Emily Cunniffe (Ireland/UAE, UWC AC UWC AC 2011-2013)
I walked out of Bengaluru Airport, pushing through the crowds only to hit a wall of sweltering heat. All I had in my hands was a taxi company name, my passport, a suitcase and an address. An adventure is what they tend to call this kind of thing. I guess, it sort of was. After a slight moment of disorientation, I found the recommended taxi company and wearily watched two men fight over my suitcase. I clambered into a taxi and only hoped my suitcase was in the same vehicle ( the driver assured me it was!). Half way through the drive, we had apparently stopped for a bathroom break. My taxi driver leaped out of the car and ran around the corner. He left his car running on the side of a highway and didn’t say a word. Too tired to panic, I just hoped he’d come back. And he did. We then continued the 60 km to Sneha Care Home.
Sneha Care Home was opened in 2008 by Camillians of India on the Snehadaan campus where there was already a well-established HIV and Tuberculosis specialist hospital. The Care Home is a centre which houses orphaned or partially orphaned children aged between 2 and 13. Initially, the centre opened with just over 20 children, today there are around 100 children who live at the care home. Due to its success, the centre is often used as a model for other orphanages and centres across Karnataka state and India.
In June, a group of eight of us travelled to Bangalore to volunteer at the centre for three weeks. When our group was due to start, it was the end of their annual holidays and almost the start of their academic year. So, many of the children had returned from a month away with relatives. The centre is currently working very hard to ensure that the children maintain ties with whatever family they have at home, and that the children experience and remember life outside of the campus.
In order to ensure a smooth transition back into the centre and school, the Care Home organised a ‘Rainbow Summer Camp’. The camp entailed five days of intensive ‘fun’ activities, with outside groups coming into the centre to run educational and creative workshops. The first two days of the camp were admittedly two of the toughest days for us. We all felt quite overwhelmed and dazed at trying to split our attention between every single child. We soon realised this was a mere impossibility!
Following on from the summer camp, we spent the remaining two weeks in the classroom supporting the teachers as well as teaching classes on our own. Though very testing and challenging at times, it was certainly an experience. Despite the fact the children understood very little English and we couldn’t speak Kanada or Hindi, things eventually went fairly smoothly. We had to admit to ourselves that no matter how hard we tried to hold the attention of all the children, you just had to accept that we weren’t going to have a class of eager, perfect students! Only then were we actually able to enjoy teaching. The children were most fascinated by where we had all come from and that we flew in aeroplanes to get there! The staff who work at Sneha Care Home are extremely admirable, with their bottomless wells of patience and love for the children of the care home. The dedication and perseverance which we were privileged enough to witness was refreshing and moreover, inspirational.
All children in the care home are HIV positive. We watched the children play and knew that they had done nothing in their youthful innocence to deserve what they had gone through. And for that moment one feels quite harrowed by it all. But, their smiling, energetic selves soon removed all our apprehensions. Almost all the children were extremely open and trusting of us, and that made working with them so much more rewarding! We all agreed that if we hadn’t thought about their situations you would never have differentiated them from other children. Yes, of course HIV has stunted the mental and physical development of the children quite significantly. However, many of them will reach the age of 50. The centre aims to train the children for employment in the vocational sector and ensure that they have a future to look forward to. Snehagram is a new campus which they hope to open in September of this year, where the older students at Sneha Care Home can be transferred. And there, they hope to allow the children to specify their education and develop their capabilities, until they reach adulthood. From there, they hope the students can be reintegrated into main stream life and be able to fend for themselves. Another aim of the centre is to remove the social stigmas attached to children and adults who are HIV-Positive, no easy feat in a nation that still has issues of with a caste system.
One of the most touching stories we were told during our time at the centre, was Anjoli’s story. Currently, she is in the ‘Rising Stars’ class, who follow the 1st and 2nd grade Indian Curriculum. Small in stature, Anjoli looks to be around six years old. However, she is actually eleven years old. She was found alone in her house, abandoned and starving. The Snehadaan Hospital was called and she was brought into intensive care. Severely malnourished and very weak, doctors had little hope for her survival. However, a promise was made to her. If she ate well, they would allow her to attend school and stay at Sneha Care Home. And that is exactly what she did, she ate! She is just one of many distressing and touching stories amongst the children of the care home. At such a young age they have already gone through so much more than any of us could even imagine.
Outside of working at the orphanage, we also managed to see parts of Bangalore, though more often than not, a lot of the places of interest were closed! Nonetheless, we still enjoyed touring around the city. For one weekend we also managed to travel to Mysore. The bus we caught for the three hour journey cost us just over a pound and our Youth Hostel for the night cost about the same. Mysore was wonderful to visit and far less congested than Bangalore. Through all the colourful markets, backstreet “shortcuts“, palaces, temples, monsoon rains, lassi bars and getting pushed in a rickshaw for 12km through night time traffic by another rickshaw driver’s foot, we certainly enjoyed our visit to India. Hopefully, next summer UWC can send another group to the centre and the connection that has been established can be maintained for many years to come.
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