Volunteering Stories

Chloe Sanderson, UK. Patiala School for Deaf & Patiala School for Blind Volunteer.Chloe Sanderson
If you are looking for a volunteer experience where every day is a new adventure, where you are thrown straight in at the deep end and where an exceptionally caring family takes you under their wing and gives you a perfect immersion into Indian culture then this is for you.
My friend and I came to stay in Patiala for three weeks. We asked to be placed within the Deaf school. The fact that we lacked any pervious knowledge of sign language did not matter at all. Both teachers and pupils are eager to teach you. The children are bursting with character and instantly accepted us both in and out of the classroom. I have returned home now knowing many traditional Indian playground games.

The school is full of many wonderful quirks- for instance the school day has not officially begun until the deaf children have signed and the blind children have sung the national anthem- which makes for a very memorable start to the day. Another real highlight of volunteering here was taking the school bus-where we were able to get to know a few children very well and where we learnt most of our sign language. At the end of an action packed exhausting morning it was great to return back to the idyllic family home for a delicious late lunch and relaxation.

The whole family were also invaluable in helping us to plan the rest of our time in India. They were able to help organize many other trips for us as well, including to Amritsar to see the golden temple and traditional border ceremony, as well as to Haridwar.

They also gave us the amazing opportunity to visit the family orchard in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here in a local village called Talia we were also lucky enough to meet many of the school children and help to distribute school equipment. We also met a fairly inspirational group of women who form a lively community making eco-friendly handicrafts.

We would have not been able to gain many of the experiences that we encountered whilst in Patiala without the Singh family and many of our fondest memories of our three month trip to India come from our first three weeks whilst volunteering in Patiala.

Chloe Sanderson, UK, Himachal Pradesh Rural Program Volunteer.Chloe Sanderson
During our time in Patiala we were lucky enough to be able to escape to the stunning foothills of the Himalayas and introduced to the local life in a truly untarnished setting. The charismatic journey winding through endless valleys and quaint villages was half of the fun. And now just listening to the first song of the hit Bollywood film Rockstar CD jets me back to our fantastic few days at ‘The Orchard’ – the family’s simple retreat with views to rival any others I witnessed in India. The Orchard is for the main part cared for by a delightful family who cooked us delicious dals that warmed us up as we explored the snowy territory. During our few days there we were also able to venture into the local towns and meet with the locals and were privileged enough to not only be invited into so many homes but also drink copious amounts of “chai” surrounded by the village elders and meet an impressive women’s group who have worked hard to maintain the second cleanest village in Himachal Pradesh (it was immaculate) as well as creating fantastic practical artworks with recycling. In some ways this part of India where plastic is forbidden is streaks ahead of the world. On the other end of the scale we also were able to spend time with many of the children of the surrounding villages distributing the pens and notebooks that Simar had worked so hard to provide was a very special moment for us all. Another highlight was that we opted to camp at The Orchard despite the chill, but once under so many blankets and quilts we could barely move, it has to be one of my best nights sleep of the trip as well as one of the most exciting places I have ever had the privilege to camp. On top of all that flinging open our tent door in the morning could not have been met by a more glorious view. If you have the opportunity to visit The Orchard this is something not to be missed for a real insight into very rural life in a place where globalization has thankfully had no influence.

