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The Veerayatan Volunteer Programme 2018

Date: 15 Oct, 2018  No Comments
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The second Veerayatan Volunteer Programme 2018 took place with the blessings of Pujya Acharya Shri Chandanaji between 7 and 23 August 2018 at the two Veerayatan sites in Kutch and Palitana. Thirty-two youths of varying ages between 13 and 20 and nine adult volunteers from the UK and Kenya participated in a fortnight of volunteering activities that had been planned with the aim of giving the youth opportunities to:

  1. Give selfless service to the children attending the Veerayatan schools at the two sites;
  2. See first-hand the work of Veerayatan and the difference it is making to the lives of people through the practice of compassion in action;
  3. Develop deeper understanding of the Jain religion and the practice of selfless giving;
  4. Make friends with all the volunteers from different parts of the world;
  5. Develop skills such as teaching skills, public speaking skills, language skills, time management skills, and team working;
  6. Develop deeper appreciation of, and gratitude for, the opportunities the volunteers themselves have had in their own lives;
  7. See the difficult life led by the rural communities in this part of India and understand the importance of education to transform lives.

The programme would not have been possible without the support and time given by the sadhvijis together with the support staff resident at each campus and the excellent organisation of the facilities made available to the volunteers.
As one volunteer summarised the experience:

This week at Jakhania has been one of the most touching and memorable experiences. From the moment we stepped onto the campus, we received the warmest welcome from the children, all clapping and cheering and grinning from ear to ear. Although we only spent a week in Kutch the time seemed to fly by, we managed to do so much – morning sessions with the sadhvijis which were inspirational and deeply engaging. We discussed principles of Jain Dharma and learnt about some of Acharyaji’s amazing stories. However, that was only the smallest fragment of my experience at Veerayatan. We also delivered our lesson plans to classes of eager students (which forced me to speak Gujarati – my genders and tenses were probably all wrong but you could see everyone appreciated my efforts). I felt really special when the kids started calling me ‘didi’ and ‘ma’am’ and I was especially touched when they offered me their sev mambra and sweets before their break. They have so little but are willing to share. I have so many memories. I would definitely say that the first week of this trip has changed my perspective on life and I will never ever forget it.’

How did the volunteers benefit from taking part in the Volunteer Programme?

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Friendships

Volunteers formed friendships not only with each other but with the children at school and with people working at each campus and the sadhvijis. Here are some comments from the volunteers:

‘I am leaving here with 200 brothers and sisters’

‘This day was one of the saddest days we had had in Kutch as it was our last day. It was full of many children crying and sharing hugs and telephone numbers with each other’

Appreciating their own lives

As a result of the experiences they had on the trip, the volunteers themselves reflected that they were grateful for all they had in their lives including good education and a family who has been supportive and given them a wonderful start in their lives.

‘… and seeing the children have such good values and that reminds me how we don’t appreciate what we have and don’t treat everyone equally with respect.’

‘Humbled by 200 + children filing past in a single line and touching feet of all of us – so much respect and humility’

‘We came back as new people; appreciative of our comfortable lifestyles, our opportunities and most importantly, the gift of education.’

Undertaking seva and the value of education

The volunteers came to appreciate the meaning of seva and giving selflessly. Many volunteers commented on how hard Acharya Shriji has worked to set up the schools and give opportunities to transform the lives of children and how those children are displaying amazing values.

Volunteers teaching included English grammar, general knowledge and maths and the practice of spoken English; giving a glimpse of life in the volunteers’ own countries to the enquiring minds of the local children by showing them pictures and describing daily routines; reading stories; teaching children to do jigsaw puzzles and playing other games including football; teaching through singing, dancing and colouring.

Some children with learning difficulties were also identified by some of the volunteers and special efforts were made to help them develop. The volunteers also took it in turn to serve teatime snacks or lunch or dinner to all the students. Very quickly deep bonds grew between the volunteers and the children at the school, so much so that both looked forward eagerly to the next day’s activities and each teaching session would end with wide smiles on the faces of both volunteers and the children as each had gained immensely from the time spent together.

‘We attended daily prayers in the evening with the hostel kids. There was a real sense of community as all the students and volunteers sat together on the floor. After reciting prayers, there would always be a talent show, where anyone could go to the front and sing, dance, tell jokes or ask general knowledge questions to the audience. What I loved about this was the supportive and encouraging atmosphere within the school. Whenever a student stood up to share their act, you would hear rounds of applause, or whenever anyone was singing, everyone would clap and sing along.’

