Volunteering At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying

Derek India, Perspectives 167 Comments


On April 9th, 2009, I leaned against a wall and watched a man die only a few feet in front of me. This man had been lying down in a cheap metal bed, where he had spent the past 15 minutes shaking violently while a nurse tried to feed him some pills. But it was not until one of the volunteers – a middle-aged American fellow who claimed to be an Emergency Medical Technician back home –  was summoned and proceeded to haphazardly inject this man with medicine that he finally closed his eyes for good.

I stood there in shock, not because I had witnessed a death, but because I had witnessed this volunteer inject this poor man several times, jabbing into his arm with careless force while appearing to have no idea how to find his vein. In addition, there was a huge air bubble in that syringe and even though the chances are low that such a bubble can be fatal, I’m quite certain that the bubble should not have been injected along with the medication. Either way, all I do know is that this man was dead less than a minute after the syringe was pulled out of his arm.

At this point, the volunteer packed up his small bag and walked away, treating the situation as if he had just tried to fix a leaky toilet. And within seconds, the religious sisters that ran the building quickly returned to their duties, as did the other volunteers around me.

I, on the other hand, ran outside into the sticky Calcutta air. And minutes later I took a seat at a rickety wooden table inside of a back alley chai shop, where I spent the following hour staring at the wall, unable to decide whether or not to continue my volunteer work.


For years I had wanted to spend some time volunteering in Calcutta and when I finally managed to work it into my schedule, I showed up at an orientation for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and immediately signed up for a two-month commitment. Upon signing up, every volunteer is asked to choose which of the nine homes within the organization that they wish to work at and without hesitation I chose the Nirmal Hriday Home for the Destitute and the Dying (aka Kalighat).

The very next day, I began spending four hours each morning and three hours every afternoon feeding and bathing the 50 dying men that called Kalighat home. In addition, I cleaned their dishes, did their laundry by hand, brought them their pills and even gave arm and leg massages to those who were in desperate need of some relief from their constant pain.

On any given day there were approximately 15 of us volunteers at Kalighat and during my first two weeks, the atmosphere was such that I looked forward to every day of work. My favorite moments involved those that took place once the laundry was hung out to dry on the rooftop, once the dishes were all cleaned and we had time to sit down and chat with the residents.

Some of the residents were quite alert and eager to speak of their lives, such as one 75 year old man who spent many afternoons talking to me about his frequent trips to Europe as the vice-president of a major Indian company. Sadly, after being laid off from his position, and after his wife left him, he lost all of his money in a business deal. To make things worse, doctors soon discovered a massive tumor in his stomach. After initial treatments drained his bank account, this man ended up living on the streets of Calcutta until he was brought to Kalighat by an organization that roams the city in search of people in dire need of assistance. By the time I arrived, he had been in his bed, where all of these men remain 23 hours per day, for two years already and the tumor in his stomach was the size of a basketball.

Yet despite his situation, he always smiled brightly when I approached him which in turn delivered a form of happiness into my life that I will forever be thankful for.

However, even with these moments of communication, whether verbal, or as was most often the case, non-verbal, the air inside of Kalighat was admittedly quite heavy. Rarely a day passed without at least one resident passing away, right there in the one large dormitory, for all of us volunteers and other residents to witness. And when you’re surrounded by so much death, it is nearly impossible to remain unaffected. Much of my time, both inside and outside of Kalighat during those days, was spent contemplating this difficult subject.

Homeless Man in India


Before long, I noticed that there were typically two different types of volunteers working at Kalighat. Most were short-term volunteers, those who stayed for 4 or 5 days or maybe a week. These volunteers brought with them an abundance of positive energy that I feel played an important role in bringing much-needed comfort to many of the residents while at the same time making it easier for other volunteers to handle all of the pain and suffering around us.

And then there were the handful of long-term volunteers, those who had been at Kalighat for 6 months or more. Quite surprisingly, it was these volunteers that repeatedly forced me to question the benefits of my commitment and the benefits of Kalighat as a whole.

It seemed that as time dragged on for these long-term volunteers, all of the sloshing around in food scraps, vomit and excrement, while being constantly surrounded by tumors, open wounds and horrendous diseases, led them to forget why they had chosen to volunteer in the first place.

As an example, I clearly remember one morning when I was sitting next to an impossibly thin seventy-year old man (I later found out he weighed 29 kg), trying to gently convince him to take his pills. Each time I moved the cup of pills closer to his mouth, he would turn his head away from me and close his eyes. After carrying on like this for several minutes, one of the long-term volunteers approached me and before I could say a word, he had yanked the pills out of my hand, grabbed this man’s jaw with unnecessary force, pried open his mouth and shoved the pills inside. I watched in shock as the tears started to form in the eyes of this frail, dying man while the volunteer handed me the empty cup and said, “This is how we do it” before storming off.

When it was time to bathe the residents each day, I always made sure I helped them move from their beds to the shower room as carefully as I could. But the long-term volunteers would operate as if we were running a factory, quickly lifting up residents, throwing their skeletal, naked bodies over their shoulders and practically slamming them down on the benches inside the shower room. There was no regard at all for the actual well-being of the person.

