A journey of self-discovery, within and beyond

When we think of volunteers, we think of individuals who choose to work for and contribute to a larger cause. As a child rights practitioner, I have witnessed from close quarters the impact this work/contribution has had on the multitude of campaigns and movements that echo through the annals of the development sector in our […]

When we think of volunteers, we think of individuals who choose to work for and contribute to a larger cause. As a child rights practitioner, I have witnessed from close quarters the impact this work/contribution has had on the multitude of campaigns and movements that echo through the annals of the development sector in our country. While highlighting the tangible impact of such contributions, it is perhaps also wise to reflect on the impact volunteering has had on the volunteers themselves. There lies strewn all around stories of courage, conviction, despair turning to hope, a slow but steady change of mindsets – personal stories that get lost in the milieu of larger causes.
Tales of self-discovery
For 23-year-old Ritwick, a corporate employee living in Kolkata, lazy Sunday afternoons are not merely a break from the daily hustle but also an opportunity to immerse in the joy of teaching slum kids basic English and Maths. When he had started out six months ago, it was merely for a mention of social work on his already illustrious CV, he admits with a coy smile. But six months of interaction with the children, lessons and games with them and celebration of special occasions have changed the person within. The realization that not everybody is as privileged as he is and that a couple of hours from his end can bring change in several lives is overwhelming, yet utmost fulfilling. “Why didn’t you come last Sunday? We missed you so much, we want to be like you and learn more from you,” one of students told him one day. This trivial moment triggered a tsunami of emotions. Ritwick has decided that volunteering would remain an integral part of his future plans henceforth, where ever life takes him. Never for a mention on the CV anymore, but for the sense of purpose and meaning it has infused in his hitherto mechanical life.
In another neighbourhood of the same city, Aqsa finds the Sunday classes (for another group of slum kids) therapeutic. She has been associated with this work for six long years, from when she was in Class 11. Regular interactions with a group of kids from a local slum taught her the harsh realities of life, a stone’s throw away from where she lives and has grown up. The satisfaction of watching children forget their daily struggles and take interest in learning basic English and Maths, participate in simple activities, bond with her and other volunteers became an integral part of her life and thought process, much more than a mere volunteering stint or a day of social work. She realized that she had almost silently become a catalyst of subtle change, slow but steady. And then one day, the Pandemic struck. The world turned upside down, figuratively and practically. The only way Aqsa could connect with the kids during lockdown was an occasional phone call with one of the students, who happened to have a phone. It was a time of trauma personally, which she was striving to overcome. “I knew I had to do something to fill the hollow within me and bring back the sense of purpose,” she said.
Earlier this year, Aqsa approached us with the request to restart the Sunday classes. And she did it. Old students came back, eager and excited and there were new faces streaming in. What made Aqsa restart the classes? It’s the kind of rejuvenation that she needed after a couple of rough years, says the aspiring MBA student. And what if she has to move from the city because of her studies? The classes benefit the children in more ways than one, academically and psychologically, says Aqsa and “I will try my best with CRY to ensure that the classes don’t stop. Change is happening and we can feel it. We want the process to continue”.
Aqsa’s work has helped her become a happier person – the transformative power of altruism is at play, where an act of giving becomes a source of personal strength and resilience.
Across the border, in Bihar, we meet a 26-year-old with broken dreams. Ranu wanted to join the administrative services to attain a position of power, and help bring in change in the lives of the underserved. But four failed attempts at the UPSC exams meant he had to start from scratch. His confidence had taken a dent, not his vision. He founded a small non-profit of his own that collaborates with individuals and bigger non-profits on core issues affecting women and children. The journey thus has been far from easy – it demands resilience, adaptability, and a deep understanding of the challenges faced by the underserved. And in Ranu’s own words, the experience of the past few years has taught him how to navigate ambiguity and find purpose beyond predefined career paths. The failures in the pursuit of personal ambitions have long been overshadowed by the success of working towards his cherished goal – that of helping those in need through meaningful, impactful ventures.
And, then there are students, both school and college-going, who volunteer with us because they want to make a difference in any way they can. Kaushik, an MBA student in a Kolkata college, feels it is not enough to harbour empathy within. It is important, almost a necessity, to pass it on to the next generation. Taking cyber security awareness sessions with schoolkids, as part of one our projects, has given him a platform to bond with the next generation, know their thought processes and teach them a thing or two about the unknown world they are addicted to. That he is trying to shape the next generation’s choices and thought processes gives him a sense of responsibility, says Kaushik, the lace of satisfaction in his voice not going amiss.
For Brishti, another college student from a remote district, donning the mentor’s role for the cyber security sessions in schools has helped her to identify where her calling lies, a platform for deep introspection and self-reflection, as she views the impact of her work on evolving young minds.
We have Avni, a Class X student from Mumbai – it is the committed yearning to do something meaningful for the society that sets her apart. “If you believe in a cause, you should work for it,” is her motto in life. Sample this. She hasn’t formally joined us as a volunteer but when she came to know of our campaign to help kids in far-flung Manipur, she was up for it, in every which way. The Mumbai teenager has never visited this part of the country, but her heart bleeds for the innocent kids caught in conflict and from hundreds of miles away, she wants to do the best she can to alleviate their sufferings.

And the impact within…
The journey of these bright young individuals highlights the profound impact of volunteerism on personal development. Beyond the immediate societal benefits, it shapes perspectives, instils resilience, and fosters a deeper connection to the world. Whether it’s finding fulfilment in teaching, overcoming personal adversities, redirecting deferred ambitions toward community service, or balancing academics with social awareness, the common thread is the realization that giving back is a powerful catalyst for self-discovery and positive change.
An internal survey within our pool of volunteers reinforces what we believe strongly. More than 80 per cent feel they have become better leaders and team workers after their stints. They are more confident, can solve problems easily, think out of the box and communicate forthright and their perception about their selves has received an enormous boost.
On International Volunteer Day, here’s to the young minds who want to work to help the world, and discover themselves as more enriched and evolved souls. May they grow from strength to strength on their respective paths and remain close to the cause they believe in.

The author is the Regional Director, CRY (East)