‘During our final day at the primary school, a group of volunteers went out to plant trees in the garden. We were told it is Acharya Shriji’s wish to plant a few more trees, only around 1100! Looking around the gardens, there were mostly fruit trees growing, such as banana, mango and guava, however they were only about 6-8 months old. We quite literally got stuck in, shoveling the soil and lowering the plants into the holes.’

Spiritual learning

During the trip the volunteers were fortunate enough to have the presence of Pujya Acharya Shri  Chandanaji at the Kutch campus. Acharya Shriji spoke eloquently in English and was able to impart her message of universal friendship and gratitude to all the volunteers who really warmed to her affectionate nature. In particular, the rendition of various stories, by Sadhvi Shri Shilapiji, from Mere Devdoot ((‘My Angels’), a book by Acharya Shriji on telling moments and encounters in her life, left a lasting impression on many volunteers. In Palitana there were daily sessions with Sadhvi Shri Sanghamitraji with the youth volunteers who were able to ask any life questions they had and Sadhvi Shri Chetanaji spent time with the adult volunteers.

‘Hearing the stories of Acharya Shriji is very inspiring and offers up a very different outlook on life values’

‘Was fabulous to have a session with Sadhvi Sanghamitraji in the derasar. Lovely bhakti and talk, beautiful vibrations and backdrop.’

Health Improvement Activities

The volunteers were able to make a positive contribution in various health related activities which were organised to improve the wellbeing of the children.

  1. The volunteers assisted one of the adult volunteers, an optometrist, to carry out eye screening for over 400 children. If necessary children with poor vision were taken to the local opticians and supplied with spectacles and those with borderline vision were earmarked for future monitoring.
  2. The volunteers taught hand hygiene and dental hygiene (using models) to all children in both schools and distributing posters in classes by way of an aide memoire.

Doing the eye tests and finding the children that needed glasses felt like it would truly make a difference in their day to day lives’

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Learning New Skills

The youth developed many new skills during the course of their volunteering. Apart from teaching and presentation skills, the volunteers were able to develop their social skills by interacting with sadhvijis, the students and the staff. In the process those who found speaking Gujarati challenging showed a marked improvement. The value of time was also appreciated as the volunteers tried to maximise their participation in the volunteering opportunities despite the long days. To add to the fun there were folk dancing classes held each day in Kutch to teach the volunteers. The volunteers found this challenging but rapidly embraced the activity and did really well when they performed their routines in front of an expectant gathering at the farewell in Kutch.

You are a genius Pramit (& team). I’ve never managed to get my kids to do garba in the last 15 years and you do it in days!’ (Message from parent in England upon seeing the garba performance on What’s app)

‘My teaching skills, Gujarati and even independence have all improved on this trip, but it was the sense of fulfilment and compassion that was the most inspiring aspect, with our actions and teaching bringing so much joy to the children. I would definitely encourage anyone thinking about going on the trip to sign up, and if I can convince my parents again, I will see you there next year!’

‘We taught little kids of the age from about 8-10 years. It’s really difficult because I have never experienced it before. I learnt that you have to be really patient with the kids and I am not very patient – so it is sort of a challenge’

Sightseeing opportunities

The hard work of the volunteers was intermingled with some sightseeing activities which included visiting a local beach in Mandvi, Kutch. The highlights, however, were a climb to Hastagiri Temple with Sadhvi Shri Sanghamitraji and Sadhvi Shri Chetanaji and a climb to the summit of the Shatrunjaya mountain in Palitana to see the sacred Jain temples.

‘Going up Hastigiri up the narrow winding road was very scenic. Lots of luscious green vegetation. Climbing up to the top and having a silent meditation was magical. So lucky to have the presence of the sadhvijis with us. It was surreal, peaceful, serene…..’

The Value of Giving

During the program the Volunteers were involved in experiencing the value of Giving. The group collected and donated games, pencils, pens, toys and then distributed them to the children. The group also gave more substantial gifts, namely donating a medical vehicle to Jakhania, sports equipment and musical instruments. This act of giving is extremely rewarding for the volunteers as they saw directly how and where their donations were going to help children and Veerayatan.

Here are the experiences of a couple of the volunteers……

Veerayatan Volunteering Trip 2018
By Anya Shah

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Modern day life has been very much centred on ‘taking’ rather than ‘giving’. We live a life that is dominated by social media where constant likes, photos, messages and video chats prevail; a complicated life controlled by busy schedules and constant material needs.

All that changed, albeit for a brief two-week period, when we were introduced to a group of people whose lives were not governed by the lure of social media and technology and to an individual whom I can only describe as one of the most inspirational people I have ever met: Welcome to Veerayatan and Acharya Shri Chandanaji. Veerayatan is an organisation that was formed from this great lady’s vision for the betterment of humanity. Schools, projects, museums; when Acharya Shri Chandanaji has a dream, it inevitably becomes a reality. Our group consisting of teenagers from the UK and Kenya embarked on this Seva trip during the summer of 2018, to experience the life of Acharyaji, to forget materialism, and to pursue a higher purpose.

