When rich kids do social work

When rich kids do social work
9 Sep 2007, 0004 hrs IST,Sharmila Ganesan,TNN

Whenever college students approach Lawrence Hardinge with the request to volunteer in his NGO, he issues them a friendly warning – "If you have nothing to do, please don’t do it here." Some take offence, others return. By now, Hardinge is able to judge students by their reaction. He runs an NGO for street kids, and is familiar with the mindsets of these teenagers in branded T-shirts and piercing. They come from a college nearby to volunteer twice or thrice every week because social work is a compulsory part of their curriculum. Once they complete the stipulated number of ‘hours’ assigned by the college, they receive a grade and the good work is later immortalised on their resumes. Somewhere in the bargain, Hardinge knows social work is at the risk of being exploited by affluent kids who are in the hunt for not only mandatory grades but also cool resumes.

As most of the student volunteers hail from rich backgrounds, they are not ready for the sudden exposure to the world of carefree, toothless street kids. As a result, some of them end up throwing tantrums. For instance, it is a protocol for every volunteer to wash the dishes after the kids have finished their meals. But he recalls a teenaged girl, the cousin of a noted Bollywood actor, who made a face at the prospect and refused to touch the plates.

Increasingly, authorities in several NGOs, orphanages, and old age homes are forced to come up with tactics to keep such volunteers from wasting their time. They know that these are the days when social work has effectively replaced things like badminton and swimming in the space next to the extra-curricular activities column of the modern CV. Human Resource executives at NGOs have to constantly reject candidates who come with requests of brief volunteership. "We turn them down as it’s not easy to build a relationship with kids in such a short duration," says Thinizia Lobo, an HR executive at an NGO for street kids.

The few who are allowed to serve have to attend an orientation lecture. Here, the accented teens go through various stages of enlightenment. Bombarded by images of poverty that their petrol expenditure can abolish, they are overcome by a genuine desire for charity and begin to get chocolates and clothes for the kids. But they are dissuaded by the coordinators who ask them to "stop acting like Santa."

There are many anonymous, faceless donor but what NGOs really need and value is time. "So we ask them to give other incentives to kids like smileys in their notebooks for doing their home-work," says a lady coordinator at a south Mumbai college, who does not wish to be named.

NGOs find an inherent difference between student volunteers from institutions dedicated to social work and these rich students. The former mix naturally with street kids, while the latter think twice before administering first aid to urchins or touching them. Swati Shah of Akanksha remembers a girl from an international school in Mumbai, who volunteered at the institution only because her friends had done so. "She would not participate in group activities like songs and would always be aloof." She stopped coming eventually.

Also, students from rich schools who have to do social work for educational reasons get easily frustrated with street kids. They curse the children for not turning up at a malaria awareness presentation without realising that it was scheduled at the same time when the watertap in the vicinity starts to function. But the kids are used to the drill. They know that these didis and bhaiyas are not going to be around for long. So, they do not mind giving them a hard time.

Many times, the farcical side of Indian youth’s social work becomes a bit too evident. Two years ago, this reporter attended a session where around 20 mass media students of a south Mumbai college were teaching street kids how to paint. It was part of their effort to impress an international NGO that was shortlisting candidates for a foreign internship. They had invited journalists and shot video footage, where the girls carried children around, let them spoil their T-shirts with paint and scolded them at the right moments. At the end of the session, one girl warned reporters that the urchins will ask for their mobile numbers and that they should not melt and give them. "They will call you everyday. They call us in the middle of the night for no reason," one student said. As an afterthought, she added, "We are being selfless for a selfish reason."

NGOs agree that even though rich students do social work for very material reasons, the experience eventually moves some of them deeply. Like the girl who was surprised to see her father receive undue attention at an orphanage for girls. The little ones hugged him and kissed him, as they had hardly ever seen a man around. Another time, students who had volunteered at Cama Hospital, were asked to deliver a thermocol box (meant for newborns) to an address. After some desperate searches, they realised that the address was just a nook in the pavement. They were shaken to meet first hand a whole family that lived on the road. After such moments, they invariably resolve to spend less on clothes or be good to their mothers. But they pass the ultimate test of character only when the time comes when they have to leave their cell phone numbers with the NGOs for future use.

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