Photo: Sarah Blumberg, the author and her cohort shown in front of the Ashte village Community Center
The children turned attentively and chorused “Good Morning, Teacher!” as we entered the room. Students sat cross-legged on the floor with their school bags splayed around the perimeter. One class excitedly recited the “continent” song for us and another class eagerly showed us the motions to “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes”. Even that first day, it was easy to lose ourselves in the children’s bright smiles and laughter. Yet, it was impossible to miss the faded plastic bags instead of backpacks, sparse classrooms, and assignments completed with the last stubs of pencils. There were about twenty children in each class, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years. A few students looked younger than their classmates; their growth stunted from malnutrition. The building was multi-use, the classrooms doubly serving as GPM’s Shravan Health clinic and Naya Women’s paper recycling initiative. We had arrived for our first day at the Gabriel Project Mumbai Love2Learn classrooms.
On winter break from the LBJ School, I travelled to Mumbai as a volunteer English teacher for children living in the Kalwa slums. Working with these children provided a meaningful opportunity for me to use my newly learned skills from the LBJ School and to gain hands-on experience in my policy interests of international development and food security. My cohort of seven young women- two from Argentina and five from the U.S.- had been in Mumbai for less than a week when we trekked to the Kalwa slums to introduce ourselves to the students. We were jet-lagged, but the eagerness clearly visible on the children’s faces gave us purpose.
We came to India with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Entwine initiative, a one-of-a-kind movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues, in partnership with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM). Founded in 2012 by Jacob Sztokman, GPM works to advance social justice and alleviate poverty by providing literacy, hunger relief, and medical care to children living in the slums of Mumbai. JDC, which works in 70 countries globally, is the world’s largest Jewish humanitarian relief group.
During the three-week program, we developed an informal education curriculum for 10 lessons and divided into two teams to co-lead 24 classes, including four classes in Ashte village, a community a few hours outside Mumbai. Mid-morning, two or three women, hired as part of GPM’s hunger relief initiative, entered the makeshift classrooms with food preparations piled high on their heads. The children rushed to fill up their containers and then ran off to their homes. The health care professionals arrived to clean and prepare the rooms, and just like that, the rooms transformed from classrooms to GPM’s Shravan health center. Another classroom upstairs transformed to the paper recycling center.
In Mumbai, we lived on the third-floor of a small Jewish guesthouse situated within a compound in the bustling Byculla neighborhood. Each morning, around 6:00am, we would wake up and get ready for the day. By 7:00am we were out the door. It was about a mile walk to the train station with one major intersection to cross. When we finally reached the train station, even with travel apps, the train times and platforms were subject to change. On several occasions, we found ourselves waiting at platform 1, only to scramble to platform 3 to catch the train in time. These were open trains, meaning that they had no doors, and travelers jumped on and off, sometimes risking their lives climbing on top of the trains or walking across the train tracks. After we reached the Kalwa station, we rode in rickshaws, three-wheeled hooded vehicles. We would ride for ten to fifteen minutes to get to the heart of the Kalwa slums where the classes were held. We passed mountains of trash, roaming wild animals, and people burning scraps of trash to build fires. At times, the pollution and smells seemed overwhelming. I wound my scarf tightly around my nose and mouth for most of the ride.
At the school, we developed an engaging curriculum to keep the children active with limited supplies. There was a small store on the walk to the train station, but it only carried general supplies like posters and tape. A few of those lessons will forever be ingrained in my memory. One day I mixed red, yellow, and blue paints in various combinations to demonstrate the importance of primary colors. The children’s eyes grew wide as they saw the colors transform before their eyes. Another day they learned parts of the body by attempting to pin a selected body part word, such as “elbow,” onto the correct part of a human outline while blindfolded. As part of this same lesson, we taught students the “Hokey Pokey”. The children were having such a blast that we decided to repeat these lessons when we went to Ashte. Each lesson would end the same way with children yelling “Goodbye teacher, goodbye teacher,” then gathering around us to initiate their favorite secret handshakes. Coincidentally the handshakes always began with the “hook’em horns” sign.
Volunteering with the children in the slums of Mumbai was an unforgettable experience. In three short weeks it is impossible to know if I personally made an impact, but the ongoing program, with its focus on the education and health of one community, certainly has. I only skimmed the surface of understanding the complexity of their lives and was only involved in the classrooms- one small part of a larger picture. But, the children made an impact on me. Despite their circumstances, these young children showed resilience, optimism, and an eagerness to learn. I hope to one day embody their beautiful inner strength.
Edited by: Elizabeth Petruy