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My Rewarding Time Volunteering With Hands On India

PP6142-India-Trip-ArrivalAs many of you already know, I have just returned from the Siliguri region in northern India as a volunteer for an Australian charity called Hands On India (HOI). This has been one of the most transformational experiences of my life, testing me physically, mentally and emotionally in ways I could not have anticipated!

Those of you who have travelled to India will understand when I say that it was an onslaught of all my senses with extremes of colour, overwhelmingly sound (especially when driving), tantalising tastes of exotic foods and drinks and the touch of humanity like nothing I have ever experienced.

The intensity of life here is at times beyond extreme and I quickly learnt to expect the unexpected. But this feeling of relative chaos was at odds with an enviable feeling of calmness and happiness among the people we met, people who greeted us with genuine love and excitement, treating us like royalty wherever we went.

Their ability to take pleasure in the simplest things and deal with a level of poverty we will never know was both inspiring and heartbreaking. It has given me a reality check to keep things in perspective and appreciate what is really important in my life – people and experiences!

Arrival in Siliguri

After meeting the team in Delhi, we boarded a flight to Bagdogra Airport near Siliguri. I was incredibly lucky to have a window seat that gave me a clear view of the Himalayas for almost the entire flight. It was one of the most spectacular natural sights I have ever seen. Arriving at Siliguri was a baptism of fire with the chaos of driving the 45 minutes to our base at Seva Kendra both exhilarating and terrifying.

However, the adrenaline of the drive was soon replaced by the most amazing reception and welcome ceremony by our hosts at the Catholic Church-run Seva Kendra, which is a non-government organisation that works in partnership with HOI to administer the projects funded by HOI, namely the Rock Breaker schools, village health clinics and women’s empowerment programs.

Our Team: Diverse in Experience & Locations

I was one of several senior chiropractors in a team of 12 with four support/admin volunteers. We were a diverse group in terms of experience and locations with Australia, New Zealand and Canada represented, but we all gelled well together right from the start. It isn’t hard to imagine lifelong friendships among team members after sharing this experience.

Our leader and trip organiser was Dr Stacey Saunders who was one of only two team members who had been before. She worked tirelessly and confidently to keep everyone on track and dealt with the inevitable last-minute plan changes and communication challenges presented, being ever vigilant of the cultural differences between ourselves and our hosts, as well as the needs of the team members.

We also had several local support staff, including our drivers and interpreters, who played a critical role in helping us deliver much-needed care to the local villages and schools.

Rock Breaker and Tea Leave Plantation Schools

Most mornings, we would separate into two groups of six chiropractors and two admin volunteers and load our equipment onto the two Jeeps to head out to local and remote schools supported by HOI. Here we would assess and adjust all the kids in each school, keeping a close eye on children with more complex health problems and needing medical referral.

Without exception, we were either greeted or farewelled with a song and dance ceremony from the children, which they would have rehearsed for days or weeks before our arrival. This was a real highlight for them and us, as were the tennis balls we brought to test the children’s hand-eye coordination. This led to the occasional game of cricket with the kids. We donated them to each school, hopefully bringing ongoing enjoyment to these amazing children.

Our Work in Remote Village Clinics

Afternoons would see us head to either town or remote village clinics. The Seva Kendra staff did a great job of letting people know the locations and timing of our clinics and so we always arrived with a long line of grateful people of all ages ready to experience chiropractic care, most for the first time. Our clinical skills were tested multiple times daily, seeing many people with complex and severe physical and neurological problems.

I would easily have seen more cases like these in two weeks here than compared to the last few years in my practice in Narrabeen. Although I was able to really help many people suffering from all sorts of problems, I also had to come to terms with the reality that these more serious cases were beyond the scope of my abilities to help.

Empowering Women to Start Their Own Businesses

We were treated to another incredible experience with a meeting of 300 representatives from the various women’s empowerment groups. HOI supports over 3000 women to create their own support groups, and with targeted microfinance interest-free loans, they are being given the opportunity to start their own businesses or have further education to reduce their dependence on rock breaking and work in tea plantations, where they usually earn the equivalent of between $3 to $6 per day.

Providing targeted funding to create alternative self-employment or education for these people is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and the health and social challenges that go with it.

An Unforgettable Weekend in Darjeeling

At the end of the first week, we all needed a break to catch our breath, so we headed up to Darjeeling, a famous town in the lower reaches of the Himalayas with spectacular views of some of the highest mountains in the world. Early morning sunrise over Mount Kangchenjunca, the third highest mountain on earth, only 260 metres smaller than Everest, was a sight I would never forget, and I cannot find the words in the English language to describe this.

Rock Breakers Schools Sports Carnival

In the second week, we were treated to a special afternoon by attending the Rock Breakers school’s sports carnival, which coincided with our visit. The children were so excited to perform in front of us, and I became caught up in the competitive spirit of the event by taking part in the team sack race, which did not go well for me when I fell flat on my face soon after the start but managed to still finish well back in the field!

Getting All Dressed Up for Bollywood Night

Our visit finally ended with a slightly earlier finish on Thursday so we could prepare for the traditional Bollywood night to celebrate as a team! We all got dressed up in authentic Indian outfits, looking all glamorous in full Bollywood style glitz and colour, playing a few games and even a Bollywood dance-off in groups of four. I finally made up for my sack race disaster at the sports carnival by being part of the winning team, although there was some controversy surrounding the result!

Beyond Words: Reflecting on a Life-Changing Journey

Although I am known as a good talker and rarely short of words, my biggest challenge is to find the words to describe this experience to family, friends and patients. The hundreds of photos and short videos I took go some way to explain it, but a one-dimensional image can never capture the entire multi-dimensional world I have just had the great privilege to visit.

Seeing and, in a small way, sharing their hardship and suffering and witnessing their pleasure in the most basic things we often take for granted was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I doubt this will be my last visit to this incredible place.

If you would like to donate to Hands On India, use the link below. All donations are tax-deductible and 99 cents in every dollar raised gets to the people who need it most, as all HOI team and board members are volunteers.


3 Join the Conversation

  1. Wendy Wight says
    May 16, 2024 at 12:21 PM

    Great BLOG Michael. I am sure it was a truly life changing experience and something you will never forget. I am proud to call you my friend. Thank you for being YOU.

  2. Nicola MacKay says
    May 16, 2024 at 10:05 PM

    Loved reading this ❤️ and well done Michael !

  3. Carolyn Mills says
    May 25, 2024 at 10:01 AM

    Michael I can feel you enthusiasm and compassion as I read your blog and marvel at the photos. The children look surprisingly well and happy despite the poverty of their circumstances. I admire your selflessness in going there to assist the people who must be so thankful for you and all the volunteers who give freely of their time and resources. God bless you !

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