Volunteering At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying

Derek India, Perspectives 167 Comments

Kalighat

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.

A LONG-AWAITED OPPORTUNITY

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

THE VOLUNTEERS

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.

WHY I WALKED AWAY

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?

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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.

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      Derek

      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.

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  3. will

    Hey Earl,

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

    Thanks

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  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.

    2. DONALD KENNEY

      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.

        Martina

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          Derek

          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

    Hi,
    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

    Hello!
    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.

    Regards,

    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

    Earl,

    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.

    TL;DR:
    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

        Hi
        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

      Hey,
      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?
      Thanks

      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.

    Molly

    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
          Author
          Derek

          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.
    Richard

  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.

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  42. Jake

    This sounds like a terrible experience, but after having served there for a number of weeks as well, I have to question some of your observations. While being there (and this is statistically true as well, see Mary Poplin’s book Finding Calcutta) it is extremely rare for a person to die. In fact, the average is around a death or two a month, a far cry from one every single day.
    I found that both the sisters and long-term volunteers there quite loving towards the patients. True, they are not nearly as warm-hearted to the patients as many of us short-term volunteers, but this is because they realize a job needs to be done. If all of the workers there spent as long with each patient as the short-term volunteers, nothing would get done. They realize the job that needs to be done and go about it in a way that ensures that it happens. It is not done in an unloving way, rather, it would be unloving if they took so long with each patient for then some would become neglected.
    I had a wonderful all-around experience with both the Missions of Charity and Kalighat and can speak from personal experience when I say I definitely don’t agree with the majority of this post.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jake – Looks like we definitely had different experiences. As for the sisters, at least when I was there, they basically just sat around all day and left all of the work for the volunteers. The only thing they did was organize the medicine, which the untrained volunteers were then told to administer. As for the need to get a job done, I certainly can understand that, but if that means that long-term volunteers are allowed to treat the patients as if they were animals, just in order to get a job done, then I think something is wrong with the system. And the image of long-term volunteers throwing around these patients and treating them very roughly is something I will never forget. For me, it was a shocking thing to witness.

      1. Jake

        Wow! So bummed to hear that that was your experience. While I was there (only a matter of days ago) the nuns administered all the medicines and were constantly rushing around to help the next patient. Very interesting how we both had two completely different experiences, sorry to hear yours was negative!

  43. Liz

    I am a 50 year old Aussie girl who has had a burning desire to volunteer at Kalighat for a long time. Can anyone shed light a few questions-
    Where would the safest,clean,economical place be to stay?
    Do I need to get vaccinations?
    Is it appropriate to wear gloves for protection while at the hospice?
    Recommended places to eat?
    Is it safe to get around by myself?
    When would be the more comfortable time to go weather wise?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Liz – The best places to stay are generally in the area known as Sudder Street which is in central Kolkata. There are dozens of hotels here ranging from horrendous to wonderful, from $2 per night to $100 per night…so you’re bound to find something that suits your budget/needs and you’ll be around the other volunteers as well. Then to get to Kalighat, you just join the other volunteers in the morning as it’s a short metro ride away.

      As for vaccinations, that’s a personal choice…nothing is required but after consulting your doctor, you may find that some vaccinations are a good idea for you.

      You can wear gloves while volunteering…many people do that.

      As for places to eat, Kolkata is a huge city and so you’ll find plenty of places to dine, again, depending on your budget/tastes. In Sudder Street, there are several options serving western food and indian food as well as plenty of good dosa shops nearby. You’ll have no problem finding good places to eat in this city!

      And yes, it is a safe city for you to get around by yourself. As long as you use the same common sense you would use at home, the chances of something happening are quite slim. Also, this is the bonus of being in Sudder Street as you can spend your free time with other volunteers so that you will rarely be on your own.

      Hope this helps!

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  45. Bobbi Jo

    I am an American teacher living in Mumbai and I just went to Kolkata to volunteer during Diwali. I worked in Shanti Dan – home for girls. I met some amazing long term volunteers who cheerfully dealt with the horrible situations there and I was awed by their capability to love. But I also saw some disturbing things. Many of these girls could not speak, walk or feed themselves. Part of my daily duties were to feed the girls who couldn’t feed themselves. I fed them slowly and was careful to make sure they didn’t choke because they had a lot of trouble chewing and swallowing. Some of the mashis – workers- and the long term volunteers seemed to be impatient that I was feeding the girls slower than they were. They would pull the girls’ heads back and shovel food in and they would make gagging and choking noises. I understand there has to be order to keep a facility like this running but all I could think was that there was nothing to do all day but care for the girls – they had nowhere to go and nothing to do so I didn’t understand what the big deal was if I took 10 extra minutes to feed them. I will definitely consider going again, but only in 2-3 day increments.

