I spent last November volunteering for Deep Griha Society (DGS), an NGO in Pune, India. DGS was founded almost 44 years ago by Dr. Neela and Rev. Bhaskar Onawale, who recently passed the leadership torch to their daughter, Ashlesha Onawale. She is a strong and inspiring woman, and I feel blessed to have her as a colleague and friend.
Over the past four decades, DGS, in partnership with their staff, volunteers, funders, and other community partners have achieved a level of impact that few organizations are able to reach. I attribute this to phenomenal leadership and close relationships with the people they serve. I saw evidence of these relationships every day I was there.
The main office is located next to Tadiwala Slum, one of the communities where DGS offers their many welfare programs in education, health, child development, and women’s empowerment. Each day, the DGS driver took me and Ashlesha to the office, and as soon as we turned the corner onto Tadiwala Road people would rush to the vehicle to greet us and express gratitude. I could see how much they love Ashlesha and that she loves them just as much. I haven’t experienced this level of loving compassion in a community since my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and it was really quite moving.
What started as a one room clinic in 1975 has expanded to reach over 70,000 lives in three poverty-stricken communities. In addition to Tadiwala, DGS works in two other slum communities – Ramtekadi and Bibvewadi – and offers an impressive set of overarching programs designed to meet the ever-changing needs of each community they touch.
The high level of community input is obvious right when you walk in the door. There are usually program participants hanging out somewhere in the four-story office. They are there to get a medical check-up, work on their handicrafts for the income generating program, to drop off or pick up their children from the creche (day care), or any number of other activities that bring them to the center. While they are there, they interact with several of the DGS staff and leadership with an easy back and forth that only comes with a trusting relationship built over time.
These are the kinds of trips I really love. Although it’s not a vacation, I still get to explore a new corner of the globe and see the sights. But I also get to live like a local and see the world through their eyes. That is the kind of travel that is life-altering and really stays with me. And the opportunity to volunteer just makes it that much better. The feeling I get when I volunteer, and I can see the difference I make first hand is just surreal and hasn’t been matched by any other experience I’ve had.
If you are interested in a service trip, it’s important to find a volunteer experience that is a good fit for you (did you know that you can hire me to help you plan the perfect trip, whether or not you volunteer? You can schedule a free consultation at my Calendly page). Sure, as a volunteer you are there to help others, but it should also be an enjoyable experience for you. What cause or issue are you passionate about? What kind of work do you want to do? Some volunteer experiences involve manual labor, while others will have you working in an office or professional setting. How long do you want to stay?
There are a lot of options each with a lot to consider, but there is a volunteer opportunity out there for everyone. As someone on the autism spectrum, it’s important that you find something that is flexible enough to allow you to find quiet solitude when you need it. This can be a real challenge in many countries. Developing countries in particular tend to be crowded and noisy, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For myself, I only do volunteer work abroad that allows me to have my own room, even if I have to pay extra. I also look for opportunities that don’t require me to work long stretches without alone time.
You may search through volunteer opportunities and think this is rare to find, but if you find something you want to pursue, send an email to the contact person explaining your situation and concerns. Be your own self advocate and there is a pretty good chance the organization you want to volunteer with will make it work for you.
If you are interested in supporting Deep Griha Society, I highly recommend volunteering. It is a fantastic opportunity to see a beautiful region of India. Plus, you can stay in their volunteer housing and get three delicious home-cooked Indian meals every day for the equivalent of about $5 USD… all while making a huge difference to people who need your support.
For those who aren’t able to travel to India, you can support DGS through Deep Griha Society USA. Their fundraising dinner is coming up on Friday, March 1, 6:00 pm, at First Community Church North Campus in Columbus, Ohio.
If you want to read more about my time in India, check out this post about Aga Khan Palace, where Gandhi spent two years on house arrest.