Anil Bhatnagar, the site manager in Dharmsala, brings over Saul and a handful of college-age women, who round out this month's batch of volunteers. He gathers the group together at the end of each week, to check in on the projects and to give everyone a chance to vent.
"I love the challenge we're facing at work, but it kept me up last night," Melanie says, reflecting on her time at the rehab center. "They put a lot of responsibility on the volunteers. I'm up for the challenge..." She pauses. "But I just feel like the staff expects us to be cure-alls."
Anil nods knowingly. "That's the way it is. They look up to America."
"I think someone needs to tell them that Americans don't know everything," Melanie says.
"You have to be really clear—"
"But I sense disappointment, which, to a perfectionist, is hard," Melanie says.
Maybe. But when I return to the Red Cross building alone, to see what the counselors have to say about Melanie's efforts, they heap praise on all of the volunteers. In a small office where he spends his day leading one-on-one rehab sessions, R. K. Tripathi explains that the biggest challenge is getting inmates to buy into the treatment. They may ignore a counselor, but they are curious about foreign visitors. "If the inmates are interested in the volunteers," he says, "they will be more motivated in our program." The dentists at the hospital are just as effusive. They value Saul's expertise, but even more, they appreciate the novelty of talking shop with an American colleague.
Ann gets a more immediate sense of the impact of her work a few days later, when she helps out at a rural day-care center outside Dharmsala (volunteers can opt to balance two work placements, instead of spending all their time at one). We walk single-file along a narrow dirt trail between two rice paddies dense with spry green shoots, until the path reaches a simple, mud-packed house with rows of stars carved into turquoise wood trim. Ann steps over nine pairs of tiny flip-flops and into a small, windowless room covered in old educational posters: numbers, letters, fruits and vegetables, animals. Behind a desk, the teacher beams. She leaves her class, nine kids between two and four years old, with Ann and a CCS translator, who teach them how to blow bubbles with soap Ann brought from the States; they play games with a pack of balloons from the market. While the children recite from the animal chart in English—"Yak! Mongoose! Jackal! Monkey!"—the teacher takes advantage of the break to fill out a stack of paperwork for the government. Visitors interrupt her every few minutes. In addition to teaching and feeding lunch to the community's children, her $12-a-month job puts her in charge of all pre- and post-natal care, health checks for girls, and distributing wheat subsidies.
When it is time for Ann to leave, the harried teacher looks at her, pausing a moment before saying anything. "Do you like it here?" she asks, finally. "Yes!" Ann says; she will be back tomorrow. The teacher sighs in relief and smiles.
"Sometimes we don't know what effect our work has, or if we're doing anything at all," says Bela Singh, country director for India and a co-founder of CCS. For many volunteer travelers, that will be a trip's greatest hardship. But Singh recalls the year CCS launched a program in Rajgarh, an isolated spot about eight hours southeast of Dharmsala. "Electricity had just come to the town," she recalls. One of the volunteers that season was a naval engineer. "She was a very bright girl; she stood out in the group." One afternoon, she talked to children at a local school about her job. Three years later, Singh was visiting volunteers in
Rajgarh when a schoolgirl raced up to her. "She said, 'Guess what?I've just been admitted to engineering college. I'm going to build ships, too.'"
Melanie wonders what will become of the people she helped, and whether future volunteers will continue her work. But she knows she found the change she was looking for. She wants to do more volunteering when she returns to New York, something CCS encourages throughout its trips. The brevity of a volunteer vacation is one of its chief drawbacks—one that is mitigated, however, if CCS inspires travelers to continue giving back when they return home, either by finding ways to help the countries or organizations they visited or by simply bringing the culture of volunteerism back to their own communities. "I've already started looking for places where I can volunteer when I get back," Melanie says. "I just want to contribute."
Regardless of the work description, there are qualities the best volunteer programs tend to share: paid local staff; established relationships in the community; a record of placing volunteers in the same clinics or classrooms month after month. Accommodations are generally basic rather than luxurious, but they do vary from program to program and site to site, so inquire before booking. These outfitters have good track records.
Cross Cultural Solutions
Sample trip: Work in a home for physically and mentally disabled adults in Thailand.
Cost: $2,423 for three weeks, plus airfare.
The gist: CCS schedules two to four hours of work a day, depending on the country. You can arrange longer hours if you choose to, but it takes some initiative. The organization also fills your free time with a wider-than-average range of cultural activities, from language classes to dance lessons.
800/380-4777 or 914/632-0022; www.crossculturalsolutions.org