  46. Patricia

    Hola Derek,
    Me podrías ayudar necesito el email del Afridi, es que ya no pertenece al ashreen y no puedo contactar con ellos y el que tenía me da error. Voy para Calcuta el día 5 de octubre durante 5 semanas…y aquí estoy sin lugar donde dormir.
    Espero que todo bien!! y seguro que no fue tan terrible como dices, quejica. Además sabes que las sister tienen que poner los hierros por los cuervos de Calcuta, en Madrid no hay….queda feo que incluya esas página web, pero bueno siempre es más fácil resaltar lo malo que lo bueno.

    Por favor, si lo tienes me lo envías al correo.

    Mil gracias

    Ahhh!! Soy Patricia, la española, madrileña de Calcuta del 2009

    1. Earl

      Hola Patricia! Por supuesto que me acuerdo de ti 🙂 Pero no lo tengo el numero ni email del Afridi. Solo puedo encontrar este email en el internet ahora: [email protected]

      Espero que es corecto!

      Tal vez voy a verte en Kolkata…voy a india el dia 25 de octubre por dos meses.

      1. Patricia

        Que sorpresa!!!

        Si vas por Calcuta allí estaré, quería viajar un poquito, por ver el Taj Majal que se comenta por España que está en la India y a la tercera espero verlo. De cualquier manera si andas x algún lugar de la India chulo a lo mejor me animo a ir.

        Anímate y nos vemos, nos tomamos unos zumos y nos contamos como nos va la vida. Que gracia si te veo!!!

        Haytienes mi email, yo el tuyo lo perdí, escribeme al email porque está página la he mirado por casualidad.
        Dónde andas, ahora?

        Ese email del afridi me da error.
        Mil gracias

        Un beso

  47. Adam Pervez

    Great article. I’m volunteering at a Mother Teresa home for sick and malnourished children in Davao, Philippines at the moment. I had a similarly difficult first day, but then you find your rhythm, make it less about you and more about them, and figure out how to make the most of your time there. Not sure if I’ll volunteer where you did in Calcutta though I’ll be in India very soon. I don’t do well with death. But thanks for sharing your story.

  48. Kate

    Speechless– what a remarkable experience to have.

    I stumbled across this posting after having watched the “Happy” documentary on Netflix, where I promptly Googled Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, which led me to your site.

    Just, wow. How wonderful it was of you to volunteer there and show compassion.

    Safe travels.

  49. Jake

    Hi Earl, and anyone else who may be reading this blog. I’m sorry to hear about your rough experience at this ministry. That being said, I hope to serve there this upcoming January 2013 and was wondering if anyone out there could help me get into contact with the ministry/nuns or just anyone who could help me get set up there. I’d really appreciate a number, email address, or anything that would help me get into contact with them. Thanks!

  50. Anita

    Hi Earl! It was interesting to read your post, I’m interested in volunteering myself during the next months. Just one thing I would like to comment in complete humilty is that when volunteering one should persevere until the end for the sake of the people you are serving, not for what you think is better in that situation. It’s about YOUR spiritual growth by giving to the needy patients, not about how other volunteers act. Obviously if you do not agree with it or would like to change it you should speak to the Missionaries about it, but I personally think it was a pity not to complete the mission God gave you because of others. We should try to change others by being an example, not by correcting them, that’s their part of the job. This is also an act of love! Take care, very best wherever you are! 🙂

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  52. Arindam Sur

    I am another person who know well about Calcutta and as well as India. I am Arindam Sur. I live in Calcutta. I have many volunteer friends who are currently working at mother house. This is a wonderful experience to stay with them, share experience.

    Any questions about Calcutta, feel free to ask me.

    Thanks to Earl to create this wonderful platform of Information sharing.

  53. Laura

    I am planning a trip to India with my husband and another couple. All of us are active and feel young in our early 50’s. It is my goal for us as a group to volunteer or give back for a few days during our 3 wks in India. I would love to go to Mother Theresa’s home for the dying and offer compassion to thoses in the end stage of their life. Please let me know if you think this would be a good shortterm placement for the four of us. I appreciate your website and all the detail, although so unfortunate about some of the volunteers you met up with. Thanks for your help. Laura 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Laura – While Mother Theresa’s Missions of Charity does offer the opportunity you’re looking for, in general, the organization prefers to have volunteers who can stay for longer periods of time, at least 1-2 weeks. While short term volunteers are accepted, it’s a bit different because by the time your learn the system (there’s a daily routine in each home that you have to follow that includes things such as washing dishes and doing laundry), it’s time for you to go.

