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IMG_0181This is said with a unique mix of admiration and distaste. I have just come back from 3 weeks in southern India and nearly all the great buildings and infrastructure was introduced with “it was made by the British.”

Buildings, factories, trains, bridges, roads as well as agricultural methods. Many of these things are undergoing restoration, but many more are decaying from neglect. It’s as if the best ideas, the great build was done by the British and when they left, time stood still.

I am looking for the unique Indian voice, the greatness that I know India can be within the cities and towns but what I see is decaying grandeur and shoddy workmanship. They say it is a result of the corruption and I believe them as nothing is what it appears to be.

This is a relatively young country having achieved independence in 1947 but other developing countries like Vietnam (and to some extent the new China) are racing ahead building enviable cities, infrastructure and economies. India with its vast diversity, layers of political structures needs strong leadership and yet the distrust of the system is everywhere.

Not all is lost. Education is highly valued, the workforce is huge, English, international language of business, is spoken nearly everywhere and the people are gracious and welcoming. India is a huge country, accessible (by air, road, sea and telco) and contains lots of natural resources.

But without a unifying will to be great, it will remain a land that thinks small and whose chaos drives strong partners away out of frustration. I have no answers, only hope that the new generation, many of them abroad, will bring the best ideas back to their mother country and make India the great country it should be.

Perhaps it’s heightened because of our winter or the shortened daylight, but it’s clear that the journey for international students can be a lonely one. With family often half a world away, minimal accommodations, cultural differences and perhaps a language barrier as well, it is a challenge to keep the faith in the promise this new country offered – a big reason that they came to Canada for higher education.

As a volunteer and mentor I am privileged to coach some very bright international students. Mine are the enterprising ones, with an idea or just the drive to make an impact both here and at home. They are braver than I ever was and all they need is a little support from time to time, to remember that they have a great potential. This is not a lot to ask of a mentor.

If you are looking for some way to add value and give back, become a mentor. Contact your nearest place of higher learning or youth-based organization and see how a little time nurtures the next generation of greatness.

Here’s a couple of starter ideas: http://top20under20.ca/, http://studentlife.utoronto.ca/Mentorship-Resource-Centre.htm.

Children supported by Paper Kite

I had a chance to sit down and chat with Tarik Kadri the founder of Paper Kite Children’s Foundation, one of the many charities in India. This one uses Canada as a home base to gather volunteers and funds, then does yearly trips to the Bihar region of India to help designated orphanages.

My recent and first trip to India has brought a few folks to my virtual doorstep to find out more about traveling the country and volunteering so I was eager to chat with Tarik about his perspective.

First things first

If you’ve never been to the country, go see it first before committing to volunteering. You need to experience it to get a feel for what’s there and how things work. And I’d suggest going with a minimal plan so that as you discover things of interest you’ll be free to explore them rather than bound by a schedule.

Do your research

While you’re there talk to folks, both locals and foreigners about their experiences. Follow leads that will take you places and people that can inform you. Ask questions on how things work and see them for yourself. There are a lot of ashrams in India and many of them will have a variety of ways you can help. There’s a lot of corruption in India and in the charity world, but there’s a lot of good work going on as well. You just need to do your research.

Then when you’re home you can follow up, as I did with Tarik and others I met along the way. You can also help by simply sharing your experiences with others.

There are many forms of volunteering

I did a deep dive with Tarik on his needs for Paper Kite and he identified these:

  • In Canada there are 3 things: give funds, advocate (raise awareness and fundraise), and volunteer (help with events or the organization). The best volunteers do all three. As little as 5 hours a month makes a difference.
  • In India – You can join one of their trips and help in many ways. Their trips are generally 2-3 weeks but the longer you stay the more value you can provide.
    • Purchasing – they take board-approved funds are taken to India to purchase goods and services needed by the orphanages. Local purchasing is done and the logistics are supervised. You can help with purchasing (especially if you speak the language, understand the customs and can drive a good bargain) or the logistics.
    • Teaching – teachers of almost any subject are needed. Short or long term teaching can be accommodated. If you can stay for 6-12 months, the school will provide housing and food.
    • Translation services
    • Research – studies of orphanages, local needs, assessments and more
    • Marketing and public relations – gathering of stories and images/videos that can be used for marketing campaigns as well as ongoing marketing and PR support

Next trip to India for Paper Kite is December 2012. To find out more see paperkitefoundation.com or visit them on Facebook.