Ellen Fraser Barbour, Australia. Patiala School for Deaf, Patiala School for Blind and Rural Development in Himachal Volunteer.Ellen Fraser Barbour
In January of 2012 I took a risk and traveled overseas by myself from Australia to India, and stayed with the Singh family at his home in Patiala, the Punjab. I am so glad that I took the brave step to contacting this Volunteering agency. When I first began searching for volunteer opportunities overseas, I googled different deaf blind schools as this is an area that most interested me due to my area of study at university. I was hesitant about traveling across the world to meet someone who I had only spoken to by email and had only seen their website on Google. I was unsure what to expect, and I was extremely nervous. I had a very stressful flight to India, with a 13 hour delay in Singapore, and did not have a good experience with communication from airport officials. I worried that being 13 hours delayed; I would have no one meeting me once I finally landed in India. I eventually tried to send an email and called the phone number and got on the plane hoping for the best. I need not have worried, as the Mr Singh and his wife was waiting for me at Delhi airport. I was incredibly thankful and so relieved to find a trustworthy face after such an ordeal with my flights. I was so well looked after, and got to experience the wonders of Indian food, Indian culture and languages, and felt very safe in a country that is often very unpredictable and at times chaotic. It was the best introduction I could have hoped for before heading off on my own for further travels around India. It was also great to have a family point of contact in India as even though I never had to use it, it was good to have contact details and numbers if I ever found myself in trouble traveling around india.

Patiala School for the Deaf, Patiala School for BlindEllen Fraser Barbour
I was able to volunteer at the school and found this to be a very rewarding experience, it was lovely to learn Indian sign language and Braille, and the children were incredibly welcoming and eager to welcome new comers to their school. I was originally very nervous about going to the school, but it’s an experience worth doing and the deaf and blind children love visitors and it was a learning experience to see the different ways the children are able to find capabilities despite their vision or hearing impairments. . I was lucky enough to be traveling with two girls from England who happened to be staying with them at the same time I was and it was brilliant to meet such friends.

Rural Development in Himachal and stay at OrchardEllen Fraser Barbour
The orchards were by far one of the most beautiful place in India, and I would even venture to say, one of the most beautiful landscapes in the whole world. After seeing much more of India, that is saying a lot. My sister was really jealous that I was so lucky to experience it. The locals were also very welcoming, and it was quite an experience to be camping in the mountains, though that was optional as there was a small cottage too. We were able to walk down the mountainside to visit the village people. We were shown the mats and baskets the women make out of recycled papers and wrappers, and how the village is considered one of the cleanest in the region. The villagers were extremely hospitable and were happy to show us around their little village. We were able to give the school children books, pens, drawing paper, copies and other stationary and climbed up the cobbly steps to see the inside of the stone temple. We also had the thrill of riding on the roof of the jeep up the mountainside to the second village to give books and pens to the school children and meet the locals there as well.
Helen Morgan-Rees, UK, Patiala School for Deaf, Patiala School for Blind volunteer, January 2012.
My experience of volunteering at the Patiala School for the Deaf and Blind

Overall, my experience at the Deaf and Blind School was overwhelmingly positive. I learnt an incredible amount about both the children and myself, and my eyes were opened to the rewards and opportunities that are available through this invaluable volunteering programme.

After a bit of initial guidance on how to communicate with the children (including a basic grounding in common sign language and the alphabet), the volunteering is very much what you make of it: the more you put in, the more you get out. The classes are fairly small in size (between 10-15 children) due to the difficult nature of their specialised needs, so it is a very manageable task to successfully plan and execute a lesson.

In terms of day-to-day classes, it is likely you will be moved between Maths, English, and art/practical skills, but be kept within the same age group/attainment level so that you get to know the children. This is one of the best aspects of the volunteering, as you really start to form working relationships with individuals- and the progress in some pupils is often marked, The content of lessons isn’t necessarily complicated- for instance in English the vocabulary of everyday objects, introductory questions and answers and basic grammar are covered- however the way in which such concepts are taught must be creatively executed, and this is where the real challenge lies.

Another real highlight of the school day is the big yellow School bus that will pick you up and take you to the school. It’s a lovely way to make friends with some of the students- including those who you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily meet outside your teaching group. And there are occasionally trips and events arranged which you are always invited to attend. For instance one afternoon, after lessons were over we were taken to a nearby hotel for a wonderful buffet lunch and dance party.

The accommodation provided for you during your time in Patiala is not only extremely comfortable- but uniquely welcoming. My experience with the family that runs the school was absolutely wonderful, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to India. The food is all homemade and delicious, and you won’t find a better “Chai” anywhere else in India! The house and gardens are also beautiful- a real haven tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the streets. In addition, it’s just moments from the convenience of local bazaars and a recreational ground, where you can go for runs in the evening.

