“Aunty! Aunty! You see me!” Ragavan confidently clutches the handles of a new, pink jump rope and makes sure I’m giving my full attention. With all the strength his UKG (Indian kindergarten) muscles can muster, he whips the rope over his head and takes a courageous leap, only to trip for the twentieth time and go tumbling into the grass in a fit of laughter. The rope is a bit too long, but before I can adjust it, he yells, “Bye, Aunty!” and goes scampering off to show another volunteer his skills. Technically, the shiny new toy doesn’t belong to Ragavan—an older student bought the jump rope from the “Star Store,” Rising Star’s weekly rewards system where students redeem good behavior points for candy, small toys and other fun items. Every item purchased is treasured by the kids, but this doesn’t mean they hide it away to keep it safe. Out here when you value something, you share it. The older student, Gokul, only had a few minutes with his jump rope before willingly letting Ragavan run wild with it.
Valentine’s Day passed quietly here, but the holiday had us all thinking about what it means to give and receive love. Kids at Rising Star Outreach share everything with each other, and they give just as freely to volunteers. Not a day passes without a student trying to give me his/hers pencil, snack or jewelry. Of course I kindly refuse, instead welcoming gifts of affection, stories and talents. The kids are always putting on a show for us. Play time features daily performances of songs, headstands and swings across the monkey bars, me and the other volunteers always serving as an elated audience. While soaking in these moments with them, I can’t help but think about home and how things are different. In the states we often show people we love them with chocolates, greeting cards and expensive gifts. But here in rural India, volunteers and students have few materials to give, so instead we give ourselves.
Though Valentine’s Day is not celebrated here, we did an activity with the kids where they each drew a name and wrote a kind note to another student. As I explained the activity to my hostel of boys, I forgot where I was for a moment and said things like “No switching names” and “No mean words in your notes.” Then I watched them each light up as they drew the name of a fellow student and carefully crafted a message of love and friendship. When their own notes were delivered, each child was delighted to see what his brother or sister in the neighboring hostel wrote. After reading and re-reading their valentines, each was placed in a pocket or flattened within the pages of a school notebook for safe keeping. I’ve not seen a more openly loving and kind-hearted group of people in my life. I would take a hug from a Rising Star kid over a pound of See’s candy any day!
This activity and many others are making the 2013 volunteer season a remarkable one. In addition to a slew of special visitors, we are on our second official volunteer session of the year. Five lovely women from all over the US are participating in this group, and they cannot believe it’s almost over. Time passes quickly when your days are filled with joyful service, and their fast-approaching departure has everyone desperate to get as much time with the kids and leprosy patients as possible. The Valentine’s Day activity took place during Prayer Time, a special evening program that our volunteers have begun participating in this year. Every night, each volunteer is assigned to a hostel of boys or girls. The volunteer prepares a message for the children, and then they talk, play games and sing songs. I’ve heard it describe as the “magic hour;” it is a spiritual time when the volunteers get to know the students and connect with them on a deeper level.
One of our volunteers invited her hostels to share their “life story” for Prayer Time, which isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Each person shares some simple details about him or herself, including what brought them to Rising Star Outreach. On one particular evening in a girls’ hostel, the eldest child in the house was Soniya, a tenth standard student working diligently to prepare for her final exams. Like many at Rising Star, Soniya comes from a leprosy-affected family. In Prayer Time, she expressed her dream to become a doctor. She said that her father has always supported her pursuit of a medical career. “He told me I should become a doctor. He said that he can’t help people like him, but I can. That’s why it’s such a blessing for me to be at Rising Star. My father may not be able to help, but I can make a difference.” Soniya’s father has suffered from leprosy for many years. His extraordinarily bright and hard-working daughter represents a pivotal chance to break the cycle of pain and poverty. Soniya recognizes this unprecedented opportunity, and we all know she will not let it pass her by.