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Yuva Pragati USA / Volunteer Experiences  / Youth Wellness Camps – If I were a Poet

Youth Wellness Camps – If I were a Poet

A Poetic Account of Youth Wellness Camp Experience

– by Amit Akkad, a volunteer from Boston (2012)

This is the story of a satisfying, elevating and enriching experience I had at two Youth Wellness Camps in Gujarat, India, organized by Volunteers and Doctors from USA in collaboration with local NGOs in January 2012. It played out in the deep rural villages of India that no one equates with the progressive India. But, it is its heart and soul, as it represents 70%+ of Indian population and much of its landmass. Villages of India are beautiful, we visited some of them: Kureliya, Lachhakadi and Vansda (in South Gujarat); Bhimora, Amrapur, Ambardi and Ghela Somnath (in Saurashtra). Most attendees at the camp were physicians from the U.S. and local volunteers. They focused on attending to the health of more than 2,500 rural school children over 2 weeks. I, on the other hand not being a physician, had the opportunity to interact with these children, their teachers, organizers and local villagers.

The most rewarding experience was being with the “nature”. The serene beauty of these rural villages was captivating. The landscape – the hills, untouched forests, cultivated fields, beautiful trees, vegetable and fruit plants, flowers and bushes, colorful sand, the occasional stream – combined with the villagers – their colorful dresses, wall colors, paintings and writings on these walls – create a beautiful tapestry in my mind. Sitting under a tree in the coolness of its shadow and talking with the children was a heavenly experience. At night, it was a pleasure to see so many bright stars.

And the children! They drew us in like a magnet. They were raw, impressionable, innocent, eager, always smiling. They were the reason we went there, and we fell in love with them. Of course, on the surface, they were shy. They are taught to be that way. But, deep within – like all children- they were not. They were playful, inquisitive and endearing. They were as pristine as the landscape around them. If nothing else, just being with them would have made the whole trip worthwhile. I spent most of my time talking to them. It was a 2-way conversation. I engaged them through questions. The themes that ran across all this dialogue were: inspiration, courage, knowledge, behavior and good/healthy living. There were hundreds of questions from them on a wide variety of subjects, including life in America. Some children also sang. Local folklore all the time – no influence of  bollywood whatsoever. Children in Amrapur also asked me to sing an “English” song – they had never heard one before.

As expected, these villagers were poor, lacking good nutrition, hygiene, sanitation, (higher) education as well as many comforts of modern life (TV, Computers, etc.), with the exception of mobile phones. They lived a hard-working and active life, because laziness was not an option. They were incredibly personable, respectful, soft-spoken and (borrowing a word from our world) cool! I can honestly say that I saw happiness all around. Some observations about these people: Families are big (4 to 8 children) which contributes to poverty. I was surprised to find that there is no “dowry” for marriage. In fact, the boy’s family gives the girl (bride) some gold (pallu), which becomes her property for life – a lifelong fall back in case of need. Gutka is a problem in Saurashtra. Drinking is not as prevalent as I had thought. Not much influence of religion or God. People are generally trusting of each other, and the environment is pretty safe.

I also got to meet some enlightening people. Bhagubhai Darji – a soft-spoken, publicity shy Gandhian and doyen of Ashram Shalas in South Gujarat; Gulabbhai and Ushaben Jani of Sister Nivedita Trust in Rajkot, who have done enormous work in educating children, especially in rural areas. I also got to know some of their staff that has worked tirelessly all through their lives – not just for a few years – towards the same goal. Dr. Kishorbhai Mistry who, after 20+ years in the U.S., now lives in Baroda, giving free medical service to its slum dwellers. These people are symbols of many such unknown stalwarts that have dedicated their lives to the upliftment of people all over the world. We can only bow to them and seek their blessings.

The backdrop of this experience was “freedom”. I was surrounded by successful doctors and volunteers. But, nobody had a personal agenda or an axe to grind. Nobody had anything to show, and nobody to show to. We were all there to see, observe, experience, give and enjoy. This was total freedom from ego (well, almost), which brought out the best in all. Another dimension of this backdrop was “Gujarat” and “India” – the motherland to all of us at the camp. This was the Gujarat of Siddharaj Jaysinh (Solanki), Munjal Mehta, Kak and Manjari. This was the India of Gandhiji and Sardar Patel. I was happy to be in the lap of the mother. I saw everything that was familiar (a physical illusion) – or, felt familiar (the mental truth). What else could be more comforting?

Along with the familiar motherland came the lovely food, served with warmth and well-known rural hospitality – not the exotic kind, but the simple, tasteful, everyday Gujarati food, along with a variety of fruits – jambu, shingoda, peru, aamla & other familiar varieties. This was heaven for such an indulgence. It is worth noting that the schools that served us food do not have enough money, and their children hardly get to eat such food; but, the hospitality of these noble people transcends everything.

There was plenty of icing on the cake: The welcoming ceremonies and breakfast at every school, every morning, without fail; the painstakingly prepared (4+ hour) cultural program by the children at Kureliya; the courageous girls of Vanchan Shibir who spoke in public for 10 minutes without any notes; the marvelous Ambubhai (teaching for 29 years) who conducted Vanchan Shibir and who had the children laughing and jumping; visiting the king’s palace at Vansda; interesting conversations with the Adivasi “doctors” who had come for training at the BAIF Training Center (and Guest House) in Lachhakadi; taking a tour of this training and research center, its fields, mango and cashew plantations and processing plants; buying some exotic stuff at their little store; taking a tour of the Okra field with a farmer and meeting his family; marveling at the farmer’s son climbing up a tree and shaking lose several bors (fruit) to the ground so we could eat them right away (we did – so sweet and juicy); the generosity of teachers at Ambardi Ashram Shala, who gave their scarce food to the 1st grade children of another school at 3 p.m. when they realized that those children had been hungry since morning. The serene beauty of Ghela Somnath and mesmerizing sunset on the way there; the keen ear of the driver in Saurashtra – who never missed a word of his passengers in the midst of the engine noise; the singing by all of us in the bus as we traveled through beautiful landscapes; the sincerity, dedication and hard work of local organizers at both camps; the enormous dedication of young volunteers in all places – especially the passion of the young pharmacist in Saurashtra; the dedication and desire for service among the visiting doctors, many of whom have been doing this for years; and the endless conversations with the doctors about life and its beauty – and the ensuing friendships.

Finally, a picture that vividly sticks with me is that of the children giving us high-fives (well, I had to show them) when we met them every morning, and when we left them in the evening, underscoring the feeling that we come and go, but our bonds will stay for ever; and my own desire and wish that they will dream, and be inspired to fulfill that dream, and one day become whatever they want to be in life.

I was glad to be in heaven, in the midst of the beautiful, pristine, rural India and its people. If I were a poet, I would write an epic; if I were an artist, I would paint a masterpiece. But, at the moment, this is the best I can do.