It was just three miles away from my grandpa’s house in suburban Noida near Delhi, India. But it seemed to be a different world.
I was wading through the narrow and crowded alleys of the slum adjacent to the biggest market of the city. A young woman, who earns her living by ironing clothes under a roadside tent, guided me through the maze of small houses and shacks to the local school for underprivileged kids.
I was in India to spend the summer with my family, and I was keen to work with kids in this community. On my way, I half-smiled at half-clothed children playing in dirt and wondered what would be the best way to connect with them.
As I entered the ramshackle school, a bubbly 10-12 year old girl flashed a big smile and greeted me “Hello didi (Hindi for Elder sister). Nice to meet you”. Other kids – some younger and some a little older—were quick to join her. It wasn’t easy to miss the warmth and enthusiasm as these kids took turns to talk to me. These kids are easily the friendliest people I have ever met.
I joined a classroom to observe the kids and understand how the place functioned. I sat with the group of 20 kids and their teacher, a former student, barely 20 years old. He was teaching them verbs.
“Why did you miss last two classes,” he asked a boy, who was struggling with answers. “My father asked me to go to work,” the boy pleaded. And they spend next ten minutes, trying to figure out how to juggle work and studies. The teacher seemed as interested in their studies as their personal life and they spent a lot of time discussing their injuries and their problems with parents.
The trust system build between the children and the volunteers truly fascinated me. They seemed to be a group of close best friends. There were no inhibitions and nobody was self-conscious.
Connecting with them was much easier than I could ever have imagined. In fact, I didn’t need to do anything; they knew how to connect with me. It was great fun to watch them prepare for a show they were putting up for the local families on Indian Independence Day. As I photographed the show, the children were jostling and shoving each other to make sure they were in the picture. I already felt close enough to mildly scold them and tell them to behave.
I suddenly realized that they had taught me to connect with people I didn’t know too well and had very little in common.
Clearly, I learned much more than what I taught them. I don’t volunteer to give back to society anymore; I just look for learning experiences.
Vancha Verma, born in India, is a high school student in New Jersey. Fascinated and intrigued by technology, she loves to play with computer code. She worked as an intern at Spotify this summer. While working at a school in a Noida slum in 2012, she discovered the misinformation and stigma around female hygiene. She is hoping to develop education technology and tools that will adapt to the needs of underprivileged kids and adolescents.