      But in the end, it would still be a powerful experience.

      And if you have any other questions about India, please don’t hesitate to let me know!

  54. Renuka

    Hi Earl,

    Thanks for this post! I applaud you for all the great global insight you are giving us through your travels – will definitely continue to read your blog after stumbling upon it through this post. I also, like everyone here, applaud you for your honest account of volunteering, an account which I believe may be true for much volunteer work that goes on in this world.

    I have two questions for you. I’m a college grad looking for an eye-opening, enriching volunteer experience before starting the next phase of my life. I have a few days and will already be in India, hence I thought the Mother Teresa home would be a good choice. I have two questions:

    1) Do you still recommend volunteering? You did say that the short-term volunteers provided some much needed light in the place.

    2) I’m a little wary of putting myself at increased health risk, i.e. increased exposure to TB. Is this a significant issue? Is there any way I can protect myself better before going in?

    3) How can I find information on the various homes there? I’m interested in working with children.

    Please let me know, thanks!

    1. Earl

      Hey Renuka – I appreciate the comment and welcome you to the site!

      As for volunteering, I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re looking for an eye-opening experience. The only issue is that Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity does prefer it if you spend more than just a few days there, otherwise, by the time you learn the ‘system’, it’s already time for you to leave. You can still do it but it’s not the same experience in the end as staying for a couple of weeks I’d say.

      In terms of an increased health risk, that didn’t seem to be a problem and to be honest, it was never anything that crossed my mind during my time there.

      As for finding more information, basically, there is a gathering once or twice per week at the main “Mother House” in the morning where new volunteers can sign up and receive an orientation (you don’t volunteer on this day so make sure this day is free in addition to the days you plan to spend volunteering). And during that orientation you can choose which home you want to work in, right after they give you a brief description of all the homes.

      I don’t know exactly where to find the dates/times of the orientations though. When I was there I just asked around and got the information from other volunteers. But again, it’s usually once or twice per week.

      I hope that helps a little and if possible, I definitely recommend trying to volunteer for a couple of weeks 🙂

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  57. Carolina Ornelas

    Hi Earl,
    I’m going to India next month and I would like to do volunteer work. It came to my mind to volunteer for mother Teresa’s organization, good that I read this post, I’m impressed with your experience. Do you know other organizations in India which do you recommend to volunteer?

    1. Earl

      Hey Carolina – I don’t know off the top of my head any other organizations that I would highly recommend. But if you do go to Mother Teresa’s, you can start off by volunteering for a short time and during this time you will meet many volunteers from other organizations in the area. And then you can switch to a different organization if you find one that suits your needs a little better. But starting of at Mother Teresa’s is not a bad way to go, especially considering all of the people you’ll meet.

  58. Sheldon

    I wish I could say that this is a surprise, but it isn’t. Christopher Hitchens, one of my favorite authors and pundits, has been attempting to “out” Mother Teresa as a fraud for many years. People tend to imagine a selfless little nun, raising millions of dollars to be spent of the best medical care for some of the poorest and most needy people in the world. The truth is, very little actual medical care is provided for these people, and most of the money was spent on building monasteries and convents, as well as trying to reverse reproductive rights laws. She even took money from crooks like Charles Keating, and refused to give it back after his role in the S&L scandals of the 1980s was revealed.

  59. Catherine

    Hi Earl,
    i’m glad i came across your website!! It’s very insightful and it’s a pity that for those long term volunteer they have kinda forgotten the real reason as to why they are there in the first place.
    My friend an I will be going their next month for 2 weeks. Although it’s not a long stay we hope we want to get the most out of it! Would you be able to give me some advice as to what i should be bringing? And if it’s a good idea to bring some items as donation?

    1. Earl

      Hey Catherine – Thanks for the comment and despite what I wrote, I think it is definitely a great experience to be over there volunteering. As for what to bring, just some motivation and a positive attitude is really all you need. There is nothing specific that you will need while over there….apart from somewhat conservative clothing considering that you will be in India. As for donations, again, I wouldn’t bring anything. Once you’re there, then you can ask the organization if there is anything they need and simply purchase those items once in Calcutta. That’s much better than trying to guess what might be needed and bringing things from home.

  60. Pingback: Top Travel Blogs that I ReadThe Traveling Fool | The Traveling Fool

  61. daniel

    above everything, u need to understand that the PEOPLE need u, still…and by ‘people’ i mean the sick and the dying…here in calcutta i find so many ppl still in need of basic needs and dignity…it really pains me wen i find so many homeless and sick ppl everywhere..ur presence was INVALUABLE to Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying.. :))

    do take time and think bout all that i’ve said..