Homeless Woman in India

In fact, most of the time it seemed that these volunteers had forgotten that they were dealing with people at all. They treated the residents as objects, no different than a beat up old car unworthy of even an oil change. The goal was not to care for the residents as best they could, but to finish their daily duties as quickly as possible. And if that meant throwing someone over your shoulder and jamming pills down their throat, then so be it.

There were actually several occasions when I found myself in the midst of a mild argument with a long-term volunteer. For example, I recall the day that one of them reprimanded me because I was taking too long to scrub down one of the residents, a young man who was suffering from kidney cancer. The volunteer just ripped the sponge out of my hand, immediately threw a bucket of water on this man’s face and scrubbed his body harder than you would scrub your stove top.

Unable to allow this to continue, I asked the volunteer to remember that we were working with actual human beings. His immediate reply was that my statement was irrelevant because it should be our goal to finish bathing all of the residents before the 10:30am tea break. I told him I disagreed, grabbed the sponge once again and demanded that he leave the room. He got up, left the room and minutes later came back with another resident whom he proceeded to bathe in his rough and unacceptable manner.


I remained at Kalighat for six of the eight weeks I had originally signed up for, choosing to end my time due to a combination of a strong fever and probably more realistically, my frustration with the long-term volunteers.

It was definitely difficult for me to leave the residents behind when I walked out on my final day, especially knowing full well that I had more to give. But in reality, the effect of watching some of the most helpless human beings on the planet be treated worse than the cockroaches crawling under their beds had begun to take its toll on my sanity.

As for the Missionaries of Charity, there’s a great deal of debate about the services they provide. While they undoubtedly do a remarkable amount of good in dozens of countries around the world, some claim it to be unacceptable that despite having millions of dollars in funding, this organization continues to provide barely adequate facilities and substandard medical attention for the people they care for. But I don’t really want to join that debate right now because I fully believe that the attitude and efforts of the volunteers, no matter what the surrounding conditions may be, defines the benefits that those in need ultimately receive.

And it doesn’t take much to bring some relief to the most helpless individuals. A little respect and compassion will work wonders which is why I was so surprised by the behavior of some of the volunteers at Kalighat.

Have you volunteered in Calcutta or somewhere else? How was your experience?

Since 1999 I've been traveling and living around the world nonstop. Sign up below for personal stories, real advice and useful updates from my adventures. Only good stuff, no nonsense.

Are you ready to earn money and travel?

How to Work on a Cruise Ship and Travel eBooksClick above and get started!

Comments 167

  1. Swathi

    Hi Derek! I am looking forward to serve at Nirmal Hriday and orphanage for 6 months. Should I have my own accommodation and food. If so, are there any rooms available close to the home? How much would it cost? I called upon their landline number but had no proper reply. Your answer would be of great help.

    1. Post

      Hey Swathi – Yes, you do need to get your own room and provide for your own food. They do offer a simple lunch though when you’re working. There are dozens of simple guesthouses all over the area so you simply need to look online and find one that matches your needs. Rooms can range anywhere from 300 INR per night and up.

  2. Dan

    I just finished volunteering for two weeks at Kalighat and experienced nothing at all like what this blog describes. The volunteers were wonderful – long and short term, old and young, from all corners of the globe. The sisters were positive and provided guidance (though there weren’t many of them). The residents were treated with respect and dignity by everyone, as far as I could tell (not speaking the native language). Some of the men required help being fed, bathing, going to the bathroom, etc. and they were grateful for the assistance received. They don’t get much exercise and Kalighat has no outside facilities as some of the other houses do, so that is of concern. It was emotionally draining to work with such helpless people, but I was uplifted by the spirit of the men and volunteers.

    1. Post
  3. will

    Hey Earl,

    I want to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s house later this year, what visa did you have for volunteering there?


    1. Post
  4. Klarissa

    Thank you for sharing this. I did not think it was self-serving in any way and found what Molly wrote to you to be very rude. I’m thankful you went and served, and I hope you continue your volunteer efforts around the world. I hope to volunteer in this kind of capacity some day soon, and I’m thankful for the candid way in which you wrote about your experience.

  5. deepa

    Kaveri, while I understand your reaction to the inmates for the dying home, before you criticize just think whether it is to die on roads or die in the dying home with basic neednof food cloth and shelter. We can’t expect people to be the same always. If you feel those people have to take care of everyone with love and care always why are you and me not going as long time volunteer to serve. It is always easy to blame but making things happen is not easy. Also earl s experience was with some of the volunteers and not everyone. When you and me can’t afford for the huge medical expenses in hospital in India today , how can we expect a charity home giving medical expenses to hundreds. Yes donation us available. But for running hundreds of home it is difficult. I have visited shishu bhavan of missionaries of charity in Bangalore where I have witnessed volunteers taking care of new born and mentally retarded with love and care. So before we critize people and church looking at the attitude or hearing about the attitude of few volunteers it is better to check as how can I and you be different in serving people. Nothing to hurt you. But when we can’t step forward to serve we don’t deserve to criticize either

    1. Joseph

      Respected Deepa,
      I appreciate your response and gentleness in expressing your feeling. I too vibrate with you. I’ve been with the Missionaries of Charity Brothers as a volunteer twice, once for a month in Shanti Bhavan, Kanyakumari and another time for twenty days in Karunai Illam, Chennai. Both the times, I found my stay more meaningful. Because, I could not but simply admire at the commitment and the loving care of the volunteers. I found their service something extraordinary! I think, better we check ourselves if we are worthy to criticize the volunteers. Thanks a lot.


