Before yesterday I had never visited a shelter home as part of a corporate social responsibility initiative, in all my four years of corporate existence. Yesterday, along with a group of volunteers, I paid a half day’s visit to Cheshire Homes’ Delhi Unit to interact with its residents, differently-abled persons. Now I’m not sure how or what changed in me that helped make up my mind for volunteering, but I decided I would go a few moments after receiving a call for volunteering via email. Perhaps it was the apparent approachability of the venue that made me think, “sure, I can give it a shot.” I received the email from our company’s CSR club calling for donations (small, big items) and spending some quality time with people who need it the most. I signed up immediately.
Even when it was two weeks away, I was excited for the visit, for it was going to be a whole new experience for me, personally and professionally. I searched my room for donate-able items, and found some—a couple of unused soaps, shaving gel, and mosquito repellent machines. I dropped these items in the donation box arranged for in our office cafeteria.
Knowing that my office’s CSR club was not particularly known for proper planning, I wasn’t surprised to find out a day before the visit that all volunteers would have to arrange for their own travel. What surprised me was the lack of any defined schedule of events for the visit. What all we were told was that we were going to “spread happiness”. How?—that was a debatable matter, or, as it turned out, the organizers didn’t care about sharing it. Anyway, I reached at the venue, by my own, on time.
I woke up early in the morning and was ready to leave by 8.30am. I took the Yellow-line metro, and changed course from Central Secretariat. Boy! how crowded was the first station of Violet line I cannot express in words, for there were seemingly more people on the platform than there are words in this blog post. It took me close to total two hours in transit, and I was at Cheshire Home at 10.15am. The place impressed me at first sight.
Situated in a posh New Delhi region, Cheshire Home is an expansive shelter home for the under-privileged. The place is more than fifty years old and yet is clean and well-maintained. From a brochure I got from the place, I came to know that it is one in a series of many Cheshire Homes across the globe, a chain founded by Lord Leonard Cheshire. There are 25 Cheshire Homes in India, the Delhi unit being the largest one. Cheshire Home Delhi was established by Major General Virendra Singh in 1957. It has been visited by and received praises from such luminaries as Sonia Gandhi, AB Vajpayee, SD Sharma and PV Narashima Rao. While walking through its passages, it was immediately clear to me why it had been so popular among the biggies.
The campus has a good amount of uncovered area around the main building so that it doesn’t feel restricted. There is a biggish garden near the front gate, and an ample room for the residents to roam around the place. Around 10.30am, we entered the building and were straightaway led by a Cheshire Home personnel—whose name I don’t know, and so whom I’ll call Cherry from now on—to the main hall to the left. It’s a large hall, and at the time was preoccupied with a few wheelchair-ridden adult residents. I quickly scanned through the entire room from left to right—a stage, a music system , a large LCD television (on the stage), a large portrait of Maj. Gen. Virendra Singh, cardio machines, multi-purpose exercisers, an emergency room, a set of table and chairs, a wall clock and a sofa set; the residents were surely saved from getting bored. There was silence in the hall, but none of the residents’ faces were gloomy. It was as if there was an anticipation of something exciting to happen.
Once we were all inside the hall, Cherry delivered a short introductory message and gave the dos and don’ts of interacting with the mentally challenged residents. “You can now start interacting with the patients and giving them your love”, Cherry said, ending his message. For a couple minutes nobody of the volunteers moved, for it was not clear what was exactly expected of us. Blame it on the organizing group! While there was confusion among the first-time volunteers, the CSR club members set out to prepare for the first event. I walked up to one of them and asked about the plan.
“How does it go from here, Gaurav?”, I asked him politely.
“There will be a coloring activity to begin with. We’re told that some children, from the day care center, would be visiting the hall in a few minutes.”
“Sounds good. Please let me know how I can help”, I offered my assistance on seeing some coloring sheets in his hands.
“For now we’re covered, but we’ll let you know.”
I walked up to a couple acquaintances I had made while waiting outside. “So what’s the plan? What did he say?”, Ashish quizzed me. “We are about to start with a coloring activity”, I replied. Moments later there was noise, chatter and excitement in the hall, for a large group of children had just been ushered in. Cherry, assisted by a handful of more personnel, gradually settled the kids on the carpet in front of the center-stage. The CSR guys, who had finished distributing sheets and crayons to the adult members, were now handing out these to the just arrived gang of kids. As I did not have any sheets to hand out, I plunged into the nearest group of kids.
Each had one two-sided coloring sheet and one or two crayons. All the kids were so immersed in the task of connecting the dots and coloring the empty figures that they hardly noticed my presence, except for one who had yet to begin. I asked him for his name and the child replied. He spoke in a distinctive, illegible voice. I asked again. This time I was able to catch the first three letters of his name, so I called him that—Nav. The dots were numbered from 1 to 100, and the kids were instructed by Home personnels to connect in order. But Nav had other plans. He started with the dot numbered 11, but proceeded in order after that. I told him to connect 1 to 11 as well, and he immediately complied. Now he knew I was there to help him.
