Unloading my frustrations – the birth of ‘Unfair & Lovely’

It is just so heartwarming for me to see my students in Nilogal, India, enthusiastically show up to class on time, give me their full attention despite the technical difficulties we sometimes face due to poor connections and dutifully send me their homework on WhatsApp from phones they receive access to only when their parents come home from work late in the evening (many students don’t have a household phone and show me their homework via Skype during class).

I constantly try to think of ways to help support their learning better..that one hour I get with them on a daily basis is just not sufficient. To this end, I sent them dictionaries, I created a bilingual Youtube channel, English for Kannada speakers, for bilingual explanations of English grammar concepts, and I created basic grammar books via a wonderful resource called StoryWeaver

A dear friend, Kavitha Amarnath (Zuggri Branding House), who I met through a previous volunteering stint of mine at a microlending non profit, had moved to Bengaluru and works as a digital artist and illustrator. She has successfully published a book entitled ‘Why can’t I see God?’. She wanted to collaborate to work on books to help my students. We created a bilingual workbook with illustrations using the story of the thirsty crow, one that has been told to children over generations in India. But we wanted to do more..there are stories that amuse..there are stories that show that good wins over evil..but what about books that make you think..books that make you question..books that make you want to change things?

When one thinks of problems in India, they may think of poverty, malnutrition, corruption, overpopulation..the list goes on. But the one problem we are so oblivious of..to the extent that we don’t even consider it a problem..is colorism! It’s an open secret that Indian society, by and large, glorifies fair skin. This is evidenced by the multitude of fairness skin cream ads on TV, the plethora of ‘Wanted fair bride’ ads in the matrimonial sections of newspapers, and the constant jibbers that dark people are subject to day in and day out! People who don’t think this is a problem..are probably blind..or fair! I passionately detest colorism..and want to erase it..from every society that glorifies fair skin..thus my book ‘Unfair & Lovely’!:)

Kavitha and I got together and created an illustrated story that resonates very easily with the millions of folks that have been taunted by this evil and enlightens people who choose to ignore it. The characters in the book are pre-teens, an age when kids are just beginning to realize how they look. Our intention behind this age for the book is to nip this issue in the bud, right where it needs to be dispelled! Regardless of your views on colorism, we promise that our book will engage, entertain and motivate!:)

Teaching a classroom – thousands of miles away

Volunteering with 100 Books is great..it exposes me to a lot of new children’s books in the Indian marketplace. I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. I can’t recall very many other options during those times. But now, I see a lot of books, in an Indian setting, with characters and themes that Indians can relate to better. I think that is wonderful..my exposure to books from the West as a child almost led me to believe that only kids in the West have all the fun! And that’s so not true.:)

100 Books gives me an opportunity to help kids from my country..but it’s still a small amount of volunteering time that is spent on any given day. I find that I enjoy working with English..I haven’t had the opportunity to do it very much given my engineering roles in the corporate world. Sadly, there is no such thing as creative writing for technical documentation!:) A dear friend mentioned that I check out eVidyaloka, an organization that sets up digital classrooms in Indian villages. 

I was initially hesitant that this may not work out with the time difference..10-12 hours between California and India..give or take. I went ahead and registered anyway. Within 2 days, I was brought on board and posted as an English teacher to a school in Nilogal, Karnataka (the state I am from). Having never visited that area, I looked it up on Google maps and found that it is approximately 7 hours from Bengaluru.

My 7th grade class of approximately 12 students (some days there are fewer as they may need to go work in the fields) starts at 10 AM Indian time and runs for an hour. The classroom has a big monitor, computer and a fairly steady internet connection..all powered by solar panels..which is a blessing since the village faces frequent power cuts.We use Skype and although there is a recommended textbook for class, students aren’t always at that particular learning level. I find that I have to create a lot of my own content, and also tailor it to each student’s needs as they are not all at the same level.I am especially indebted to the classroom assistant, a lady named Nagarathna, who ensures that everything is intact at their end and ensures that the students pay attention.   

Overall, the English class is more along the lines of an ESL class, as students in rural areas of India are not exposed to English as much. I will say however that I needed to use more Kannada(the local language) in the beginning..but the students have come a long way now as they greet me by asking “How are you, mam?” and respond with “You are welcome!” when I thank them.:)

A reading program – on the other side of the world

Must say I am super grateful that West Valley Community Services has been one of the very few places open to taking in person volunteers at this time.In addition to having the chance to serve the community, I would go stir crazy sitting at home..if my life only involved watching the news and serving the family!:) I started off back at the pantry where we sort and bag groceries donated to us by generous stores such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Costco..to name a few. We usually assemble a bag of canned foods and pasta, a bag of prepared foods (such as salads and sandwiches) and a bag of fresh produce. Sometimes, especially after holidays such as the 4th of July, clients can take home a huge cake – one that looks like it could easily be enjoyed by at least 30! 

