregarded the roadside coconut vendor!

PS: And as for us, we have also signed up for Teach India, requesting volunteers. We don't care how they come, whether it be through TI or by way of bugging people at the jogger's park down the lane...