      Many places in the world have problems similar having nothing to do with the missionaries but the same issue is there of wondering what to do. For instance children in prison, do you bring food and water or protest their treatment? If you protest treatment usually gets worse and access is further limited. Seeing these places reminds me of Belzac, Birkenau, Dachau and Auschwitz, Sobibor, Burgen, and Buchenwald. The citizens in those communities didn’t know and didn’t want to know what was going on. The UN and Red Cross have almost no power or authority do intervene. For all the proclaiming ” Never again” it continues. It often starts with seemingly good intention and enforcing the rule of law but easily drifts inexorably to the oven and gas chamber. You can search for “detention, holding center, or camp” euphemisms for prisons. Even now we are hiding two families with infants waiting the dreaded immigration police. Some others choose to return to their place of birth and certain death rather than face the “detention” center. “Friends” tell me Don’t make waves. The claims are exaggerated. If you rock the boat we all drown. I object. I protest.

  6. Pingback: Mother Teresa: The Saint Of The Gutters Or A Devil’s Aide? The Facts! | therollingindian.com

  7. lakshmi

    Hi Earl,

    I want to be a long time volunteer in Mother Theresa home to serve the poor and needy, could u plz help me with the details of mother Theresa homes in India

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Lakshmi – You simply need to show up in Kolkata and go to the Mother House at 54A, A.J.C. Bose Road, Kolkata. You can go there and they will get you all set up as a volunteer.

      1. Martina

        Hi Earl,
        Is there a certain day of the week that we need to show up at Mother’s House?

        Thank you so much for sharing this. It certainly gave me insights and most importantly gave me courage to volunteer.


        1. Post

          Hey Martina – There is a schedule of certain days to show up but you have to find out when you’re there. I don’t remember what it was exactly at this point.

      2. Liz Weir

        I am going to volunteer there in a few weeks and have a lot of medical supplies I can take. Apart from gloves what else would be most useful?

  8. Kaveri

    This is not a hospice house, this is a poorhouse. Both as a Bengali, and as a certified hospice and palliative care nurse, having completed my doctorate in this field, this is a sham and pure negligence. These people are suffering without any kind of palliation what so ever. This just speaks to the crookedness of the Church, that they would continue to run such a defunct, shabby and horrifyingly negligent enterprise. This is not a home for the dying, it is a nightmare for the dying!

  9. Karan Singh

    Hi! i m karan, I know a patient who is suffering from mouth cancer and no one to look after her. I am seeing her lying on the street from last couple of days waiting for her death.so, i wana know that the treatment of cancer is running in “Nirmal Hriday home for dying destitute” or not.. If anybody know about it then please reply…

  10. nisha

    i will be really grateful to know if anybody can tel me whether i can be a permanent volunteer at mother teresa house in kolkata..

    1. Rich

      Yes I am sure you can. You of course would be responsible for your own housing, expenses, etc. However, you would tell the Sister in Charge during orientation that you want to be a long term volunteer. I have a friend who is there now for one year. Good luck!

  11. Andrea

    Hi Earl!
    I came across this blog entry while doing a search for “Kalighat Volunteer Emotional Support.” I spent three and a half months volunteering on the women’s side back in 2009. I still to this day struggle to process the experience; in fact, it took me almost two years to really speak of my experience there at all, it broke me down so much. I’m very sorry to hear about your experience with the long term volunteers. It makes me sad to hear that some of them were behaving that way. As someone who was a moderately long-term volunteer, I can speak of my own experience. At least when I was there, on the women’s side, the long term volunteers were often under a lot of pressure from the Sister’s to not spend to much time with the patients and to hurry along from one thing to the next because a schedule had to be kept. We were often scolded and hurried along if we stopped to sit with a patient who wanted to talk or needed some comforting. We were told which patients got the good lotions and which one’s were only allowed the cheap lotions. Once, a young woman who had the developmental level of a child was very sad and crying. Another volunteer and I took her hands and gently danced with her and got her to laugh (she was able bodied and by dance I mean the way you would take a toddlers hands in your own and rock them back and forth while shifting weight from foot to foot). The Sister saw us and told us to stop wasting time on her; she wouldn’t even allow the other volunteer to work with the patients for the rest of the day. If I wanted to sit with a crying patient to offer comfort, or to take a little extra time to be patient and gentle, I had to make sure that Sister was either not in the room or was so preoccupied that she wouldn’t notice me talking with someone for a few minutes. If you were caught not being fast and their version of efficient (though of course, so little there was actually efficient) you would be chastised and put back to work or sent away from the patients all together. Perhaps that may have played into some of your experience with some of the long term volunteers.
    Also, the volume of short term volunteers coming in was at times overwhelming. Every week, we had to teach new people what to do, only for them to be gone in a few days, followed by a new batch that needed teaching all over again. It’s not that anyone minded teaching, it’s just that all the time we had to take to show someone what to do was time taken away from devoting to patients, when we already didn’t have enough time to give proper care and attention to them. A sort of resentment did build up in some of the long termers as it seemed so many short termers would divert our attention from patients, and then would leave feeling so pleased as punch with themselves for having done their good deeds, sometimes at the very expense of the patients they were supposed to be putting first.
    I’m very sorry to hear about your experience, but I hope this maybe shines a little light as to another side of what may have been going on. When I was a brand new volunteer in my first weeks, I couldn’t get my head around the madness. So much of what we were being instructed to do made no sense. We were so rushed to get everything done. Everything had to be completed by lunch time. If you didn’t get it done fast, you were yelled at or worse, not allowed to work with the very patients you came to help and with whom you had started to develop relationships. We were asked to do things we had no training for: giving out medications to patients who we weren’t given a clear way of identifying when we had no medical experience; being asked to move or provide physical therapy to patients when we had no training whatsoever, and then not being allowed to do the one thing that we could have actually been helpful at, that is sitting with patients who were crying, who desperately wanted to have a hand held, who needed to have a laugh, or just have someone to see them as a person, as you aptly pointed out, was often now how they were viewed.

