This week I began working in a new placement with CCS, a special needs school. The school provides services for kids as young as three and most of the older students are in their late teens or early twenties, though there is one student who is in his thirties. The school provides education, therapy, and meals for this sensitive and marginalized population. They are able to provide these services at a very low tuition for the students (and also many generous scholarships and grants). However, they are severely understaffed and dangerously low on funds, so I have joined the microfinance team with fellow volunteers Hillary and ZiZi to try and raise funds to help the school become sustainable. We’re working on marketing crafts the kids make in the local markets with plans to expand into an online shop. Keep your eyes peeled for updates about this!!
The school itself is really awesome. Perched on top of a hill with a nice dirt yard for the kids to play in, it serves as a haven for the children. Each morning as we walk into the school, we’re treated like rock stars because all the kids and teachers are so happy to see us. This place is one of the happiest I have ever been to—everyone is laughing and smiling and really enjoying life. It’s not what I expected at all, and I was pleasantly blown away!
The students all fall in different locations on the special needs spectrum, and it’s amazing to see what these kids have already accomplished—some are learning to write and count, several are studying English, many can dance and sing, one is a gifted painter, and several have competed in the International Special Olympics! With the proper care and guidance, these kids can do a lot with their lives.
My current task is to create a promotional video for the school to hopefully gain international attention for their outstanding service and garner some much needed funding. I’ll be sure to share once it’s completed!
As for the rest of my week…
Monday, we talked to a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Lakdor Lama, and learned a lot about the Tibetan exile from China-Occupied-Tibet and Buddhism in general. He stressed that the key to life is to “maximize happiness, live in accordance to harmony with nature, and minimize suffering.” He also urged us to bring a message back to the States: “What is important is to be a good person, monk or not. Religion is a luxury, but kindness, humility, and compassion are necessary.” Let’s all try to remember this.
It was also America’s Independence Day Monday, and the CCS staff surprised us with chicken hotdogs, mashed potatoes, baked beans, s’mores, and a special cake! Plus, they had firecrackers for us to enjoy. It was such a special and thoughtful gesture that I’ll definitely remember.
On Tuesday, we visited the Norbulingka Institute, a workshop-style place dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture in its literary and artistic forms. They pass down centuries-old techniques of thangka painting, wood carving, and many others, via apprenticeships for Tibetan students. They also offer daily classes for visitors, so I’m hoping to attend one sometime before I leave.
On the Norbulingka campus, there is a Buddhist temple we were able to visit. Housed within in is a 14-foot tall hand-casted statue of Buddha that was magnificent. Surrounding the statue were several grouping of seven bowls of water, called “yonchap” in Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhists often offer water instead of money because water in Tibet has traditionally been considered plentiful and free, therefore painless to give and accessible for all. The idea is that all offerings should be given as freely as water. I think we can all stand to learn a little something from them.
We went to the Kangra Fort on Wednesday. It is the oldest fort in India and the largest fort in the Himalayas. Walking among the crumbling remains of the stone walls made it easy to forget I was in the twenty-first century and not the fifteenth, and I felt we could have easily been walking in a medieval European castle instead of an Indian fort! Hundreds of steps later, we made it to the very top, where we could see down into the Kangra Valley. It was lovely and obviously ripe for photographic plundering!
Thursday, a few of us ventured up the mountain to McLeodGanj to do some shopping and visit the Dalai Lama’s temple (happy 81st b-day, btw). It was very humble in both size and content, which is how temples should be, in my opinion. Inside, there were offerings of yonchap, milk, and honey. No, I haven’t seen the Dalai Lama yet, but I’m still holding out!
The next day, we visited a shoe cobbler in hopes that he could fix my ripped bag. Fifteen minutes later, he had it stitched up and in better condition than it was bought and my favorite bag was saved! The importance of handcrafts in India is amazing. Everyone has their specialty and they do it so well. We saw an elephant roaming the streets soon after. Just another day in India! We also said goodbye to three volunteers. They will be missed!
Saturday night, a bunch of us went to a hotel restaurant to listen to a local band play music. Himalayan Mountain Band sounded great and the guys were all very friendly and welcoming. They played a variety of music, from popular Indian hits to classic American rock. (They even played some Guns N’ Roses and Pink Floyd, so I was very happy!!) A fellow volunteer, Rich, hopped on stage and sang “Sweet Home Alabama” with them. It was a great night.
On Sunday, we planned to go paragliding at the site of the World Paragliding Championship in Bir, but it was too foggy. Instead, we headed up to McLeod and ate lunch at a cool place, Mc’Llo. One of my fellow volunteers, Maria, invited a friend to meet up with us (he also plays in the Himalayan Mountain Band) and he led us to an old Anglican church built in 1852, St. John in the Wilderness. It was so odd visiting a church in this land of temples and mosques and seeing crosses and stained glass depicting Christian imagery. The church was very peaceful and the cemetery nearby was draped in a blanket of green moss. I have gotten so used to India’s inherent foreignness, that visiting here was oddly foreign to me.
All in all, it’s been a nice week.