Are you considering volunteering in India?
I travelled to Kolkata in February 2017 with a friend and volunteered at Missionaries of Charity for just over a week. Volunteering was, for me, hard work but extremely rewarding and at times emotional. I often found myself very tearful. The process of arranging to volunteer is fairly simple – there is no need to contact the Missionaries of Charity before you travel to India – you literally just turn up in Kolkata and register. Language should not be a problem as many people in India speak English – most of the sisters at Mother Teresa speak English but some of the Indian helpers – mashis – do not. You do not have to be catholic to volunteer.
Registering for Mother Teresa
Registration for is 3.pm sharp at Mother Teresa / Shishu Bhavan 78 A.J.C. Bose Road, Kolkata, 700016 – ground floor, on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays – just turn up with your passport and I recommend a notebook and a bottle of water . It’s quite noisy as next to a main road. There is a group meeting where general advice is given including information about the different homes you can work in – after which is a one to one meeting with a sister to decide where you will volunteer. There are 6 different homes – for men / women / children / children with special needs/ & 2 for the dying & destitute. It is preferred that you remain where you first chose to work although some long term volunteers told me they had moved around. Two are at 78 AJC Bose Road – the rest are a very cheap bus ride away (bring change). I chose to work with children with special needs at Shishu Bhavan children’s home which was located at 78 AJC Bose Road.
What hours do you work ?
You will also decide whether to work AM shift 7.30-12 or PM shift 2-5.30 – you can do both but it is advised to just work one shift at first as it is very tiring, then review after a few days. Most days I worked only AM and it was indeed tiring. Even though it was technically winter when I was there it was still very hot – there were fans but no air-conditioning. There is a 15 minute break for black sweet tea and biscuits – where you quickly bond with the other lovely volunteers from around the world. You can work for just a day or for as long as you like.
Do you have to pay to volunteer at Mother Teresa ?
You do not have to pay to volunteer here but you do have to arrange and pay for your own accommodation, living expenses and of course flights. Most volunteers tended to stay around the Sudder street / Park Road areas where there are many cheap hotels and hostels aimed at tourists as well as places to eat. Bring Imodium ! A good place to look is Tripadvisor.
Also remember you will need a visa before travelling to India – for more info read my blog on visa’s. I strongly advise you visit your doctors for malaria advice and immunisations for India.
All volunteers meet daily at 54A AJC Bose Road either at 6 am if you want to attend mass first ( I didn’t – though on the first day we did hear the sisters singing from outside and it was adorable ) or later at 7 am where you will meet up with the rest of the volunteers for chai, bananas and bread ( from the nearby Russian Bakery). This is for the morning shift – sorry I am not sure what time the afternoon shift meet here – I’m guessing about 1 pm. I did work one very long day it was a picnic in a park outside Kolkata – a bus trip. Note the pm shift finishes at 5.30 and it is dark by then – you need to take this into consideration if you are a lone female needing to travel back to your accomodation. The picnic trip returned to AJC Bose Road about 7 in the evening and it was a little scary flagging down a taxi on my own at that time. There is no volunteering on Thursdays.
What should I pack for kolkata & Mother Teresa
You are asked to follow a dress code at Mother Teresas. Basically dress repectfully. Women – skirts/dresses which must be must be down to the knee – or trousers – nothing low cut – shirts must have sleeves but they can be short. I would recommend nothing too tight and also even if wearing dresses to the knee I would advise you wear leggings underneath as you will be sitting on the floor, bending and lifting a lot. I purchased some long kurta tops from New Market in Kolkata , brought my own leggings and also bought some there. Kurta tops were between 250-600 rupees and leggings 300 rupees.
I think similar with men though I didn’t pay particular attention to this , being female ( we were all called ‘aunty’ by the sisters and mashis which was amusing) and as there were no male staff or volunteers in our home I can’t look back and recall. But i vaguely remember the information given on the first day was T-shirt with sleeves or shirts – short sleeved were acceptable and long trousers or shorts to the knee . My clothes were very stained by the end of each shift with yellow food marks and general stains from feeding and carrying children. The nappies are not like here in the UK they are just cloth strips tied on – nothing waterproof – so I was usually a little damp as well – but you get used to it. You do have to wear an apron – this does give a little protection but not much really – it isn’t waterproof. I have read that if you work both AM and PM shifts that you need to change into fresh clothing for the PM shift. You leave your shoes outside the room so slip on shoes are easier. Most adults were barefoot inside the rooms but wearing socks is permitted. I would advise taking something to tie your hair up if long and not to wear dangly earrings or jewellery that can be pulled off. I also had two pairs of glasses accidently broken when pulled off by children – luckily I had packed spare cheap ones. For great general advice on what to pack when travelling to India, for applying for visa’s and general advice including money and immunisations/health refer to my other blogs.