    Best to you!

    1. Brian K. Kissinger

      Dear Earl & Andrea:
      Your comments & stories both lift me up re: being able to help others & knowing there are SO many good/willing/selfless people out there willing to volunteer, YET concern me that “The Establishment” (with The Sisters/The Business/Whatever) gets in the way of taking care of the human being…

      I live in Dubai now with my Thai wife and am the American Founder/Current President of “Pax et Amor Inc.” (Means “Peace & Love” in Latin), an established US/International Charity since 2011 for “Healthcare & Humanity.” I’m blessed also to have more than 20 International & US Trademarks for the words “Pax et Amor” in a variety of areas ranging from Healthcare Services to Veterinarian Services to Agriculture to Beauty Supplies and much more…however we have not used them to their full potential…yet.

      My goal, or vision if you will, is to help as many people as possible with my Life’s Energy & our already established Organization/Trademarks, yet figuring out the “How” is the hardest part…

      Sometimes I feel establishing a “Home for the Sick & Dying” in Bangkok, Thailand (where we plan to move back to in the near future) would be appropriate, yet I’m concerned with the risk of “The Establishment” and other challenges in making it happen. Bottom-line, I need help I guess ;>)

      By the way, I am also a 2-time Survivor of “Terminal” Brain Cancer and a litany of other things that God has delivered me from that “most” people don’t survive (LOTS of LONG & “Of God” Stories ;>) And even after the “Second Terminal Diagnosis” – in 2012 our “Pax et Amor” Crew, with me as the Solo Pilot, established our 3rd Aviation World Record for Speed over a Recognized Course…that World Record remains UNBROKEN (like me & you if you’re reading this) today…

      I know how BLESSED I am & “simply” how AMAZING God is and want to share it as best as possible for all my remaining days.

      Mii Khwam Suwk – (“Have Happiness” in Thai)!!!

      Pax et Amor!
      Brian K. Kissinger
      Founder/Current President
      Pax et Amor Inc
      Dubai, UAE (today)

  12. Julie Petrie

    I really enjoyed reading about your volunteer experience at the MT House of Kalighat. I work as a volunteer for the homeless and other people who have met with some misfortune in their lives here in California and have noticed, too, that some of the long-term people I work with at our Center have developed a kind of “matter of fact/get the people in and out as fast as possible” sort of attitude. We do not offer shelter at the Center I volunteer for, but we do offer food services, clothing, supplies, and showers, as well as a host of other resources including drug and alcohol recovery programs that people can access in order to help themselves up to a better situation in life. However, some of our regular homeless guests have died out on the streets, and that is why I am writing to you today.

    I have searched the net and am having trouble finding anywhere here in America that will do as our beloved Blessed Mother Teresa did; pick up the poor and dying from the streets and care for them so that they may die with love and dignity. Does America offer any place for God’s people to go who are destitute and have been forgotten, who are literally dying on the streets without family, so that their EOL transition into death will be one of peace? If you know of such an organization, please let me know. I am aware of the hospices, but that costs money and medical insurance which most—if not all—of these people do not have. I am also aware of The Little Sisters of the Poor. But my understanding is that they only care for the elderly who are dying and are poor. I also looked up the Missionaries of Charity—-there are few located here in California—but I didn’t see any information where they provided this type of service. Could I have just missed it somehow?

    Thank you for any and all information you can provide me with in regards to this; I just became aware of this troubling situation in two instances now and no one there where I work seems to know anything other than that the authorities find and pick up the bodies and process the remains as “John Does”. I can understand this happening with relative frequency in a country such as India. But it is quite a shock realizing that homeless people die out here on the streets in America, too, alone with nothing to their name but whatever they have on their backs. At least if the dying homeless could be placed somewhere before they actually are found dead lying next to a garbage bin, they would have left this world feeling that someone loved and cared for them. This is what I believe was Mother Teresa’s charitable work, one of which we should surely be offering here in America, of all places.

    Thank you again, and may God abundantly bless and keep you always. You are one of His bravest, most loving Angels here on earth.

    1. Ann Catlett

      Julie, I’m writing two years after your entry so perhaps you have found some answers to your questions. There are a number of Social Model Hospice Homes in the US that are specifically designed to prioritize the needs of those experiencing homelessness who are dying: Sarah’s House in Santa Barbara, Joseph’s House in DC, The Inn Between in SLC, and a Welcome Home in Chattanooga to name a few. A group of us in Madison WI are working toward this as well. Harborview hospital in Seattle has a Palliative Care service that extends to the street. So, things are happening but quite slowly. There is a great need to extend typical palliative and hospice services to this population and to tweak the care delivery model so as to attend to their unique needs. I have hope that this gap in care is being and will be talked about more and more. Raising awareness is a start. I hope we can raise a movement!

