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I have a doctorate in International Relations.
In one of my classes, we had a final project of the semester due where we had to “set up something concrete in the real world.” So I decided to go all out and launch our own nongovernmental organization (NGO).
When I say all out, I really went all out. I set up a website, got my graphic designer friends to help me come up with the name of my NGO and design an awesome logo, I assembled three friends who were also businesswomen to be part of my NGO board, and I applied for nonprofit status—both in the United States and in India—like I said, I went all out.
All of the above was time-consuming and included a ton of grunt work, but I loved doing it. Given all of the incredible opportunities I’d had in my life, I was beyond grateful to use my privilege to pay it forward. I zeroed in on two specific aspects for my NGO that would help the Indian girl child—provide free sanitary napkins and school supplies for girls for one year. If I was able to get funds, the plan was to widen the scope of the NGO.
Toward that end, I started small and picked two small and extremely poor villages close to my home in India and decided to “sponsor” the girls in those villages. Once the basic website was set up and all the paperwork sent off to the various agencies, the real work began.
Before I started touring these villages close to my home, I decided to hook up with local NGOs in my city and decided to volunteer and get my feet wet with them, so to speak.
I picked two. The first one worked with street children, and the personnel asked me to volunteer a few days a week and teach those kids. The classroom was a temporary space on the pavement of a busy street where the kids sat down on the floor of said pavement, and there was a makeshift whiteboard for me to use. The other volunteering position was with another NGO who toured some of the poorest areas in our city and spoke to the homeless and asked them what they needed and tried to fulfil their needs as best as they could.
(FYI: neither of these NGOs exist anymore. One shut down because of lack of funds and the other was absorbed by a bigger organization.)
I volunteered for two days with the first NGO and lasted three hours with the second.
I just could not do it.
Volunteering with some of the poorest people—especially kids—is the toughest and most heartbreaking jobs you will ever do. It’s also when I realized that to volunteer in these types of NGOs, you need two things.
1. Empathy. Which I had in spades, and owning my privilege was what set me on this path. I’ve also been deeply influenced by the benefits I received only because of where I was born. Don’t get me wrong. I belonged to a lower middle-class Indian family. But I still had/have so much more than the billions in this world. And I realized that.
2. Heart of steel. This is what no one tells you about. Having empathy is key. But to volunteer in some of these NGOs requires you to have guts, strength, and basically, a heart of steel.
Because it is not easy to see suffering.
Let me say that again.
It is not easy to see suffering.
It’s even harder to see it, work amidst it, then go home to your life of privilege and live in it. It’s not easy to see young kids forced to work when they’d rather go to school, because if they didn’t work, they couldn’t eat. It’s gut-wrenching to see little street girls not have a bathroom where they can do nature’s most basic act and instead hunt for a somewhat private place in public to squat in the middle of a bustling city surrounded by staring eyes.
When you take a shower and realize that you have running water, when you shut the door of your bedroom behind you so you can have your “own private space,” when you order burgers and fries from McDonalds and the cost of that one order can feed a family of five for a whole day, and then you compare that to how so many billions live in this world, my heart didn’t just break, it splintered into million pieces.
Like I said, it is not easy to see suffering.
And that’s when I realized that as empathetic all of the workers and volunteers at NGOs were, they also had a heart of steel. They were as affected as I was, but they knew how to compartmentalize and get the job done.
“You have to be as involved as you need to be, but also know when to pull away and do the job,” one of them said to me.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t.
I spent more than two weeks just crying. And I was raging at the inequalities of the world that decides who has enough food to eat, who has a safe place to sleep in, and who has a private bathroom to use purely based on to whom and where they were born.
To this date, those few hours with the second NGO haunts me. Almost a decade in, a part of me still hasn’t healed.
That’s when I realized—with certain things I cannot compartmentalize. I got “too involved” as one of the NGO members told me. But I couldn’t do it any other way.
When that summer ended and I went back stateside to continue with my PhD, I quietly dissolved my own NGO. If I couldn’t handle a few hours touring a poor area in my own city, I didn’t think I would survive touring and adopting two poverty-stricken villages for my project.
Did I/do I feel bad? Oh, God, yes. Every single day I think back to what I started and how it all ended. But I also know that it was the right decision for me. I just wasn’t cut out to volunteer in the places where I felt needed the most.
So I did the next best thing. Since then, I devote a certain percentage of my earnings to causes I’m passionate about—basically, children. I earmark a basic minimum every month, but I try and give more when I can. I’ve identified two NGOs that do incredible work for children in India, and I support them regularly.
I’m not sure if I took the easy way out. I choose to look at it as we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Every job has experts, and in the NGO world I wasn’t one. So I decided to leave the job to the experts while I help them the best way I can—by donating funds.
Yes. I still feel bad. But I’m gratified knowing that with the chicken feed money I make, I do what I can to give back and pay it forward. And I dream of a day when the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of the world will do the same instead of flashing their d*cks by going on space trips, when the money spent on a single trip could probably wipe out hunger in perpetuity.
I would love to hear your views on this. Do you volunteer? How do you handle it? Please let me know what you think.