I was extremely excited about the trip, but still had no idea about what to expect or what was expected of me. Would there be a big language barrier? Would they find our lessons interesting? Or even, inconsequential things like would we be fed Shaak Rotli every day? Question upon Question! Within a few days any reservations we may have had were dispersed, as at the Veerayatan Vidyapeeth School in Kutch, we were hit by a cyclone of enthusiasm and love from the children. From teaching them fractions, showing them imitation snow, to explaining that the Eiffel Tower was in France not Italy, the children never lost their infectious smiles, and were always willing to learn, even though our Gujarati was terrible at times!

Whilst the teaching was a delight, it was what happened after classes that really scored our hearts. A personal highlight was when I was walking down the road to the guest accommodation and all of the hostel girls came running up surrounding me shouting ‘Anya didi will you dance and sing with us?’ Their constant energy and excitement made me realise how much impact our presence had for the children.

One of the most daunting tasks was teaching English to a class of 18 year olds – two years my senior. However, they were extremely welcoming and interactive which increased my self confidence immensely. After three days of tuition, there was great camaraderie with jokes and banter permeating everywhere, which made me feel very much part of the Veerayatan family. The friendship bands that they gifted us, whilst a truly wonderful gesture, would never fully attest to the bonds that were formed between us.

The Veerayatan School in Palitana was a different experience as we were teaching younger children. Regardless, this was just as rewarding as they shared the same enthusiasm for knowledge. As in Kutch, our time at the school also included serving the children snacks, which became another personal highlight, as seeing their eager, smiling faces when they recognised me from the teaching class was very special. During our stay we also went to more religious sites such as Hastagiri and the majestic Jain temples of Palitana – surely one of the wonders of the modern world. Whilst I had already been on a Jatra at Palitana two years earlier, this Jatra was no less fulfilling and I have begun to appreciate why Jains all around the world continue to be drawn to this, the holiest of pilgrimage sites.

In one of the many talks we had with Acharyaji, Sadhviji Shilpaji and Sadhviji Sumitraji, they talked about Veerayatan not being an organisation but a family where people from different cultures and backgrounds, come together to become one family. Words cannot describe the huge impact this trip has had on me and my spiritual journey and I would like to personally thank all the people connected with Veerayatan both in the UK and India for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

Veerayatan Summer 2018
By Priyanka Popat

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My time spent with Veerayatan in Kutch and Palitana made me, for the first time, truly enjoy being in India. The entire experience was moving and uplifting from start to finish.

Until this summer, I did not know much about Veerayatan and I began the trip with some apprehension. However, the moment we arrived at the school in Kutch, we received the warmest welcome I have ever witnessed and any trepidation instantly disappeared. A huge amount of preparation had clearly gone into the welcome and our entire group was touched by this gesture, I only hoped that we would be able to give the students the education they truly deserved. We were then greeted by the Sadhvijis and given some information about our time in India.

After our welcome we were shown to our rooms, we then had a delicious dinner and an early night in preparation for our first day. We would begin each day with meditation and prayer time with Acharya Shri Chandanaji and Sadhviji Shilapiji, this time would ensure a peaceful start to our day. All of us would sit in Anukampa, listening to the Acharyaji’s preaching along with the birds singing in the early morning. During this time, Sadhviji Shilapiji would translate and explain Acharyaji’s preaching and each day tell us a poignant story about Acharyaji. Out of all of the stories that we were told, there was one that particularly struck me. This story was about Acharyaji sharing the small amount of food that her and some other Sadhvijis had with them on a trip. When they sat down to eat this food, some workmen walked past and Acharyaji invited them to join the Sadhvijis, despite there not being a lot of food to go around, everybody felt satisfied, simply because they shared. This act of sheer of generosity on behalf of Acharyaji is something that everyone should try to embody and is something that I hope to carry forward in my life.

We would usually, after prayer time, begin teaching our classes at the school; however, on our first day we began with a tour of the campus. This included the office, the school, the pharmacy college and the engineering college. This truly showed how much work Veerayatan is doing in one area alone. We were able to see the way that the organisation can take a child right the way from the beginning to the end of their education. Our campus tour also showed the many ways that Veerayatan is ensuring that the site is as environmentally friendly as possible, from solar panels powering the kitchens to water collection tanks. Veerayatan’s aims stretch even further than just helping children, but all the way to doing more than their part to conserve the planet for future generations.