    1. Earl

      Hello Daniel – Thank you for your comment. The reason I left was not because of the behavior of the long-term volunteers. It was more because of the fact that such behavior was allowed by the sisters who ran the organization. Of course I could have stayed there, but I was not allowed to offer my advice or ideas or to help change the situation. As a result, I personally did not agree with the way the organization was being run and I decided to leave early. And, we do not need to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s to do good in this world. We can do good every minute as it all depends on how we treat everyone we come into contact with every day!

  62. daniel

    hi…i was inspired to read bout ur work at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying..
    it takes a LOT of courage, perseverance & COMPASSION to work in such conditions..but wat i dont understand is why did u leave the organisation just because of some of those long-term volunteers? i mean just because they were incompassionate towards the destitute and the dying doesnt mean u desert them…i agree their actions cannot really be justified…but u cud’ve stayed back and made a positive difference in their attitude…that’s wat Mother Teresa herself did in many occassions…u urself cud’ve stayed back and improved the situation though it may take some time & effort…and frm wat i’ve read i can understand that ur presence was very much needed as well…2morrow if u lie sick in a hospital and the doctor treats u badly/misbehaves with u does not mean that the nurses desert u…rite? i think above everything else u need to spend time in silence, praying…and let God guide u…many ppl dont listen to their vocation in the times in which we live..may God bless u abundandtly and grant u enuf strength…though im barely 18 years old im planning to check out Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying..and perhaps help if the Lord wants me to…God bless u, my bro…take care.

  63. JOVIN

    hi earl,

    I was planning to go to this place next week for 5 days for volunteering. i literally have any acquaintance in that place. i will have to go there and find a place to stay and so on . so can you advice me on the place to stay and other information which i should know before reaching there. All i have is information which i got from various internet sources and all of the dating from 2000 . So urs being the closest year, i would definitely like to get some feed back from you.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jovin – I can definitely offer you some advice. If you are flying in or taking the train to Calcutta, simply take a taxi to Sudder Street. This is the street that has many budget hotels on and near it and is where most of the volunteers stay as well. There’s also a few good restaurants and cafes and it is centrally located to get around the city. I’ve often stayed at Gulshan Hotel which is cheap, decent and basic rooms.

      Two excellent accommodation options are the Afridi Guesthouse and the Ashreen Guesthouse. Both are across the street from each other down a small lane just off Sudder Street between Mizra Ghalib Street and Hartford Lane. In my opinion, these are the two best budget hotels in Calcutta 🙂 Look them up on Google Maps and you’ll see exactly where they are located.

      Also, if you want to volunteer for Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity, simply go the Blue Sky Cafe on Sudder Street. This is a popular hangout for volunteers and just ask anyone inside if they know when the next volunteer orientation is. They are normally every other day at around 9am. Then you just show up at the “Mother House” at the correct time and day and they will get you all set up as a volunteer. It’s all quite easy!

      I hope this helps you out but if you have any more questions, just let me know…

  64. Isabelle

    Thank you Earl. I read your honest note with true interest. I see some people easily becoming judgmental or critical about certain aspects of volunteering with the sisters MC in Kolkata – let me share me thoughts. One thing I kept reminding myself during the month I spent there was “try not to judge”. Many people have quite a naive vision of volunteering, some others come hoping to “enlighten the poor third world country people”. Volunteering with the MC means, among others, being accepted to share a part of their life. Sisters are not an efficiency driven social enterprise. They work and operate according to their rules – part of it is a mystery to us. This also goes for the way the houses are run: I am pretty sure every volunteer on arrival had lots of thoughts on how to improve the whole system, how to make things better, how to ease the pain of the suffering people there. But… sisters have been running “the show” long before we arrived and will continue to do so once we are gone. May be they have a point?
    I have also witnessed some volunteers (or local workers) being , in my humble (?) opinion, unnecessarily harsh. Yet this has to be seen from a perspective: firstly, it is not a norm. Most of the people I met are sweet and gentle. I personally have not seen anything dramatic, but had few moments when myself was less than docile. It was hard to judge, what was better: to be nice to a child who refused to eat or to try to shove food through his/her throat, because you believed you’d exhausted all other ways? And what if the child is undernourished and must gain some weight, but still refuses to eat? These are not easy moments and may be relate to few situations mentioned above. But – believe me – they are not the clou of the volunteering experience. To me the whole volunteering was about giving and receiving, about sharing love. It was about lots of personal experiences for each individual. Ultimately, the invitation to join and help the sisters is just a starting point: everyone will make his/her own experience out of it. One last remark: the ambience among volunteers was something special. It was a “clean” environment, made of really good people, from anywhere, religious or not. It felt safe emotionally: lots of people with good intentions at heart create really positive energy. I don’t regret any minute of my volunteering experience in Kolkata!