Each time after connecting a few dots, he would ask for my approval and I would nod in acceptance. It was the figure of a boy, playing basket ball, on his sheet. As soon as Nav was finished connecting the dots on the outline of the boy, he sat down upright with a sense of victory and proclaimed he had finished the thing. His moment of truth came when I told him that what he had done was just the first step; next, he was required to fill colors inside the picture. Upon this realization, he quickly identified an area in the picture to start with, and began coloring the boy’s hair in black.
Meanwhile I had a look around to see what the other kids were up to. Most were busy coloring randomly inside and outside the figures on their sheets. Some were just not interested in this activity at all and sat watching the others color. One particularly mischievous boy hopped from one place to another, teasing the busy kids on his way. This boy, whose name was later revealed to me as Robin, couldn’t speak but was no less naughty.
Nav was in the middle of filling green color into the little boy on his sheet when Robin suddenly snatched it away from him. Nav groaned and pleaded me to get it back. I snatched the sheet back from Robin and sat him down. While Nav got back to work, I made sure Robin sat obediently. I gave him a spare sheet to color, but he forthright rejected it. Time and again, he would reach out to Nav or other little kids in our vicinity and slap them. I would then tickle the little prick until he was down on the ground again. He would then try to grab my spectacles, and I would clutch his hands. It was fun!
My regularly giving tips and advising Nav made him feel good about his work. He would show me his progress every three minutes or so. Seeing him do that, the other kids around us would also come rushing to me—“is mine looking good?”, “how is this, bhaiya?”, “please help me too”. I responded to each request, and that felt great. Lashi went through her sheet lazily while Nimmi got hers completed with such finesse that I was awed by it. She had completed both sides of the sheet! And then there was affable Kaka, the only Sikh among the lot. His was a drawing of a guitarist on top of which Kaka had written his name in big letters. There was a group of ladies, not far away, who raised their sheets to show me. I responded with a thumbs up and a ‘great job’. They responded back with a thumbs up each.
One of the volunteers had brought with him a high-end DSLR camera. He moved from kid to kid to take shots of them and their work. I noticed that the kids had a special attraction for getting clicked. When the camera guy came to my side, I asked Nav to display his progress thus far in front of the camera; it felt like promoting the work of my protégé. Nav, Robin, Lashi, Nimmi and two more quickly sprang to their feet. They all held their sheets in front of the camera as a model would do with a product in an advertisement. Each smiled a singular smile.
When the coloring activity was over, the CSR club members started distributing chart papers to groups of children, again without involving the other volunteers. I approached one of the club members and offered my help. Soon I was cutting colorful pictures of sceneries, celebrities, gadgets, and the like from old newspapers. These cuttings were to be used by the residents to create collages on their chart sheets. I made a handy contribution of 10-15 cuttings and went back to see how everyone was faring.
This time, I involved myself more with the adult residents. I praised their work and shook hands with them. The kids were all busy pasting the cuttings on to their sheets, with glue in hands. The most creative creations were being made by the residents around the table. Many volunteers were gathered there to witness the articulation of thoughts on paper by some senior members of the Home. I myself found those collages amusing, particularly the one that was completely on politics, a build up to the fast approaching Delhi Assembly elections. The collage activity got over sooner than the previous one.
Before the last activity was to begin, someone arranged for a mic and soon the residents were singing songs and reciting poems through loudspeakers. It was heart-warming to see them express themselves freely through the mic. The kids were clamoring for a chance to sing, and it was good to see that all who ventured to speak up got the chance.
The last activity, as announced by Cherry, was dancing with the residents. All arrangements had been made, and a soft music had started playing, but it was suddenly decided to give more residents a change to sing. Nimmi sang one song and recited two poems. Soon it was time for the kids to move back to the day care center, from where they had come. As they came so they went, and silence filled the hall again.
After consulting each other, the CSR club members picked up their bags and moved out. We followed them, and were soon led to the Cheshire Home handicrafts shop. The shop was an opportunity to financially support the Home. Once again I was awed by the quality of workmanship that was reflecting off of all things hand-made by the residents. The items were fairly priced; in fact, they’d have sold for double the price in a spanky urban mall. I picked up a diary for my purpose, and I so much love the quality of paper it encloses. I paid Rs. 150 for the diary, and left the shop.
Now it was time to leave the place. Time had elapsed so quickly that it could easily be one of the shortest three hours of my life. On my way out, I saw lunch being taken from the kitchen to the residents. The shelter home once more impressed me, this time with the quality of food it served to its occupants. I picked up a brochure of the place, and out I went.
We all read and hear about such places in books and news, but to witness one first-hand is a truly life-changing experience. You get to know about the lifestyle and daily routines of the under-privileged few who have been ignored by the rest of the world. I would certainly be visiting more such homes in future!