After our campus tour we made our way into allocated classrooms for tuition time. The moment that I entered the classroom I felt such a wave of emotion. All of the children were so excited to see us, without even knowing anything about us. All they wanted was for us to teach them. I had never seen such a pure and genuine desire to learn and I think from that moment all of the volunteers were so thrilled to be teaching. My group and I initially found it difficult to contain the student’s delight but we eventually managed to begin our teaching.

During my lessons I was struck by so many incredible aspects, the children were so willing to learn and unafraid to be wrong, they would try over and over again and listen carefully so that they could make improvements. The work ethic of students and the respect for teachers is something that contrasts greatly to the way it is in the UK and it is something that everyone here should learn from. The students in my class would stand and greet us whenever we would enter the classroom and listen intently to what we had decided to teach. Our lessons would be broken up by a dance lesson, in preparation for the farewell presentation on our final night. These dance lessons turned out to be unexpectedly enjoyable and we would go back to our students refreshed and ready to begin teaching again. During afternoon tuition we would sometimes assist with the eye screenings. To find out that a child may potentially benefit from having glasses felt like it would truly make a huge impact in their lives.

After lessons we would have lunch, and each lunchtime, a group of us would be allocated to serving the hostel kids. The children would be so polite and give us the warmest smiles as we served the food to them. Lunch would be followed by afternoon tuition and after that we would play with the students in their free time. Some days this involved volleyball, cricket and football and on other days we had the chance to play the board games that had been donated. We were playing games such as Connect4 and Kerplunk, games that we had all played throughout our childhood but we quickly found that we were being beaten by the hostel kids. This chance to spend time with the kids during their free time enabled many friendships to form as we were given time to be with them outside of the classroom.

We would then have dinner and then attend the hostel children’s evening prayers and talent shows, which for me, was usually the highlight of the day. Seeing the children get up and sing or tell jokes night after night with complete confidence was so inspiring. There would then be prayers, sung by the children or a Sadhviji, which were incredibly emotive, the entire vibrations that would be created by the children singing in harmony whilst the sun was beginning to set was something that I will never forget.

This was our daily routine for most of our time in Kutch and we ended our stay with a wonderful farewell presentation. The evening festivities began with a pooja for the new medical vehicle for the school. There were then beautiful performances from the hostel kids and two dances prepared by us volunteers but I believe the true highlight for the majority of people was the pyramid finale. We were all sad when this night came to a close because we knew it meant the end of our stay in Kutch and although only a week of our trip had passed I knew that everyone had made lifelong memories.

Our last day in Kutch was on Indian Independence Day and we attended the flag raising ceremony before we began our eight-hour journey to Palitana. As Palitana was a day school we were staying in a Dharamshala nearby and travelling to the school each day.

Upon arrival at the Palitana school we received another warm welcome, the children were far younger but still so talented and hard working and this took us all aback. The children had prepared several speeches in English and many dance performances in the theme of Indian Independence, for us to enjoy. When we began our teaching here, we all soon realised that we had to adapt our methods and our lesson plans for the younger children that we were now teaching. We would teach until three ‘o’ clock, when the children would go home and we would stay and plan our lessons for the next day. We were able to teach a larger range of lessons in Palitana, including arts and crafts.

The school in Palitana is beautiful, with panoramic views of lush, green, mountainous land. All of the children were, as they were in Kutch, so overjoyed and delighted to learn. The school has only recently been constructed and anyone would instantly be able to see the bright future that the school will have. We had entirely different experiences of the two schools but present in both is the compassion and enthusiasm for education carried out by the Veerayatan organisation.

During our evenings in Palitana we were incredibly lucky to have Sadhviji Sanghamitraji come to our Dharamshala to talk to us and for prayers. She would give wonderful and clear answers to our questions about being young Jains and to satisfy our curiousness about the lives of Sadhvijis. However, Sadhviji Sanghamitraji went beyond this and took care of our every issue, for any problem that arose, she was ready with three solutions to hand and her genuine kindness is something that I will never forget.

Whilst we were in Palitana we climbed the mountain, which was initially difficult given the early start but instantly became worthwhile once we started seeing the stunning views and the architecture of the temples along the way. We visited some of the 900 temples and then began our descent just as the sun began to hit us. Climbing Palitana was a wonderful end to the trip.

Everyone who worked in Kutch and in Palitana was a true ambassador of the Veerayatan philosophy of service to all. In addition to this, throughout our trip, the adults amongst the volunteers took the greatest care of us, they were our parents for the two weeks that we were in India and ensured that we would be able to give our all to the Veerayatan children. It was a true honour to be part of the organisation and I learnt so much about Jainism, India and myself during the two weeks.

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