  13. Aravind

    Hi earl….
    Your blog was very informative. I have planned to take up volunteer service in the month of October 2015 since its my first volunteer service for 4 to 5 days. Suggest me how to communicate and behavior with old ages.

  14. Jude Beh

    Hi Earl. I will be going to kolkata to vounteer this aug. Any places u could recommend for volunteer to enjoy and chill after a day of volunteering ?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jude – You’ll find out once you get there as the volunteer community is quite strong. Volunteers often gather at food markets, restaurants or cafes in the Sudder Street area, which is where most of the volunteers stay too since there are a lot of budget hotels in that part of town.

  15. SBD

    Hi Earl,
    This is a wonderful blog you have and I’m really glad that you give all sides of the experience and the observations you made there. I returned from Nirmal Hriday in August 2015 and I’ve documented my experiences in my blog as well. I do agree with you that better medical care needs to be delivered to these patients.

  16. SBD

    This is a wonderful blog you have and I’m really glad that you give all sides of the experience and the observations you made there. I returned from Nirmal Hriday in August 2015 and I’ve documented my experiences in my blog (blog.thelotuseffect.org) as well. I do agree with you that better medical care needs to be delivered to these patients.

  17. Serena

    I have decided a month ago that next year (starting January 015) I will quit my job and be a volunteer.
    I discovered lately that I find joy in giving. And that’s why my life plans changed.

    And thanks to your article, that I’ll try not to forget, I will be focused on why I chose to be there.


    1. Rich Davis

      Serena I am so happy for you! I wish i could do the same. I will be in Kolkata Jan 4-22, maybe we will cross paths. I think I will be at Prem Dam.

    2. Wandering Earl

      Hey Serena – This is really wonderful to hear and I hope you will please let us know how it goes once you get over there. I’m sure it will be a positive experience for you and for those you interact with!

  18. Andrew

    Hi Earl,

    I’m a teenager and was wondering what it takes to get accustomed to helping the poor. They are, of course, people no different than us, but did you ever get squirmy when attending to people with diseases? Did you ever fear catching diseases yourself or get grossed out by the effects of them? Is this a stage you overcome after a few days of volunteering? I’m just wondering since I really want to be as close as possible to helping the poor, but I feel that I might not have the guts to do so. Thank you so much for replying. -Andrew

    1. Rich Davis

      Andrew you will be just fine. I would think that the only issue you may have will be an emotional one. It is wonderful at such an young age that you won’t to help people. Good luck on you journey. I would suggest that you set up an appointment at a travel clinic and get the appropriate vacinnes, etched that you may need.

  19. Carlo Lauletta

    I visited Nirmal Hriday in 1975. Any tourist could enter, watch the sight of dying people, and take photos. The nuns made no objections. It was customary to leave a reward.

    1. Rich

      It is not that easy anymore. You can not take pictures inside and they check your ID card, to make sure you should be there.

  20. Justin

    Very happy to have read about your experience. I’ll be in that part of the world this coming June/July and am hoping to volunteer there also. Like you, it’s been something I’ve wanted to do for years. Glad that I now have perhaps more realistic expectations about what to expect – thanks.

    1. ALEX

      halo Justin m glad that u r going to volunter in mother terasa home in kolkata . its an paprotunity to meet some who s i ur hert that is God . i wish that ur volunteer service may sucessful an in return there is some reward from God it may be the wonderful things . may God bless u justin an wishing u all best . an see u in july i wel be there too meet Jesus. thank u.

  21. Henry

    I was sorry to read some of the negative experiences amongst the many great ones.
    I have never been to the MT houses but I know from working in health care that the psychological resilience of long – term care workers is a well known challenge in all health and social care organisations including even the best institutions in the developed world.

    I don’t pretend to have the answers but selection and ongoing training play a bit part. These are areas that the world’s best hospitals struggle with so developing world charities are always going to face a hard road.

    It’s very important to remember the overall good and remember that health care in the UK, USA, Australia, Europe is constantly criticised also!

  22. Erin


    I have the same reservations you mentioned about the amount of funding verses the quality of care. I find it immoral to have many millions and yet to continue allowing the poorest of the poor to receive substandard medical care.

    As for the apathy, I have found that even in soup kitchens in New York the long-term volunteers seem to forget their kindness at home in favor of simply getting the job done. It is important for a person to take a break, change up their organizations and remember the joy that volunteering brings them.

    Do you have other suggestions of organizations to volunteer with?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Erin – I don’t have any other suggestions for India unfortunately. There were other volunteers I met in Calcutta who were working for other organizations and really seemed to be doing some incredible work but I don’t remember the names of those organizations now. If I come across one though, I’ll add it to this comment!