    1. Earl

      Hey Isabelle – I appreciate you sharing your story and thoughts with us! And while I do agree with what you said, I found that the sisters were putting a great deal of their trust in the long-term volunteers as I was typically even referred to these volunteers by the sisters whenever I had questions. And if the harsh treatment of the residents was as obvious as it was to us short term volunteers (I had many conversations with other volunteers about the situation), it should have been obvious to the sisters. If it wasn’t obvious to the sisters, then I do believe that something is wrong with their system, as compassion clearly wasn’t on the minds of those being given the biggest responsibilities. I don’t fault them at all for not being an efficient enterprise, but if compassion is indeed their business, standing by as volunteers handle residents as if they were sacks of rice, is not acceptable to me.

      As for the community of volunteers, yes, that was a wonderful experience to be a part of such a group. It seemed that our desire to volunteer united us all, regardless of where we came from, and helped us to instantly form friendships that carried on beyond the homes of Mother Teresa. The gatherings around Sudder Street each night, with 10, 15 or 20 volunteers sitting on a rooftop talking with each other for hours and hours, learning about each other and sharing stories, really had an effect on me as well. Many of us felt as if we had known each other for 20 years and yet we had just met a few days prior. That was an experience I certainly will never forget…

  65. Mike Forrester

    Earl did you know that all the funds from MT based projects were tken from them by the state on 10-5-06 and are now “under state control for promoting western ideals”-so the millions or whatever was there were taken by some crooked gov agency-I dont think that is open public knowlege but I was a vol there when it happened and that could be part of the reason for the overall decline-and why like the washer/dryer situation doesnt happen ect-I am going back to help 9/2011 with some outside funds(small) but they will be controlled by me and I have no outside agenda except giving the people you spoke of as much care as I can-when I find out all the problems I expect to run into I will let you know once in awhile-you have an interesting life-keep on keeping on

  66. sujata

    Hats off to you. Why did i say that? Because it takes guts to do something like that. It is something not everyone can do. I can’t do but I have ample respect for people who does that. It is very sad to learn how things are. Though I have been staying here for sometime have never been to that place though I heard of it. Actually i am from northeast part of this country (I know you don’t have a clue about the place). If you look around, there is so much poverty. I wanted to do something about education for poor children who can’t afford it but I never really got the idea how how to start one. I hope one day you will give me some insight because if i do hope to do something i will certainly need help from all walks of life. Anyway that’s for the time to come but for now all i can say is think about the happiness you might have given some people on your stay there. The harshness of life will still be there but maybe the smile you brought on others will ease away some of the pain.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sujata – Thank you for your comment! I understand fully your thoughts about all the poverty in India and your desire to do something positive for the children. Like you mentioned, it is quite a challenge to organize, but determination usually wins out in the end, especially when you think of the benefits that such action could have for so many people.

      And I do know about the northeast of India. I’ve spent some time in Meghalaya and explored the region during another visit to India 🙂

      1. sujata

        Indians over here don’t know and care little about the Northeast states so i assumed outsiders have little chance of knowing (sad reality of this country). Sorry about my preconceived notions. Heard Shillong is one of the most beautiful places, never been there though. As much as you have traveled i can say exactly the opposite (though not proud to admit it.) Have been to Sikkim and because it was cold there. Surprisingly, clean and beautiful too. Cleanliness is rare in India I suppose. I realized hot places are not for me. My temper flares up. As the temperature goes up, my tolerance level goes down. Anyway, I have heard Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most beautiful unexploited places in India but transport could be bit difficult i guess. Next time you are here, check it out and let me know. At least that way, I can learn about places.

  67. Dawn

    Thank you for sharing Earl. I have been planning to volunteer at the exact same place you were. I truly believe the Lord is calling me to go, but He is preparing me for the experience first.
    If I would have had it my way, I would have followed my hearts passion and probably not even lasted a day. Recently I finished a hospice training course and will begin volunteering 4 hours per week. I am enrolled in a course to learn to process the emotional trauma’s life places before us. One more piece of prep material…I began reading Mother Teresa’s letters, but all of these things could not have prepared me for what your story revealed.
    Thank you for the insight. God’s will is sovereign and I believe He will follow through with His plan for me to serve the destitute and dying. I am understanding better now why I wasnt able to just pick up and go months ago.
    I am only 1/4 through Mother Theresa’s book, but one thing that I continue to read in her letters is how she wanted herself and the volunteers to live exactly like the Indians. I believe this is the very reason that a volutnteer’s relationship with the Lord must be tight. To be and remain fully dependent upon God is the only way to volunteer for long periods of time. God is the only one with enough strength and compassion necessary to care for people in these conditions. To volunteer in conditions like these is a mission of faith, not one to be taken lightly.
    I agree also that some volunteers have gotten lost and yes, desensitized. This breaks my heart.
    I pray the Lord will show me how to make a difference in this area once He releases me on my journey to serve Him. I pray volunteers can keep in the forefront if their minds that they are serving God and tending to His children to bring them home to Him.
    Thank you for your huge heart Earl. You completed your mission by telling the truth. You brought light to my world and I believe God is getting a lot of peoples attention through you. One thing I have learned, God isnt interested in fixing situations or fixing people, He is interested in changing people and their heart in the situation.