The work being done at the school is invaluable- and I would highly recommend the experience to anyone. In the very wise words of Helen Keller- inscribed onto a notice board as you enter the school’s entrance hall- “Alone we can do so little- together we can do so much”. Putting this concept into practice is a truly worthwhile endeavor, and may be easily achieved at the deaf and blind school. Moreover, there is the added reward of great fulfillment on a personal level.

Harriet Cherry, UK. Patiala School for Deaf and Patiala School for Blind Volunteer.Harriet Cherry
Experience of staying with the Singh’s in Patiala, and working at the Deaf and Blind School.
Probably the highlight of my time in India back in 2008 was my time spent in Patiala with the Singh’s. They couldn’t have been a more welcoming and lovely family, and getting involved with their various incredible charity programmes was a really valuable experience.

My friend and I only spent about two weeks at the Deaf and Blind school, but would have loved to spend more time there. The students were so enthusiastic and friendly, and taught us some sign language. We had a wonderful time playing sports with them and learning about the ways in which they communicate with each other. The staff there are incredibly dedicated and there is a really good bond between staff and students. It was such a positive place, filled with laughter and kindness, despite the many hardships the students face in their lives.

The bulk of our time was spent visiting the schools in Patiala, and the leprosy centre and old people’s home, which the Singh family also runs. We also visited the family farm and had a very fun evening drinking with the farmers and learning all about how it is operated. Everywhere we went we were greeted with such enthusiasm and joy, it was really lovely. My memories of my time in Patiala are filled with smiles and happy people. When we were not volunteering, we visited the many beautiful sights that the city of Patiala has, including the palace, which has a fascinating history. The town is a really nice place with friendly people and lots to see and do. It’s small enough that you can stroll around easily, yet big enough that there is always plenty going on. We were even invited to an Indian Wedding whilst we were there.

The Singh’s ensured that we were really well looked after and we really felt like a part of the family straight away. They are a fascinating and kind-hearted family, who all give so much to their town. I hope one day to be able to return to Patiala, as the time I spent there was not long enough!

Alan Borenstein, Group Leader Operation Groundswell India Tour 2012Alan Borenstein
In 2012, I brought a group of 13 university students to Patiala to volunteer at the Patiala School for the Deaf and Blind. Patiala is only a 6 hour bus ride away from the metropolis of Delhi. When we arrived in the city we were accommodated by the Singh family during our stay. This was definitely the best homestay any of us had ever experienced. All of our needs were met: a comfortable bed arrangement, transportation around Patiala and perhaps the best food that can be found in northern India. Beyond necessities, the family was caring, fun and light-hearted. They were sensitive to personal needs of the group, whether they were medical or dietary. They were also determined to make sure we had a fun experience at night while working with the school during the day. From a Punjabi dance party, a visit to a farm outside the city, tractor riding lessons, to little experiences like taking the time to get to know each volunteer. The whole families speak English at a fluent level and are understanding of the western mentality. This is helpful for new visitors to India, who are sometimes concerned that they will falter in what can be a very traditional culture.

In Punjab, above the rich and the powerful, volunteers are the most respected people in the Sikh state, believing that helping others is an act that truly comes from the heart. The Singh family has been working to improve the lives of the less fortunate and the less abled for several generations. Their commitment to volunteering is not a business, or a selfish endeavour. Any volunteer who comes to Patiala should not stress about trying to make a difference. Understanding the issues facing the frequently neglected groups in India is above all the most important. Only so much can be learned from newspapers and television. The cultural exchange with real Indians will be a rewarding experience for both the volunteer and the local.

Any participant looking for a great introduction to India and a rewarding experience should strongly consider spending time with Volunteer Vacation India in the near future.