  23. Karen Tawarayama

    I volunteered at Nirmal Hriday in 1995, at the age of 19, for three months.
    Honestly speaking, I had never witnessed the type of harsh treatment you speak of. On the contrary, everyone dealt with the residents with great care, whether it be bathing, feeding, or simply comforting. I know this for sure — Perhaps it was the particular group of peeople while I was there? Many of them have remained lifelong friends. One of them became my husband. Your way of criticizing this work disgusts me, and as sometimes common of storytellers, I think you might be exaggerating your memories. I agree with the follow-up comments, however, that more protective gear could be used by volunteers. But at the age of nineteen, I had no qualms about hugging the residents and giving them my best.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Karen – Thank you for your comments but I can assure you that I am not exaggerating. Just like you are still friends with some of those fellow volunteers, I, too am still friends with a couple of those volunteers from my time there. And during our time in Kolkata, we spent hours talking about what we were witnessing and how different it was to what we had expected, in terms of the treatment of the residents. I’m honestly glad to hear that you had a different experience as I don’t want to imagine what I witnessed being a regular occurrence. But unfortunately, the above is what I experienced.

  24. Sean

    I’ve just come back from Kolkata (last Tuesday to be exact).

    I spent approximately 10 days (2 in Prem Dan and 7 in Nirmal Hirday). When I was there, there were no long-term volunteers anymore. The longest was 2 months and even then, the volunteers rotated between houses. I don’t think anyone (besides the paid workers, sisters and the nurse) was in Nirmal Hirday for more than 2/3 weeks. There was also a lovely local couple doing clerical work for the sisters (book-keeping, accounts etc.)

    I really can see changes (I previously volunteered in 2011). Now volunteers are not allowed to perform ANY medical procedures. There is a nurse stationed daily in Nirmal Hirday (to perform dressings, insert IV lines etc.) and a doctor who comes every Friday to assess each patient. The standard of care provided by the nurse is very good, and she is very thorough with each case, ensuring that all the wounds are clean. She once spent over an hour ensuring that a patient’s wound was absolutely clean, before taking a break. In the end, the patient did not have to have his leg amputated. Even the doctor was impressed.

    When every patient is admitted, their blood will be drawn and will be sent to a lab for diagnostics and it will be assessed. Thus the sisters will get an accurate picture of what the person they have just picked up and will now have to pump resources into is suffering from.

    The sisters also make sure that each patient is treated privately (not publicly as they want their patients to get treatment quickly) and most of the patients, especially those with HIV, or TB will be discriminated against elsewhere. Also, a large amount of their expenditure now consists of purchasing of medical equipment and medication. (No expired drugs used at all anymore). I did not see needles being reused, and all sharps were placed into a makeshift (albeit safe) sharps bin.

    Remember, the money you donate will be spread amongst the Missionaries of Charity’s hundreds of houses throughout the world, not just Kolkata. The number of patients and those suffering are relentless. Most of the patients lack the resources to seek medical treatment, and roam the streets until they die or are picked up by the Missionaries of Charity. Decisions are also made in the patient’s best interests and in consultation with medical professionals. Physiotherapists also come regularly to help patients get back on their feet (literally). Also, the care in general is rather third-world, but it is consistent with the current standards in the region. Although if some of my criticisms were looked at.

    Some criticisms of the current standards of care:
    There were no personal protective equipment used by either the sisters or the volunteers. Most of the patients had either latent or active Tuberculosis. Without personal protective equipment, the volunteers and the sisters themselves would be susceptible to contracting tuberculosis.
    There was a general lack of protective equipment. (masks, gloves, hand wash) Gloves were only used by the nurse and the sister assisting her. Gloves were not worn during patient contact. Volunteers also did not bring much to donate, especially medical equipment but instead used most of the medical equipment on-site. This makes replenishing personal protective equipment a very expensive proposition indeed. (Volunteers should be asked to bring at least one box of masks, a box of gloves, and a bottle of hand wash each).

    Hand washing contaminated clothes were also done by the volunteers and the paid workers. This I believe was dangerous, I think they should be able to afford a washing machine at least.

    Overall, I would return to volunteer in Nirmal Hirday, but I will now bring significantly more personal protective equipment to donate.

    If you want to volunteer in Nirmal Hirday, please do. It really does brighten the days of the patients there. Please bring boxes of surgical masks, gloves and hand sanitiser if you do. Wear the masks and gloves as much as possible. 🙂

    Source: Me, a Medical Student.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Sean – I appreciate all the information there and assuming that’s the case, it’s nice to hear that such changes have been made. With that said, I’ve heard from several people who have recently volunteered there and their reports don’t exactly match what you’ve mentioned above and certainly don’t mention most of the changes you share but I guess in the end, it’s up to each person to experience it for themselves.

      1. Rich

        I just returned from volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, and things have changed since 2011, at least be reading your account, as I had never been. There were no long term volunteers while I was there. The men and woman were up at the time we arrived at 8 am and they would be up until after lunch. There was a Nurse that was there everyday and seemed to genuinely care about all patients and took her time.Disinfectant soap was available, in plain sight, and we were told to use it generously. I do believe that no one there should be washing the clothes by hand, and I am sure that money permits them to buy a washing machine. My concern would be for the few patients there that do not have terminal illnesses, be moved out asap, as they could become sick from being in close contact with other people who are very ill. While I will agree that changes can and should be made, I would say that applies to all of India’s health care system.I will be back next year.

