Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Leaving the slum for a day of fun

Our bus entered a large, dusty, debris-filled clearing on the outskirts of the Kalva slums. It was Sunday morning and the slums were teeming with people, buffalo, dilapidated auto-rickshaws and wild boar. The decrepit bus had difficulty maneuvering on the one-lane dirt road, but eventually we made it to the group of people we had planned to meet. Thirty children were huddled together in the middle of the clearing, oblivious to the commotion around them and visibly excited to see the bus heading towards them, some standing on the balls of their feet to get a better view of THEIR bus. For most of the children, today would be their first time on a bus, and for all but one child, it would be the first time out of the slums.

‘Fun Day’ is a special program for the children living in the slums of Mumbai that is taking place as part of The JDC-GPM Internship Program, a joint initiative of JDC India and Gabriel Project Mumbai supported by the local NGO, REAP. The JDC-GPM Internship Program is an innovative new four-month long volunteer opportunity for young Jewish Indian professionals and undergraduate students to work with the children of the Mumbai slums. In this program, participants make a meaningful difference and a positive impact on the lives of youth living in the slums of Mumbai through an organized program of social and learning experiences. While REAP’s dedicated teachers provide professional formal education, the participants of the JDC-GPM Internship Program provide an informal, motivational setting to encourage social and personal growth for children with limited opportunities. The brainchild of JDC Country Director for India, Mandie Winston, this program is the first initiative that brings together young Indian Jews and Jewish volunteers from around the world to collaborate on providing literacy and nutrition support in the Mumbai slums. Find out more about The JDC-GPM Internship Program here

With enormous smiles and lots of giggling, the children aged 7-12 found their seats on the bus. The first thing the GPM volunteers – who teach the children on a day-to-day basis – noticed is that the children had put on their finest clothing for this special day. They were wearing the outfits they used for festivals, adorned with plastic costume jewelry, and combed their hair. It was apparent that their families and/or the children felt that this was indeed a special day, and I prayed that we would not disappoint them!

The bus ventured out of the slums and picked up Jennifer, Leora and Shamir, three Fellows of the The JDC-GPM Internship Program as well as Salome Abraham Program Coordinator for Young Adults, JDC India. Later we were joined by Tahl Mayer, Global JSC fellow at JDC. GPM staff, Sigalith and Hayley as well as GPM international volunteers, Erin, Josh, Jessica and Debra also participated.

We arrived at Upvan Lake, Thane. The location was perfect and the children were fascinated with the beautiful, serene site. Immediately, the Indian Jewish youth took control and split the group into three teams. They would be working together as teams in fun and challenging activities. The ulterior motive for all the games was to teach how to play with others, team building and camaraderie. The program was well-structured. Games and challenges were well-thought-out and the children thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The children were encouraged to use their imaginations, work together as a team and enjoy the day. The JDC had sponsored a wonderful nutritious breakfast and a nourishing lunch and the children loved the cake dessert which added to the joyful feeling in the air.

The saddest part of the day was when we were nearing its end. It looked like the children wanted to stay longer and although we were really tired, we wanted to stay longer with the beautiful children as well. Back on the bus a ten-year-old girl nestling her head on the shoulder of one of the Indian Jewish youth asked, “Why did you waste so much money on us today? The bus, so much good food and the games must have cost a lot of money. Why didn’t you just take the money and spend it on yourselves?” What followed was to me the best part of the day: the volunteer replied, “Because you are so special and we wanted to be with you!”

I think the JDC youth and GPM volunteers are so special giving the children living in the slums the message that they are important, that they can follow their dreams and can achieve greatness.

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