These two AidCamps were held in conjunction with our partner organisation Social Change and Development (SCAD) just outside of the village of Cheranmahadevi in Tamil Nadu, India.
SCAD works with the poorest of the poor amongst the low caste dalits ("untouchables") and runs a school at a gypsy settlement called Pettai. The school is also attended by children from SCAD's nearby post infectious leper colony as well as the children of snake catchers and other local dalits.
These two projects financed the extension of the school, adding a second storey. The major construction was completed by local labourers, paid for by the AidCamps, before the first group arrived.
The volunteers plastered, painted, decorated and generally finished the extension. The first group, a public AidCamp, completed half of the extension, and the second group, a private AidCamp organised for two groups from Australia and Scotland, completed the other half.
The volunteers were also taken on quite a few visits to see SCAD's work for the rural poor in the area, as well as on several local and regional sightseeing trips.
The following report about the first AidCamp in January was written by Ali, one of the volunteers:
"Watching the second storey of the school at Pettai go from a brick shell to two bright classrooms and a corridor within three weeks was amazing. Knowing that I had put my back, sweat and more than one finger nail, into the project was even better.
I can't say that my plastering skills were greatly improved (I was asked by one of the local builders to move away from the wall before I did any more damage!), but I was quite impressed by my ability to carry a bag of sand on my shoulder (I did try my head but that didn't work too well) whilst negotiating the kids that were "helping" us fill them, and at the same time waving to those that were having lessons in their classrooms. Talk about multi tasking!
But even if I didn't learn many more practical skills, I certainly learned a great deal about the local culture and the extraordinary work of SCAD. I had no idea that Social Change And Development was such a large organisation, or that it had achieved so much. Working with the poorest sections of society, SCAD believes in empowering people through education and training so that they can create better lives for themselves.
We visited a number of inspirational projects, including women's groups and a sari weaving collective, but I think the successes of the salt pan village and the medicinal conservation park had the greatest affect on me. To see a school full of children that, only a few years ago, would have been empty because they were forced to work in the salt pans, was a testament to the enormous commitment and belief of the teaches and of SCAD.
When we weren't working at the site we also managed to do quite a lot of sightseeing. We visited a number of temples (I sat on a temple elephant at Madurai -- those things are really quite tall!), paddled in the three seas at the southern most point of India, and were watched by monkeys whilst having a shower at the Manimathur Waterfall. We also travelled to the coconut region of Kerala where we didn't see any wildlife at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, didn't see the views at the viewpoint, and only just managed to visit the tea plantation. But hey, you can't help the weather!
On the SCAD campus, where we stayed, I spent a lot of time with the physically challenged boys playing tennis (which was actually badminton) and cricket (which was actually...well, it's probably best not to say what the cricket was like!). The amount of energy these kids had and their enthusiasm for life and learning was amazing. After a hard mornings work it was great to talk with them because it reminded me why we were there and put some perspective back into life.
This AidCamp was a great experience. Being able to give something back to the community you are visiting is, in my opinion, the best way to travel. However, with the amount I learned, the people I met and the sights I saw, I am convinced that I gained far more out of the trip than the children at Pettai!"
"A truly fantastic experience, I had had the honour of making some wonderful new Indian friends which has outweighed anything I have given."
"To have had this experience at my age was wonderful."
"A fantastic mix of local culture, hard work, and smiling faces."
"A fantastic way to meet local people living local lives."
"The visits to other local projects were inspiring."
"As comprehensive, insighful, well-organised and worthwhile an experience of southern India as any volunteer could wish for."
"You can see exactly where your money is going and how it changed people's lives for the better and yet it feels like you receive much more in return -- just seeing the smiles of the children and teachers makes it all worth while."
"It was the most fantastic and rewarding introduction to India."
"A suberb mix of charitable project work, cultural awareness, and tourism. A fantastic experience."
"A wonderful experience. Very glad I came."
"AidCamps takes you below the surface. It gives you the chance to experience a culture in a way that ordinary travel cannot."
"The opportunity to experience a different culture and contribute something useful will stay with me."
"It was a great introduction to India -- we were treated like royalty by the locals, and I certainly felt welcome. An amazing experience."
"I felt humbled by the warmth and generosity of everyone we met. The cheerfulness of the poorest of people puts our materialistic society to shame."
The following report about the second of the two AidCamps in February was written by Gary, one of the volunteers on that project:
"Although I only spent a mere two weeks in India I managed to learn more in that one fortnight than I have in any other.
While there it was possible to see great strides in progress providing better lives for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. While SCAD only receives a small amount of money as compared to any other large charity, the work it manages to perform is colossal.
SCAD also displays the ability to work with and dramatically alter the lives of a diverse range of people, from lepers, to school children, to the old and dalits. SCAD administers hundreds of services to those who need it most and it is for this reason I am most humbled to have been a part of this great experience.
While there I saw the Salt Pans where women carry 25kg on their heads alone, all day for most of the year, the women's groups which are changing villages by saving and forward planning and, of course, not forgetting the various schools and the wonderful children that are able to achieve their potential while attending them.
Even some of the more harrowing tales from the camp brought a smile to people's faces as we witnessed first hand how these children are being cared for. I still remember one boy who had lost both his parents to the tsunami and had been adopted by SCAD, who were now full time parents to this boy. What amazed me was still he seemed upbeat and ready to learn. This is a common value in everyone I met in India, they know that they can't rely on foreign aid to get themselves out of poverty, they know that education is the only way to fight poverty, so they make the most of every second in school.
Also with our group being of such varied nationality (Aussies, English and Scots, myself being a Scot) I found it relatively easy to compare how well off we are in our respective countries. I compared my home to Australia and found many similarities, but when comparing it to India I found only one major similarity, we are all human beings, and that for me is enough reason to go and help anyone I can, whenever I can.
In the end all of my time visiting projects and various groups of people could have been wasted. In the end it felt more like visiting friends -- you felt a part of the Indian culture and community and wherever you went you were welcomed. I believe this was down to the presentation which was extremely professional and is a real testament to the people in the background who were helping us understand the situation that millions of people worldwide are unnecessarily suffering from.
It not only enabled us to visit a variety of people but managed to seem unrestrictive, which allowed us direct access to many people and their life experiences. Only now in retrospect can I see that my small donation of money and time was truly worth more than I first imagined, making this one of the best uses of my time and money I will ever spend."
"Utterly addictive! Thanks for fun times and fantastic friends!"
"It was a profound, potentially life changing experience for me."
"It's hard to know who gains the most, the children or the volunteers!"
"A life changing experience."
"It was the best thing I've ever done -- a life changing experience."
"A great experience, suitable for all ages."
"For the first time ever, it wasn't just news, it was reality."
"It was an amazing experience."
"First time here...but not the last"
"This was a great experience, which puts life at home into perspective. Something everyone should do at least once."
"I've been twice now and it never ceases to delight."
"Second visit was as good as the first one -- a wonderful experience."
"The most rewarding time of my life."
"This camp oozes humanity; understand the inequities in our global world and learn from a nation of innocent loving people."
"What a magical time spent with great people."
"The experience lined up to expectations, and offered an opportunity to truly experience India."
"A terrific experience, not to be missed!"
"An experience that will live with me for a long time."