Rosalinda Dehoyos, Patiala School for Deaf, Patiala School for Blind VolunteerRosalinda Dehoyos
My name is Rosalinda Dehoyos and Im from California USA. My home stay and volunteering experience with the Singh family was one of the highlights of my India trip. A friend I had met while traveling invited me to go with her to volunteer at the Patiala Deaf and Blind school, not knowing what to expect and not having any expectations it turned out to be a beautiful heartfelt experience that not only benefited the children but also my confidence in learning and teaching. I was little nervous the first day because I had no prior teaching experience and did not know Indian sign language but after a couple days of riding on the bus with the children, they quickly put me up to par on the basics of Indian sign language. The bus rides home was where I would learn so much about the children themselves and got to practice sign language. The school is known to be one of the best in the area and I saw why, the facilities were new and had up to date computers and technology. The home I stayed in was really cool because it takes you back in time seeing the ancestry photos on the walls. It was definitely a pleasant comfortable stay. Some of the best food I had in India was made in the Singh home. I have never met a family that gives so much back to the community, it was such an inspiration, a true meaning of the word love. This experience has helped me define what love and compassion is all about.

Ed Trower, London, Patiala School for Deaf, Patiala School for Blind VolunteerEd Trower
Patiala is a hidden jewel in the heart of the Punjab, with its vibrant bazaar which lines the walls of the dilapidated but impressive Qila Mubarak Fort, the Polo Ground and the Palace of Mirrors. The Deaf and Blind School is an amazing project that teaches, guides and empowers the children to become independent and active members of society. When I arrived in 2007 the Deaf and Blind School was based in a small premise in the centre of Patiala, now there is a purpose built school in the leafy suburbs that will cater for 300 children. This transformation is largely due to the drive and determination of Karaminder who is like a father to all the children and wants to secure a better future for all his pupils. For the three months that I stayed with the Singh’s I was treated like family and it was such a privilege to stay in their lovely house, which is a sanctuary of peace in the centre of Patiala. For me, there could have been no better way to spend three months of my time in India, I worked on a rewarding project, lived in an interesting city and met some life long friends.

Norbu DhundupNorbu Dhundup
Operation Groundswell’s 2012 India trip team volunteered at the Patiala School of Deaf and Blind. I was one of the two team leaders for the group and we were 12 young eager students from North America. The pre-arrangement for the volunteering had been smooth. We were lovingly welcomed and provided a comfortable stay and excellent hospitality at the residence of Col. Karaminder Singh, the founder of the School.
Like mentioned on a banner in the school, every single brick, nail, nuts and bolts is donated by kind and generous individuals and groups. There is no corporate funding or government grants. The school building now stands big and impressive four storeys. All basic amenities were there and we were glad to see all students happy and well taken care of. We had very immersive and enlightening but challenging experience with the students. We participated in many school activities. Both in groups and one-on-one, we struggled to communicate with the students. We had learned basic alphabet signs and it helped a lot to interact with the deaf. Communicating with the blinds was more challenging. A lot of patience was required but we were able to do some nice art projects. Later in the day we played Frisbee and cricket, sang and danced, had food and snacks together. At the end of each day we were tired but happy. It was endearing to see them so eager and enthusiastic to keep engaging with us. Looking back it brings fond memory and great sense of satisfaction for what we learned and what we were able to contribute. I would encourage anyone looking for volunteering opportunity to go check out Patiala School of Deaf and Blind.

Nikki Rozario
The time we spent at the orchard in Talia was one of the most amazing experience of my life. Getting to know and interact with the children was incredibly rewarding – even though we spoke different languages. The village of Talia was beautiful and I enjoyed hiking around the mountains. Simar and Guinji baba treated us with the utmost hospitality and opened their homes and hearts to us. The food that was prepared for us was delicious and I learned how to make CHAPPATIS and CHAI in the traditional Indian way. I developed a close relationship with one of the girls from the village who drew Indian henna patterns on my hands and introduced us to her family which was really amazing. I cannot express how wonderful our visit to the orchard was and am planning on returning as soon as possible!