  68. Terri

    Hi Earl,

    I agree with all of the posts above…what an awful experience you had, although I’m sure it has changed your life for the better in some way. I work in a hospital and attend the spiritual healing services on Wednesdays. I always try to say a prayer for the health care workers as well as the patients. My experience is that everyone here has the utmost respect and compassion for our patients, however, I can’t imagine dealing with health/death issues every day of my whole career. The phrase “compassion fatigue” really seems to describe what those volunteers go through. They really must not know how they are behaving. I hope after reading this we are able to somehow make a difference in a caregiver’s life to stop this behavior.

    1. Earl

      Hey Terri – I too believe that there is no way the long-term volunteers know what they’re doing as any person in a normal state of mind would see that this behavior is just wrong. And I can understand how endless days inside of that one building could create such a situation. I just wish there was a way to prevent this from happening, not only to benefit the residents but to benefit the long-term volunteers as well. And as you guessed, this experience did change my life for the better in the end as I was forced to deal with many things that I previously never had to deal with or even think about. It was more educational than I ever could have imagined.

  69. John Bardos -JetSetCitizen

    Another great post Earl.

    I think this desensitization happens in all walks of life after a long enough time. You can see it in the lousy service in restaurants and stores, the way we treat our family members, and especially with workers in more bureaucratic jobs.

    I think all of us can benefit from remembering that we are interacting with “actual human beings.” Customers are not a nuisance, they are paying our salaries. The people we interact with everyday have families, jobs and problems just like everyone else. Most importantly, the sick, young or others not able to properly defend themselves deserve some basic level of respect and protection.

    Your experience is very inspiring.

    1. Earl

      Hey John – You know what, just yesterday I was thinking about a post you once wrote about the difference in service between Japan and Canada. And it touched on exactly what you just mentioned above, something that I think most of us tend to forget from time to time. It does seem that people treat others, no matter what our relation, as things we are forced to deal with, not as fellow people. When I was just back in the US last week, I was shocked every time I went anywhere at how I was treated. Seeing a smile from someone in a shop or restaurant was rare and in the end, was quite frustrating. Everyone seemed so miserable.

      I’ve always thought that human interactions should always start with a greeting. A simple ‘hello’ or shake of the hand is often all it takes to establish a connection that is positive instead of reverting to our negative treatment of each other. And in the case of my experience at Kalighat, this also would have proven true had the long-term volunteers taken the time look the residents in the eyes and simply smiled.

  70. Jennifer Barry

    Hi Earl, at first I was shocked by your post. I’m still appalled, but thinking back to my years working in group homes with disabled people, I’m not so surprised. After a while, you get compassion fatigue. I think the only way to deal with this is to rotate people into different sites, give time off, and monitor behavior to make sure it meets standards. Also, experienced staff who have had a break or don’t work the “front lines” all the time could model more compassionate behavior.

    I also want to add that I’m very impressed that you took on this challenge voluntarily for free.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jennifer – That is the best term I’ve heard to describe what happens – compassion fatigue. And I agree with your solution. The problem at Kalighat is that it is a volunteer organization that chooses to scrape by and spend as little money as possible. As a result, there simply is no system in place to monitor the situation and nobody seems interested in creating one. But it really would make a huge difference if they worked on a way to prevent this fatigue from occurring.

  71. Sandra / Always Well Within

    Thank you for sharing this story so honestly. As someone else said above, I’ve also seen treatment like this in care facilities in America. It’s not just reserved for the poor, although they probably bear the brunt of it far more. You have a big heart and I can see why this has troubled you so much.

    As horrific as it might seen, I think it’s important to do our best to have compassion for the long-term volunteers too. We can only reach each other and create change and better circumstances when we come from a place of love. I’m not condoning their behavior, but it sounds like they need help too.