I’ve written this from an India-centric perspective and using Paper Kite as an example but there are many causes and many countries including our own that can use your help. I just hope that my quest has helped inspire yours.

As I type, I am in India – traveling, experiencing it and meeting like-minded people. By good luck my travel mate in Varanasi is Navi, coincidentally a young woman from my town and yet by chance we meet half way around the world in one of India’s holiest cities.

Navi is taking a 3 month break from work to tour south east Asia but what brings her to India, aside from visiting her heritage, is a non profit that she is lending her talents to called Paper Kite.

We are Paper Kite Children’s Foundation, a non-profit charity working to ensure that basic necessities are available to the orphanages in the state of Bihar, India.  Our work empowers the children to fulfill their aspirations and end the cycle of poverty.

This is but one of the many grassroots causes, started by folks who were touched by India and wanted to help solve some of her issues. Today over lunch Navi and I met another kindred spirit from Madrid who is working for a small NGO helping impoverished folks with medical issues. And in Agra I met a woman who, along with 12 others, is volunteering with a program to empower women.

There are a lot of commonalities among these causes (size of the organization, support by women volunteers, and the endless need for services here in India) but I think local involvement is one of the most crucial. Without oversight that is informed, understands the local culture and ways, speaks the language and has a significant and ongoing presence, the power of corruption will win out.

We have seen false front organizations, heard about good agencies gone bad and the struggle to get things done. As a volunteer you need to do a lot of research to find the right causes. As I travel I find that the informal network of volunteers that forms when good people meet like minded folks might be more powerful than Google.

So if you are looking to contribute in some way I encourage you to join a grassroots organization or start one – India needs you.

We’ve made it to step 1 in our committee efforts to raise awareness of the many opportunities to mentor students at the University of Toronto.

Whether you are an alumnus or not, I invite you to visit our mentor page and review the programs that we’ve found so far. You’ll find programs organized by college, faculty and a general category. This is just the first step as we continue to uncover the many opportunities to provide a valuable contribution.

http://alumni.utoronto.ca/volunteer/mentorship/

You can be a mentor at any age
There is a great contribution to be made regardless if you just graduated or graduation seems a lifetime ago. Students need help making career decisions, understanding the transition from school to the workplace, deeper insights into industries and roles, they need contacts, and most importantly a good two-way conversation. Some of them may be thinking of starting their own business – for profit or maybe socially oriented. So there are lots of roles to fill and perspectives needed.

You can mentor anywhere
Just because you’re not in Toronto, doesn’t mean you can’t mentor a student. Students come from everywhere to study at UofT and many students are quite used to communications through internet tools. I’ve had many a mentoring session with teams of students via Skype even when we’re in the same town! So don’t let distance get in your way of adding value.

More opps
While you’re on the website, take a look at the other opportunities to volunteer: hosting dinners, community service and participating in regional events.

I agree with the Globe and Mail’s caption of “Good Idea: Warehousing good intentions.”

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (Canada) has shopping carted giving. They’ve put all the supplies they need, urgent ones highlighted, onto a shopping type website where you can make a contribution big or small. $30 will buy a cholera treatment for one patient in Haiti or spend $18,750 and buy a full kit. $60 for a 5% share of a diesel generator or spend $1,200 and buy the whole unit. $90 buys a doctor for a day, $3,780 buys a 6 week mission.

The MSF Warehouse contains real items that Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) uses in its field projects. When you purchase an item, you are making a contribution that supports MSF’s medical humanitarian aid work in general, and not just the purchase of that product. Your donation will be used where the need is greatest.

Complete with Twitter and Facebook integration, lots of pictures, stories, gift ideas this website is a great reinterpretation of giving. And just in time for the holidays.