    2. AKK

      Im hoping to go to kolkata soon to volunteer for Christmas but dont know what to expect
      I volunteered in the Missionaries of charity in sri lanka and the work I had to do was washing the patients feeding them and generally caring for them.
      Is this the kind of work I would do in Kolkata?
      Where did you stay and do you just show up at the missionaries and talk to the sisters about volunteering?

      1. Wandering Earl

        @AKK – Not knowing what to expect is what travel is all about 🙂 There are many things you might end up doing while in Calcutta…so there’s really no way to know ahead of time. I stayed on Sudder Street at one of the budget hotels there. There are many to choose from and this is the street where most volunteers stay, so it makes sense to stay here as well. This way, you can hang out with the other volunteers when you’re not volunteering.

  25. andrea keenan

    thank you for painting a clear picture, what i think your account provides is the side of volunteering that is rarely spoken about and for someone like me, who is only human after all, you make me question – where is my ‘saturation point?’. Your comments open up a channel of thought that i might otherwise have not thought about.
    I am just starting to research volunteering and feel very drawn to india and the MT organisation and i was planning on a 3 month visit to start with believing that i would leave with a strong desire to return but now i have another aspect to consider which i may have overlooked if i hadn’t read your blog, so i am very grateful, thank you.

  26. Eva Ameria

    Dear Earl,

    I think for a seasoned traveler like you, it was good to go to the source organization directly. For people like us, who tend to believe what people like is the source of dissatisfaction, since we are not thinking the way we are, we rather analyse the situation from the writer’s point of view.

    Why I am writing this is from my own experience of volunteering in India. I was volunteering in Rural Rajasthan with the organization called as – activeinternationals.org

    They were fine people with well laid our goals and honest dealing.

    I am not here to promote them, but I think I was lucky to find them. All this is relevant to what you have mentioned here is for the fact that from their side I received a lot of support and counselling to carry out my work. Without compromising the community’s comfort.

  27. Vivian

    I just read your blog and I was actually planning a trip there next year. I would be going myself and wondering if from your experience , the environment was safe. I have a lot of friends discouraging me to go because I am a single woman and they have been reports of violent rape. What is your perspective?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Vivian – If you use the same common sense in India that you use at home to avoid bad situations, the chances of anything happen are quite low. It really is all about common sense.

  28. Ratanayano Bhikkhu

    If you could stay there for six months, and were able to think and behave exactly the same from the first day to the last, I would salute you.

    1. Wandering Earl

      While that might be difficult, there should be a system in place to prevent volunteers from treating the people as anything less than people who need compassion and care.

  29. Molly

    I volunteered at the same place, in my twenties, when Mother Teresa was still living. There were many wonderful people there, and yes, it was a warehouse type scenario – what do you expect? There are thousands that need to be helped, with little funds or resources to provide for them.

    I find your account above – to be completely honest – not only incredibly self-serving (“I’m so special, I did everything so right and everyone else did everything so wrong and was so mean”) but really insulting in the way it is written, with little acknowledgement to the good that is being done, to the basic care being provided to many who would have none, etc.

    It is good you left, and good that you never will return.


    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Molly – The main issue I have is that Mother Teresa’s organization actually has millions upon millions of dollars, yet that money is clearly not used to improve the conditions at any of the homes that offer assistance. And I would expect an organization that is supposedly built upon a foundation of compassion, to offer compassion to those in need, not to offer extremely poor conditions and staff that treat the sick, elderly and dying as if they are nothing more than useless beings of no value. I never said I’m special but I do think that volunteers throwing dying patients over their shoulders, tossing them down on concrete slabs to be hosed down every few days, forcing open their mouths to take medicine and offering very little compassion at all is not what Mother Teresa had in mind.

      1. cohan

        Dear Earl,

        First of all, I have to thank you for the good work you did volunteering at MoC.

        I doubt that it is true that they have millions upon millions to spare. I did some back of the envelope calculations from some numbers available in the public domain, and this is what I see.

        The country that the Missionaries of Charity (MoC) are believed to get the highest volume of donations from is Germany, and the estimated annual contributions made to MoC in Germany are 3 million dollars per annum.

        Now, even if they are taking care of 10,000 people, that is only $300 per person per year.

        The highest estimate of their earnings I’ve seen is $100 million. They operate in 130 countries.

        So, if these sisters take care of even 1000 people on average in each country, they then have only $1000 per person.

        So, the criticism about them being flush with funds and not using the money given to them is questionable.

        1. Post

          Hey Cohan – Thanks for the comments. I think the other thing to consider is that all the work at these missions is done by volunteers and a high percentage of the missions are operating in countries where even $300 could go a very long way. Even with $300 per person, they should get more than a plate of the most simple food and one pair of the cheapest clothes possible. In my time there, I really didn’t see anything else that money was being spent on (laundry soap, I guess, and simple medication, which costs almost nothing in India). And they also get a significant amount of non-monetary donations as well from the research I’ve done – food, clothes, even medicine – making their operating expenses even lower. So while I understand what you’re saying, it’s not as clear as $100 million only provides for $300 per person. Once you take into account the lack of real expenses (as a result of poor quality food and clothes or non-monetary donations), that money is a lot more than it seems.