    It was very brave of you to volunteer and face poverty, illness, and death straight on. Death is our greatest teacher. It has the power to infuse our life with meaning and substance. We will all be like those dying men one day. We don’t know when or how, but it will come to pass. So let’s make this moment count.

    1. Earl

      Thank you so much for your comment Sandra and you are of course completely right. It is important to show compassion for the long-term volunteers as well as I am certain that their behavior was in no way intentional. They are dealing with things that few people on the planet deal with and they are doing so day in and day out for months at a time. It is therefore only natural that they are so deeply affected by their environment. And this is why I think Kalighat needs to put a system in place to detect and counsel those who wish to volunteer for extended periods of time. Otherwise, inappropriate behavior becomes the norm and the atmosphere of compassion starts to fade. Such a system would benefit the entire organization.

  72. Laura

    I find it interesting how you compared the short-term and long-term volunteers. So often people speak negatively of short-term volunteers and how little impact they can actually make and yet in this situation you make a good point- the energy levels & passion make a huge difference. I don’t know how you managed to stay six weeks. Just reading your descriptions made my stomach churn- I couldn’t handle it in person. Such a sad thing for people to lose their sense of humanity. No one deserves to be written off in such a way. Thanks for sharing this Earl.

    1. Earl

      Hey Laura – When I first began at Kalighat and told them I would stay for 2 months, the reaction by those in charge was quite positive. They told me that it is frustrating to have short-term volunteers (who stay for a few days or a week) because they repeatedly have to train new people. However, after my experience, I can honestly say that Kalighat is missing a major opportunity to harness the positive energy that these short-term volunteers offer. I was impressed by almost every short-term volunteer who tried, in the short time they had, to make life as comfortable as possible for the residents. Their short-term efforts seemed much more valuable to me than the behavior of those who had been there for months.

  73. Talon (@1Dad1Kid)

    Powerful experience and story! Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I work in hospice in the United States which is FAR different than what you participated in in Calcutta. Wow. Just incredible.

    I visited one of their orphanages/homes for the mentally ill & discarded in New Washington, Aklan, Philippines and was thoroughly impressed. Even though I wanted to take photos, I was so pleased they don’t allow it. Sounds like two very different worlds.

    I wonder why those people continue to volunteer there when they seem outwardly to have lost so much of their passion and interest. It’s enigmatic to me.

    1. Earl

      Hey Talon – It’s great to know that the conditions where you work are significantly different, which I hope is the case with most hospices around the world. The structure was definitely in place at Kalighat to turn it into a respectable hospice but there just didn’t seem any desire to improve anything. And I too wonder why people continue to volunteer if they’ve lost their initial motivation….my only guess is that they don’t notice themselves how much they’ve lost their way. This seems like enough reason to put a monitoring system in place to ensure this doesn’t happen.

      I appreciate the comment!

  74. Jason

    A fascinating and at times hard to read incite what is no doubt a tough world for all involved. I’ve never experienced anything like what you described above and after reading it, I don’t think I want to.

    I for one don’t like to judge people, unless I have lived in their shoes, and I feel that volunteering at Kalighat is just about as tough as it gets (outside of a war zone or refugee camp ect..) I commend you for even attempting this Earl.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jason – It definitely was one of the greatest mental challenges I’ve ever faced and believe me, I debated long and hard about writing this post. I didn’t want to portray those who have dedicated significant time to helping others in such a negative light but I really felt that more harm than good was being done in some situations. Of course, nobody knows exactly what was going through the heads of these long-term volunteers so the above is merely my simple observations.

  75. Amanda L Grossman

    That must have been an incredibly difficult ordeal, and I commend you for trying it out.

    As a daughter of a nurse, I can tell you that people who deal with health and death on a daily basis have to have a certain practicality about it, and have to separate themselves emotionally from what they are doing. This is no means an excuse for treating someone poorly, but I notice in my mother that she is a busy body and tries to hide her emotions and feelings and go into “nurse mode” whenever anything emotional happens. She delivers babies for a living, and has only ever had one die on her. It was a traumatic experience, but she has never spoken about it. She just goes about her duties.

    1. Earl

      Hey Amanda – I think that what you described is exactly what occurs when surrounded by so many people in such poor health for so long. And even for me, after just a couple of weeks at Kalighat, I began to block my emotions upon seeing certain things. Finding a balance between getting the job done and properly caring for those in need is the key and I will admit that it’s not easy to achieve in such a situation.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I appreciate the comment!

  76. Sabina

    Oh, my gosh, my initial reaction is I can’t even read this. Seriously, after reading your opening, I just barely skimmed the rest. This is just horrifying. I hope neither I nor anyone I love has to die like this. I am really sorry to hear that anyone on earth does. I’ll be lying awake tonight thinking about this. But I’ll come back and read the rest of it later, I promise.

