Every afternoon, sixteen-year-old Salim came home from school, through the doors of the Nav Jagriti or the “New Hope” orphanage and shook my hand. He asked me: “You are feeling?” to which I said, “Good, very good, thank you. How are you feeling?” Salim smiled and struggled to respond to my reply in English, sometimes answering, “I am no feeling”, “I am fine, thank you” or “Hungry. Ten minutes, food.” He then proceeded to change out of his school clothes, complete his homework and help me in any way he could with the activities of the day.
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Tzedakah. It’s a Hebrew word that was best illustrated in my childhood by a tiny blue and white paper box at Jewish Sunday School. What is actually refers to is the obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts, which Judaism emphasizes are important parts of living a spiritual life. I’ve been volunteering with others for some time, but it was in September of 2009 that I fully grasped its meaning.
I arrived at the center in India, a college graduate from suburban Missouri; a sterile but privileged place where I could eat, sleep, study and play at my leisure. Salim, like many of the orphans, arrived a couple of years ago at the center after barely managing to survive on the railway platform, where he had landed since fleeing a violent home. His painful background, however, never managed to wipe the radiant smile from his face.
Salim was just one of the extremely inspirational children I had the amazing opportunity to interact with, mentor and teach at Nav Jagriti, a day care, orphanage and informal education center in a primarily Muslim slum in New Delhi, India. As a volunteer with Volunteer India, an organization supported by the International Volunteer Headquarters, I paid a program fee that funded my living arrangements and meals. In addition, I was able to live and travel with several other volunteers from across the globe.
As an orphanage volunteer, my main duties included teaching children (aged newborn to seventeen) English, mathematics and life skills as well as mentoring, caring for, and unconditionally loving the fifty or so children that entered the doors everyday. Although a language barrier existed between us, the orphans, other children and I nurtured a bond that was introduced and developed in the short two-month period.
There was Guddu, an artistic and funny teenager. Together we created an expressive space in the afternoons, engaging each other as well as other children in various forms of artistic expression, such as watercolor and sketching, habitually over two months, mimicking the kind of expressive based counseling I wish to practice in the future. There was Alisha, a shy and initially expressionless toddler who managed to find my lap in a matter of seconds and spend the entire afternoon plopped down in it. After a couple of weeks, I finally found her smile (and mine), elicited by several sessions of patty cake.
I captured a manual photograph portrait of all of the children, to remember that every child had a significant and unique impact on me, perhaps much stronger than my impact on them. Looking back on the photos I have realized the bulk of their impact: to be grateful for every smile in my direction, piece of food on my plate, shelter over my head. More importantly, the children provided me with the greatest lesson of all and the true meaning of Tzedakah: how to walk through life with a positive attitude and spend my days serving others, no matter my personal circumstances.
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