I spent two consecutive summers volunteering in North East India and by the time those two years ended I had both an eye-opening life changing experience and a new family. From bucket showers to sweaty planning meetings to cheering each other up with singsongs we became one unit, one team and a “family”. It wasn’t easy leaving the comfort of familiarity in Ireland, the first year or the second, however we knew we had common goals and a purpose for being there.

The Indian student volunteers we worked with on the ground became an extension of our family and introduced us to cultural exchange. Cultural exchange was a top priority and from our pre-departure training on development education we learned that it was a necessary part of a successful volunteering project. Work days became days for sharing life experiences as we painted walls of community centers called ‘Anganwadis’.

Our work on the Anganwadi involved refurbishing the old buildings, cleaning them, painting them and including educational drawings on the walls in order to benefit the women and young children who spend time learning and getting basic health check-ups in the centers. We carried out this work constantly involving the community, either with manual labour or by asking them specifics of what they would like for the centers. We spent most of our time as a team and integrating with the communities through Anganwadi work, this space was the foundation for all of our bonds.

With a few questions about similar little brothers and ex relationships the ice was quickly broken. It was tiring and mentally challenging work ensuring we reached the target of what the host community wanted. We had sore limbs, sick tummy’s and tired brains and so evidently, we learned the importance of the support system around us. We leaned on each other for everything from home sickness to worries about the sustainability of what we were doing. It was vital to understand that equality between volunteers and the host community was a necessary part of achieving our goals. It didn’t matter if it was children aged 5 painting on the walls or local husbands aged 55 helping us to carry tin roofs to the Anganwadi. The structural inequalities that can naturally exist in communities and cultures fell away when we came together with a common aim in these villages.

We discovered how to communicate and cooperate with differing personalities, some people needed time alone to rejuvenate, others needed a night of improvised karaoke. At the end of the four weeks we had created bonds that we never could’ve foreseen, daily work overseas could be a challenge but having a support system like the one we did in North East India between Irish and Indian volunteers made the work everyday a pleasure. Achieving goals became all the more possible as we engaged every member of the host villages in our work and in our learning experience. I came away knowing that it wasn’t just the experience itself that I learned from and valued so incredibly, but the people I got to share it with and call my second family.

About Author
Name: Leah Farrell
Volunteer Sending Agency: UCDVO
Award: Silver
SDG: 1