Senior Asha Bhatt Gives Back by Volunteering

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Senior Asha Bhatt Gives Back by Volunteering

Asha loved spending time with the children and learning their dialect, Gujarti

Asha loved spending time with the children and learning their dialect, Gujarti

Asha Bhatt

Asha loved spending time with the children and learning their dialect, Gujarti

Asha Bhatt

Asha Bhatt

Asha loved spending time with the children and learning their dialect, Gujarti

Saskia Van't Hof, Editor in Chief

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Everyone knows that community service can be a satisfying way to spend one’s summer. For senior Asha Bhatt, volunteering internationally was an eye-opening experience that she will never forget.

A little over a year ago, just before her junior year, Bhatt traveled to India with Uplift Humanity, a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey. The nonprofit, founded in 2010, focuses on providing orphans and imprisoned youth in India with education and life lessons by connecting them with peer mentors. 

Through the summer volunteer program, high school and college aged Indian-Americans travel to one of the nonprofit’s four locations in India: Gujarat, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. Volunteers in some locations focus on teaching English to children from impoverished areas, while others focus on teaching life skills, such as anger management and self-confidence.

Bhatt first learned about the program through her cousin, who had done it the year before. Excited by the prospect of volunteering and connecting with her parents’ homeland, Bhatt immediately applied. 

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a really cool opportunity,” Bhatt said. “I felt like it was a good way for me to connect more to India but also spend my summer in a meaningful way.”

After months of patient waiting, Bhatt received her acceptance into the program. On July 1st, she departed New York in an airplane filled with other high school and college aged students from around the country. While the atmosphere buzzed with excitement, Bhatt also felt a twinge of nervousness as she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean.

Even though Bhatt is fluent in Hindi and had visited India many times with family, it was the first time she would experience the country alone. In many ways, her version of India was the one from her parents’ stories.

Her mother lived in a one-bedroom flat with her six other family members, all sharing one motorcycle. Her paternal grandfather was the founder of a small village.

“Since all of our parents [were] immigrants, we already kind of knew what life in India was like,” Bhatt said. “And most of us had all visited India before on family trips and seen our parents’ villages, so we all thought we had a pretty good idea [of what to expect]. But we didn’t know how bad it was.”

When Bhatt first arrived at the school, she was disheartened, but not surprised. In India, 90 percent of children from poor families remain illiterate despite completing four years of education. 

At the school where Bhatt volunteered, the kids ranged from 8 to 11 years old. While she did not work with “juvenile delinquents” like the ones who live in other Uplift Humanity locations, she did work with those who were well below the poverty line.

“I think the most memorable moment was meeting the kids for the first time,” Bhatt said. “We were all nervous. We didn’t know what to expect. But they were all super excited. And they were looking at us like we’re the most exotic.”

A typical day volunteering consisted of preparing the day’s lesson plans before lunch, and working at the school from about 1:00 in the afternoon to 6:00 in the evening. The kids were taught their regular school curriculum in the morning. 

“We would have a group of six or seven kids for each person and we would do whatever the day’s lesson was,” Bhatt said. “I think one of them was leadership. And that was a good one, because a lot of them haven’t seen what it’s like to have a good role model.”

Through interacting with these students, Bhatt directly confronted the complicated system of injustice and poverty in India. For many kids, the school was the only place to escape from the cycle of poverty and violence they faced in their everyday lives.

“One of the boys I had, he was ten at the time,” Bhatt said. “We would watch him go across the street to the bank and smoke weed or drink or whatever. And then there was this other girl. She wasn’t in my group, but she would stay at school every day. Just for no reason at all. Except we realized she didn’t want to go home because she would be abused by her dad every night. And she was only eight.”

For many of the young students, connecting with the teenage Uplift Humanity volunteers was a chance to see a whole new world of possibilities. For Bhatt, getting to hang out with the kids between lessons was the most exciting part of the program.

“It wasn’t uncomfortable because we all knew and we were all comfortable speaking the language,” Bhatt said. “We could joke around with them. We could have fun, too. It wasn’t just, ‘we’re here to teach you.’”

Aside from valuable life experience, Bhatt also learned an entirely new dialect thanks to the program. In a span of a month, she was fully immersed and learned the local dialect, Gujarati.

By the end of the summer, Bhatt returned home to the United States empowered and full of hope. She hopes to do the program again in the near future.

“I think the experience really made me realize that we need to bring this back to America, especially to places like Southern Lehigh,” Bhatt said. “I think a lot of us are in a bubble here, so people need to be exposed to what goes on in the rest of the world. I count myself very lucky that I got to do my part.”