  30. Richard L

    Fantastic account, if depressing. Worked there myself some 25 years ago and some things were the same. The air bubble is a red herring, you need 20 mls of air intravenously to be a problem but the lack of compassion is a problem. One that MT recognized when she was alive and tried to reduce. People work at Kalighat for differing reasons. I remember Buddhists wanting to carry dead bodies to the morgue because it gave them good karma. Compassion could lack 20 years ago as it does now which is a reflection on the people who volunteer, and the fact that long-term volunteers are the worst (though they probably went in with great intentions and where more caring at first) shows how easily people can be emotionally burnt out. Working while burnt out is not only bad for the recipient of care but terrible for the giver when dreams of doing good become corrupted and they will know their standards are falling but accept it because no one pulls them up and others are doing the same.
    The care for these people needs to be as good as it can be, but it is given by untrained volunteers so technically it may not be good. The alternative for many of these people is to die alone on the street so this must be so much better. However, even if the care is technically poor, it must be delivered with true care and compassion; this is what MT wanted. Not to extend peoples lives but to let them die in relative comfort, with people around them who cared for them, loved them.
    I don’t know what the answer is other than to have someone who regularly visits and vets volunteers but I remember strong power circles among long-term volunteers even 25 years ago and wonder if the same is true today.
    People need to volunteer out of love and accept that if that love is being stifled by commitment or bloody minded determination to fulfill a certain time, that they should take time out without any sense of failure.

  31. Liyan

    Very sad to hear your experience. To be honest, I am planning to start my volunteer from Mother House. But this article made me hesitate about my plan: which is actually expensive for me.

    I think maybe I just should not expect too much from this volunteer. Anyway, let’s see how it would be.

  32. Joanne

    While I completely understand your reason for cutting short your volunteering, I find it unfortunate that those who will treat these people with kindness will be the ones to leave quickly (or not volunteer at all), and those who have no regard for their suffering are the ones who will stay for the long term. I can only suspect that the ones who treat them poorly do so to satisfy their own anger at mistreatment from the world in some way. The bully strikes out at those less fortunate to get back a little of the power he/she perceives was taken away. Not an excuse, of course, and those in charge at the missions should not be allowing or excusing such treatment. Thank you for sharing your personal account.

  33. Joy

    I volunteered for several months in 1990, and it was the same then. And at that time the drinking water in Nirmal Hriday wasn’t safe- sick patients would come in and get dysentery and die. The place was run as a showcase of poverty with groups of wealthy Catholics brought in to visit, and hopefully donate money, to the MoC. Where did all the money go? Certainly not on improving conditions for the patients. I saw a man screaming in agony as volunteer ‘brothers’ stripped rotten flesh from his kneecap, down to the bone- how was he supposed to recover from such a procedure. They didn’t seem to recognise him as a fellow human being. I saw a lot of things- including, sometimes even compassion.

  34. eileen hanley

    thank you for unbiased views .
    am hoping to combine my nursing and care career with volunteering on my planned trip to india next year ..think I can manage three weeks max ..tho if able could plan some type of sponsorship (maybe my present profit making employer) IN THE FUTURE , WITH THANKS

  35. TammyOnTheMove

    It is sad to hear that some of the volunteers were so insensitive. I think you did the right thing telling the other volunteer to treat the patients as humans. Just because you are volunteering your time, doesn’t mean that you can treat people like shit. I really admire that you actually worked in a hospice. I am not sure I could do it. I think I would be crying all the time. I have been volunteering on and off in Cambodia for two years now, but my placements are all office based, working for an NGO (I am a communications advisor specialized in non-profit comms). I would like to do some more hands on volunteering and always thought about volunteering in Kolkata.

  36. Lydia

    Im so sorry to hear about your experience there and your soon departure. But Im really glad to hear about people who still care about others, sure God wanted you there for that reason, may you continue with your daily life and experience giving example to others so it is in actions from the bottom
    Of our hearts that we found joy.

  37. Jacs

    From my school days, I have always wanted to help older people in poor homes. Today since morning I am trying to find the right home where I can be of help 24×7, till I browsed on Mother Theresa home. Can you please advice where I can approach them. I am ready to surrender all that I have earned and go to some home to help older people / teach poor needy children.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jacs – You just need to show up in Kolkata and visit their main office. They don’t really communicate with people online. At the same time, before you surrender all that you have learned, I highly recommend doing plenty of research of any organization you might work with.

  38. Charbel

    This is very disappointing to hear and also very disturbing. Im sick to hear how some volunteers have behaved. But do you ever wonder why the negatives always get the most attention and the positives don’t. Regarding the negative comments towards MT and what she has done i think its just as sick of what people have said about her. She was a remarkable women, i dont think one person here would touch hold or carry a person with leprocy disease.
    One persons unethical way of treating the needy should not be stereotyped, we should focus on the many volunteers like “Earl” that are there and commend them on what they are doing.

    Iam in india right now and dont have the time to stay for weeks but ive visited Shish Bhavan, and thanks to MT this place exists amongst many other missions.

  39. Junlei Li

    Thank you for the honest account of your experience. The inhumanity reminded me of some of the orphanages I had worked in, and the way long-term staff treated children with disabilities. The kind of attitude you observed in long-term volunteers seem like part of the “institutionalization syndrome” – something that shuts down and numbs the able-bodied even more than the residents.

  40. Pingback: La casa de la Madre Teresa de Calcuta | Viaje a la India

  41. Pingback: Visiting Mother Teresa’s House in Kolkata » Travelchat

Leave a Reply to Joy Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *