Livvy Jefferson and Katherine Pickles volunteered at HEAL Paradise Village for three weeks during the summer of 2015. Both were educated at Oundle School, Peterborough, where they became friends with HEAL founder Dr Satya Prasad Koneru's son Anish. Livvy later attended Cardiff University, while Katherine went on to study at University College London. The friends were reunited for their trip to India to spend time teaching the children of Paradise Village. Here, they write about their experiences...
MY HEAL EXPERIENCE: LIVVY JEFFERSON
I have known about HEAL charity for a long time. I was to school with Satya Prasad Koneru’s son, Anish. I had always been aware of the charity, but it was always more of a background thought. As I got older, and learned more about the work that HEAL does, my interest grew and I knew I wanted to become more involved.
Earlier this year with the end of university looming, I convinced my friend Katherine to come and spend the summer teaching English conversation at HEAL Paradise Village with me. We set the dates and booked our flights. As our departure rapidly approached, and the trip became less abstract and more concrete, I started to worry. About trivial things – like how much shampoo I would need for a month – and more real concerns.
I had travelled before but always as a tourist and I’d never been a guest in such a different culture for so long. I also worried about the prospect of teaching, I’d worked with kids before but there had always been a proper teacher ready to step in and help if it all went wrong. Would I be a good teacher? Would the children like me? But time raced on – as it does – and soon enough we were on our way to Heathrow.
A day later and we were weaving our way through water buffalos on the roads of rural India, minutes away from our destination. We arrived at the village during the children’s game time. After a long day of lessons, and a quick pit stop for a snack, they were letting off steam on the school’s playing field. The addition of two new playthings – namely Katherine and myself – was very well received. We were greeted by salutes and a chorus of “Good afternoon ma’am” and “Welcome to our school”.
We were swept away by a sea of girls and bombarded with new names, many questions and new games to play. I naively thought this frenzy was merely excitement at new visitors, I had underestimated the energy and enthusiasm of the children. Throughout the month the introductions petered out as we gradually matched names to faces, but the questions and games never abated.
One of my favourite things about the children at HEAL is their inquisitiveness. They are thirsty for knowledge and they are not afraid to ask for it. Initially they wanted to know everything about us, this prompted my favourite question “What is your father’s name?” I have no idea what they proposed to do with all this information, but they nodded sagely at every answer before moving on to the next question.
Another favourite topic was England. Coming from a culture that heralds the importance of tradition, they love learning about different cultures and customs. However, I felt that I disappointed them by not being able to offer them a cultural tapestry as rich as theirs. They seemed baffled at our lack of traditional English dances. Their expectant faces made me wonder if I should have taken a Morris dance or Irish jig lesson at some point in my life. But luckily the HEAL children are very graceful and accepted our meagre offering of the Macarena as if it were a foxtrot.
Along with all of the fun and games in free time, we also had to think about lessons. My initial anxiety about teaching went out the window after our first lesson. The children are the most polite and well-behaved students I have ever seen. They are incredibly respectful of their teachers and staff, both inside and outside of the classroom. In fact, from an entire month I am hard pressed to recall any incidents where children behaved even remotely badly. They are genuinely very good children, which of course made teaching them a pleasure.
They also have very big ambitions. When you ask them the inevitable “what do you want to be when you grow up?” they all have impressive dreams and plans. More importantly, they appreciate that a bright future isn’t going to be handed to them. They all work diligently in lessons and in any extra-curricular activities. For example, we were lucky enough to be there for Indian Independence Day, on which the children performed many songs, dances and other feats; including an impressive array of human pyramids. The children started practicing weeks in advance and all of their hard work and perfectionism paid off on the big day!
They have a great work ethic instilled in them and they take pride in what they do. They deserve to go far in life and I have no doubt that, with the help of the excellent teachers and staff at HEAL, they will realise their dreams.
I feel like I have written too much and yet barely scratched the surface describing the children of HEAL and my experience. HEAL Paradise Village is another world, best lived than read about. It is difficult to describe without sounding insincere.
The children of HEAL are amazing in the true sense of the word – not in a way you would describe the steak and chips you had last week. They are inquisitive, insightful and interesting. It was a privilege to get to know them, even for such a short time, and I miss them every day. For children who have so little, they give so much of their time and love to others. It almost makes you feel undeserving of their attention. They are incredibly welcoming and they are great fun to spend time with.
One thing I have failed to mention so far is HEAL charity itself. HEAL Paradise Village is just the tip of the iceberg, with the charity having many other projects in the Andhra Pradesh region of India. They already support over a thousand children and are still looking to expand. The work of Satya Prasad and his team has been tireless. The charity offers shelter, support and love to children who need it most. Their nurturing and support is invaluable to the children that they care for. And its effectiveness is evidenced by the incredible success stories of past students of HEAL.
HEAL is an incredible charity that does fantastic work. I would encourage anyone to get in touch with them today and see what you can do to get involved. I promise they are very friendly and they don’t bite – and I guarantee you will get a lot more out than you put in.
They have a great work ethic instilled in them and they take pride in what they do. They deserve to go far in life and I have no doubt that, with the help of the excellent teachers and staff at HEAL, they will realise their dreams
MY HEAL EXPERIENCE: KATHERINE PICKLES
I’d wanted to visit one of the HEAL villages for a long time and, having known Dr Prasad since I was four and having attended the fabulously decorative India Night in Peterborough last year, I was determined to finally go.
My initial apprehensions were the remoteness of the village we were visiting; I’d never even heard of Vijayawada, and the nagging in the back of my mind that I wanted to experience other parts of India. I compromised and arranged a whistle-stop tour for my last week of the month around Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.
It’s safe to say my experience at HEAL Paradise shrouded my previous angst.
My HEAL experience in general was, above all, inspiring. I began to strip away my egoism and the desire for my own experience and discovered how we, in fact, were genuinely helping others. It was refreshing to distance myself from the privileged ‘gap year’ outlook and to realise the power we have to influence, even if that simply involves a 10-minute chat. Despite people’s initial confusion over my degree choice of modern European languages and thus the lack of relevance to teaching in a school in India, it was of no importance to me. You don’t need a degree in education in order to influence some excitable underprivileged kids and encourage them to expand their minds.
The HEAL children have an incredibly structured routine. It starts with yoga at sunrise followed by Ragi Malt, which is best described as a milky cereal drink.
They then occupy themselves with morning classes of English, Maths, Telugu, Environmental Science, Physical Science, Hindi, Computing, Drawing and Games. With little appetite for lunch for me, afternoon lessons begin again, the occasional staff class, evening play, rest, dinner and sleep.
Yoga at quarter to six in the morning was an instant awakening, with PET (PE Teacher) sharply blowing his whistle for every position, quite different to my faddy gym classes in London. We discovered an array of positions from balancing artfully on one leg to the ‘problem diminishing’ Surya Namaskara where we were aggressively urged to ‘STRETCH YOUR BODIES’ by the Vice Principal. Clearly his forte. The children took part in prayer every morning and I was also immediately learning the importance of nature, peace and respecting your surroundings. Morning yoga amongst fields of green was a far cry from the persistent buzz of Euston Road. The rainy season often made the view misty, but the beauty of the location never went unnoticed; an eternal view of green, one of the colours of the India flag, again demonstrating its value.
Teaching was always a pleasure and what I looked forward to most each day. The brightness of the children’s expressions, their constant smiles, concentration and energy filled any room with joy. Our task was to improve their conversational English, which I feel we definitely achieved. Every single one of them greeted me throughout the day with a formal ‘good morning/afternoon/evening/ hi Katherine ma’am’ which I strangely got used to. We encouraged them with activities such as dialogues, poster creations, presentations on countries of the world, computer research, answering questions whilst catching a ball and asking others, songs, dictations, and many, many photos, occasionally rewarding them with hilariously worded stickers, my favourites being ‘Top Notch’ and ‘Way to Go!’
We even occupied ourselves with the odd Telugu class, never to be forgotten. Livvy and I now know the numbers, seasons, family members and couple of phrases such as, ‘Let’s have lunch together!’ This naturally brings me on to the topic of food.
In India, as we were frequently told, Guest is God, which almost puts you in an awkward position between appreciation of our host’s incredible hospitality and not wanting to let them down by rejecting something or saying no. Despite their worry that a few dishes or pickles they gave us would be too spicy, and that we weren’t eating enough, I loved the food and loved the spice. They make their own kurd (yoghurt), which was a perfect mouth-cooling dessert. Some of their specialities included idli, similar to dense rice cakes dipped in a light curry sauce for breakfast, a peanut pickle, lots of rice and dhal, and of course kurd.
There was even an opportunity to be dressed in traditional Indian dress, with which the housemothers occupied themselves meticulously, and this happened on the day of a health camp one Saturday. This was another occasion, after the first day arriving of course, when I felt like a curious, distant foreigner. After being strapped into a sari almost like a harness, and having my hair scraped into a clip (fortunately I missed out on the fake hair insertion to much dismay: ‘Why do you cut such beautiful long hair?!!), I looked the part, jewellery included. It was a stunning outfit, despite the length of time it took to assemble.
The health day involved some sweet dances from the girls dressed in a plethora of colours, speeches from donors and doctors and, bizarrely, constant requests for photos with guests whom I’d never met. I reluctantly obliged, reminding myself that I am a guest in this country and feeling like this is the appropriate response they desire from me as gratification.
All in all, three weeks at HEAL Paradise Village felt like an out-of-body experience, despite often feeling at home there. The hospitality was exceptional, as was every member of staff, the food was delightful and the location was a dream. But, most importantly, the children were unforgettable, already drawing me back.
I cannot wait to return and be surrounded again by the richness of colour and the sparkle of young faces.