WVCS is also a great option for folks in the area who may have excess produce from their fruit trees or vegetable gardens. They can just hop on over and donate all of that so it doesn’t go to waste. It really is a well run program that is largely facilitated by a group of dedicated volunteers, some who have been serving there for decades! I’ve enjoyed getting to know the clients and remembering all their names, as I go there pretty much every day. It really is a ‘two-way street’ type of opportunity for me..wherein I love them and they love me:)..because there aren’t many volunteers wanting to come out – braving the current covid times!

But when I watch the news and I watch my own kids struggling with remote learning – I wonder..what about kids who don’t have access to remote learning? At least with my kids, they have access to a system..it’s just a matter of figuring out how to navigate it. So, I get back on my searching horse and I google away! I came across this program called the 100 Books Initiative. It appeared to be a program based in Bengaluru(where I am from), India, wherein students read 100 books over a certain period of time, each book being progressively difficult. They seemed to want volunteers who could commit 2 hours per week. I definitely had more time, so this would work for me. 

Upon connecting with the founder, I was assigned a student. The student is given a book to read. In addition to reading the book, the student has to complete quizlet (a flash card app) sets that correspond to the book. The sets contain flash cards with meanings of the most important words from the book in Indian languages, along with images and sentence usage explanations. Quizlet sets help with comprehension of the material. Some books also have questions associated with them that the student has to answer. There is a Youtube video that corresponds to the book..so the student can use it for reference/pronunciation help. 

As a teacher, I am able to check to see if the student has completed the quizlets. I receive a recording of the student’s reading via WhatsApp. I then respond with any corrections to be made via WhatsApp. Once everything clears, we move on to the next book. So, here I am, helping a child read, all the way on the other side of the world, using just a phone and computer, from the comfort of my own living room! I am also delighted at this new philanthropic use of Whatsapp..not just to check to see what mom made for dinner!  🙂

Volunteering by playing – is that even possible?

So now that my work obligations have wrapped up for certain reasons..some of them outside of my control..I am thinking..what do I do with all this newfound time I have? If there is one thing that will motivate me to go get a job or do something productive during the day – it’s not the need for financial freedom…it’s not the urge to justify those advanced degrees…what it really is..is my passionate aversion to daytime soap operas!:)

I looked up Volunteer Match, a site I have often visited to search for local opportunities. I came upon Meals on Wheels, a program that enables one to volunteer as a packer or driver to deliver meals to seniors and the disabled. It’s a very well organized program, wherein volunteers are trained and well equipped to provide services. Must say I gathered a much better awareness of nooks and corners of San Jose those few weeks than I ever have.. in spite of having lived in the area for decades. But I wanted an opportunity wherein I would be able to interact with people one on one. So, I continued my search.

As we lived in the Campbell-Saratoga area, I had often seen children and young adults with disabilities wait at the bus stop or take walks to the farm across from Westmont high school with medical personnel supervising them. I had wondered if they belonged to a school or hospital that I had seen a sign for towards Sousa Lane, on the other side of Westmont Ave. I thought I would pay them a visit, check out to see what they were about and ask if they perhaps needed volunteers. 

Turns out the hospital itself was Saratoga subacute hospital, that serves pediatric sub-acute care for children 0-21 years of age. Right next door is Scribble and Giggles (what a fun name!:)), which is a daycare facility for medically fragile children or children with special needs. The volunteer coordinator there was very responsive and said they could use volunteers at Scribbles. I was excited at the prospect of being able to volunteer with kids, literally a stone’s throw away from where I lived. So, after getting my background check and flu shot squared away, one fine morning, I showed up at Scribbles.   

There were about 5 kids that morning. *Jayden was an infant, fast asleep. Emma, about 3 years old, could not get enough of stacking cups. There was Ethan who had a sleeping disorder..wherein he would stop breathing in his sleep. But during his waking hours, he was so active that I could barely keep up with him. Layla, a 12 year old in a wheelchair, loved looking at herself in the mirror, and loved interacting with me by wearing my rings. Johnson, the 15 year old, needed assistance to get out of bed but that didn’t stop him from enjoying music..he obsessed over a tambourine that he held near and dear. So, my shifts at Scribbles consisted of reading story books, playing house, throwing balls, painting nails and singing! It is absolutely possible to volunteer by playing..I have proof!:)

*Names of kids changed to protect their privacy.