It’s a great cause, and a brilliant use of web technology. Kudos to MSF Canada!

“Médecins Sans Frontières was established in 1971 by a small group of doctors and journalists. They were determined to find a way to respond rapidly and effectively to public health emergencies, with complete independence from political, economic and religious influences.”

Why just lie on the beach when you can have a life altering experience?

Travel volunteerism is becoming hotter as travel companies align with local causes and charities around the world are framing projects to allow for volunteers to use vacation time for a great cultural experience that gives back. And the shocker is that many of these are actually a cheaper holiday than you would normally take.

So here’s an example: why not build a school in Nicaragua with SchoolBOX?

SchoolBOX build 2008

This program is for individuals with limited time who want to make a difference with SchoolBOX in Central America.

It’s a 10 day volunteer group experience in Nicaragua. Volunteers form part of a team building a school or library for a local community, and will work alongside SchoolBOX staff, teachers, parents, and children. In 10 days you will have helped to fund, and complete a construction project greatly improving the education facilities for the local children.

SchoolBOX plans a unique itinerary organizing all transport, accommodation, food and in-country supervision and orientation. An itinerary typically would include the volunteer work, visits to other Partner Schools, introduction to Nicaraguan history and culture, and 2-3 optional activities.

For more info see http://www.schoolbox.ca/volunteers.htm

Other programs:

If you’re not ready to spend months abroad, spend your holiday helping out. You’ll probably come back more rejuvenated than you’ve been in years.

I am just back from an adventure in Vietnam but a funny thing happened in the airport on my way out of town.

As background, my trip was to explore Vietnam as a potential country for me to do volunteer work. The purpose was to experience the country, its people and see what was happening. Throughout the trip, adventure and volunteerism crossed paths many times.

Habitat for Humanity Team Canada

It started in the airport on the way out of Toronto. I spotted a bunch of green t-shirts with Habitat for Humanity on them. Having just signed up to help this cause, I ran right over to see what they were up to.

Turns out this was Team Canada, 14 Canadians from across the country about to join over 400 other Habitat folks from around the world – destination – The Everest Build.

The project is to build 40 houses made of mud and bamboo in a week for the folks in Nepal. The team was lead by Robyn Allin and Patricia Elfer, both volunteers with H4H Toronto whose stories are inspiring by themselves. Take a look at the Team Canada blog and feel the excitement and pride around this project.

So for those of you who love travel and adventure, and want to give back, but don’t want to spend a long period of time overseas, this type of program might be just what you’re looking for. Check out Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Trips and if there isn’t a opportunity that’s right for you.

Vietnam. It’s a relatively new country. Tortured roots, people who only recently can decide their own fate. There is tremendous pride and great opportunity. But touring this country you see the disparity and feel the potential of a quickly emerging wealthy class amid many living a traditional and hard life.

Some things seem to work. A microeconomy to distribute goods to community pockets, providing a living to a chain of resellers. But infrastructure in many areas is poor. Education is valued but I’m not sure about the systems or access.

Yes it is a communist country but they say with a free market. You see major brands building large factories taking advantage of the wide open space and eager workforce. The big hotels are starting to arrive and the prestige of brand name consumer goods tug at thin wallets.

Development brings jobs but also destruction of greenspaces, something that is at the heart of this country. I am not an expert but collectively there is something worrying here.

And yet, how can we help? So far, I’ve been exposed to small ways. I’m traveling with Intrepid Travel which promotes responsible travel. They support local causes (like Blue Dragon) with funding and exposure through their tours. Intrepid is a large Australian tour organization and very supportive of east Asia. I understand from my travel mates that Aussies are culturally a very compassionate people. I see that in the way these folks travel and interact with respect for the land and its people.

I’m sure this is just one of many developing countries and that the situations are similiar. So the question is “how can we help?” They want good jobs here or elsewhere. They want good education here or elsewhere. But there’s more that we can give in the way of knowledge, support and connections.

It is my next journey of discovery – how to help beyond the borders of my city and country.

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