Bring hand sanitiser
Many of the children and adults being cared for have compromised immune systems. If you are ill you are requested to stay away. It is advised to wash your hands frequently and to use a hand sanitizer. You may want to do this to protect yourself as well. The restroom facilities are a little more basic than at home. I purchased good quality Purell hand sanitizers from Amazon – pack of 6 for £6.95 before i traveled – they are used in the NHS – they come with a neck lanyard – great as always to hand. The sanitizer slips conveniently behind the apron out of the way. I got through a couple of bottles in just over a week . The Purell is stronger than the sanitizers you buy in the supermarket.
There was no air-conditioning in the room I worked at – there were lots of open windows and fans but it was hot and dusty ( and noisy being on the high road) – so it was imperative to take and drink lots of water. There was a communal locker type cupboard inside the room where volunteers can leave valuables which was quite safe but i would recommend you bring a fairly large bag that you can fit everything in including your water as it is easy to get them mixed up with everyone else’s. You are asked to keep your mobile phones inside the locker and also not to take photographs – you can obtain permission to take some on your last day – but they are strictly as a personal momento and not for publishing on social media or anywhere else on the internet. Hence no photo’s of inside the home here on this blogpost. The home – which was basically one room – was about 60% cots and then some space with chairs tables and padded mats. It was sadly quite bare – I wish someone could paint some nice bright stimulating childrens pictures on the walls and ceilings – there’s an idea for someone !
Depending on where you are working you could be helping with feeding, helping with drinking, potty runs, nappy changing, laundry, physical therapy, dishwashing, helping men shave, cutting nails, helping in kitchen, brushing teeth, dressing, changing beds, cleaning, playing with children, talking with adults or just giving care and love and being there. We are reminded that only 10% of communication is verbal. On saturdays the whole of the room I worked in is scrubbed down – toys / windows / chairs etc with disinfectant – the volunteers were pretty much left to do this and was actually quite fun.
You are advised that some residents may touch your heart -( and they do ! ) – but you are asked not to give gifts to individuals as it can cause jealousy as most have nothing- but you can give gifts to the sister in charge instead who will be in charge of them.
There are a lot of beggars around AJC Bose street – outside the Mother Teresa centres and in Kolkata generally – and the advice given by everyone is not to give money as most are professional beggars and probably do not get to keep the money. I found it extremely difficult as a mother to ignore women with babies in their arms desperately begging for food for their babies. I did buy and give food to mothers who were not professional beggars – it doesn’t really take to long to tell the difference though I learnt the hard way by making the mistake of paying, in hindsight, far too much for a bag of rice for a woman with a baby begging . She told me to give the money to a man stood near the shop ( more of a stall ) on the road – I didn’t have change and apparently he didn’t have change but he took my 500 rupee note (approx £5) and she told me to ‘follow him, follow him’ as he was going to get some change for me – he walked off beckoning me to follow and I started following but he was way too fast for me and he very quickly disappeared into thin air ! I didn’t bother going back to see if the woman was still there. It still kind of annoys me as there were many other women on the street with children I would have preferred to have given to but you live and learn.
I had researched quite a lot before travelling to Kolkata to volunteer – often coming across articles criticizing the facilities and care at the Mother Teresa homes. I think the criticism is more directed at the destitute and the dying homes – all I can say is that where I volunteered , despite being a little sparse, the children seemed happy , loved and taken care of and the sisters and mashis were all friendly and kind. Mother Teresa herself is in a tomb at 54 A.J.C. Bose Road and you can go in and visit if you so wish. Kolkata itself has wealthy spots but there is an enormous amount of poverty – a shocking amount of homelessness including whole families living on pavements, under flyovers and in unfinished buildings. Many buildings are very run down. Surprisingly after a period of time it almost becomes normal. Despite this you can’t help falling in love with Kolkata and I would return in a heartbeat. I am a little biased though because I am in love with India.