    1. Earl

      Hey Sabina – It’s definitely a tough debate although I will say that during my time there I did feel that the conditions inside the home were probably better than the alternative for most of the residents, which would probably be a gutter or street corner somewhere, without food, clothes or a roof over their head. But of course, they don’t deserve to be treated in such a manner and steps could easily be put in place to improve their situation even more.

      1. Sabina

        Okay, I just read the rest of it. It was great of you to stick it out for six weeks. They must have missed you when you left. You were really strong to do this. I don’t think this type of volunteerism is for me.

        1. Earl

          Hey Sabina – It’s definitely not for everyone and there were plenty of volunteers that showed up and never came back after their first day. Luckily, there are endless other forms of volunteer work out there to choose from if one feels so inclined!

  77. Usha Amudan

    I visited Kalighat recently but it was closed for some reason and I never got to see the insides.

    There are volunteers of such kind everywhere. And its not only volunteers, I used to spend time at this private home for the aged, and the nurses (some with over ten years of service) there were rough. Its as if the years spent, desensitizes them. So yeah..its sad. 🙁

    1. Earl

      Hey Usha – I agree that it’s not only the volunteers. I think that at Kalighat though, it was only volunteers as there weren’t any regular, paid staff. The only other people were the handful of sisters that helped out as well and while they weren’t rough with the patients, they did allow the other volunteers to be rough. And that’s strange that it was closed when you visited. I wonder what’s going on with that…

  78. Katrina Stovold

    I had heard that precisely this kind of treatment was given to patients there. I am sad to hear it confirmed. Is there not some kind of oversight for organizations like these? The Red Cross or even Amnesty International would surely have some insight on how to report these abuses. Because that’s what they are — abuses.

    1. Earl

      Hey Katrina – To be honest, I would have thought the organization itself would have tried to prevent such behavior. After all, it was the volunteers acting this way and there were a handful of sisters from the organization, including the sister in charge of Kalighat, on the premises every single day. But nothing was said at all. I wonder if there are ever inspections that take place….I’ll have to look that up.

  79. Dalene - Hecktic Travels

    This post really shocked and stunned me.

    Not that I don’t expect that these sorts of things to happen in the world, but I don’t know, I guess it will always shock and stun me when people seem to have just so little compassion for another human being.

    As much as these people need volunteers like you to make their life better in any small way, I can totally understand your decision to walk away from it. I don’t think I would have lasted that long.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dalene – I just couldn’t understand why people would volunteer to work in this environment if they weren’t all too interested in actually showing compassion. There doesn’t seem like much of a point to spend 7 hours per day in these conditions just to angrily toss people around. But because of the volunteer hierarchy, the long-term volunteers were in charge of the other volunteers despite how they treated the residents. And this is why I had to leave early….

  80. rose

    That’s disturbing. My brother works in immigration and described a similar distancing happening in the people working there. They may not deal with life and death situations, but they often end up splitting up families for years, sometimes forever. Some people become so jaded after working there for some time, dealing with fake bank statements and made-up family ties, that they believe everybody is just in it for the money and comfort of a Canadian residence, and forget that these are real people with real problems and feelings. What a scary thing to see!
    It must have been quite difficult for you to stay there for those 6 weeks. Tienes todo mi respeto – I would be crying myself to sleep every night.

    1. Earl

      Hey Rose – I thought about this and wondered if the long term volunteers starting seeing only complaining people who are not thankful for the food, bed and roof they receive. As a result, they trudge on, treating everyone with anger. However, nothing is keeping these volunteer from walking out the door so I’m not sure why they would stay unless they don’t even realize themselves the cycle that they are in. Either way, it’s a crazy situation. And even though it was difficult, those brief moments of conversation with some of the residents made each day worthwhile and temporarily overshadowed my frustration with the conditions and treatment.

  81. Peter

    It’s interesting to hear your first-hand and honest portrayal of these homes. It’s actually not the first time I’ve heard similar comments regarding the lack-of upkeep, standards and humanity in these places.

    While Christopher Hitchens has quite strong views (which many don’t agree with), I remembered this article while reading your thoughts:

    Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

    Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the “Missionaries of Charity,” but they had no audience for their story. George Orwell’s admonition in his essay on Gandhi—that saints should always be presumed guilty until proved innocent—was drowned in a Niagara of soft-hearted, soft-headed, and uninquiring propaganda.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2090083/

    While many would say the patients are better of in a place like this, rather than being left to die alone on the streets, it’s no excuse to treat the patients with a lack of compassion and humanity. It’s good to see the behavior of the other carers didn’t desensitize you from the wrongdoing and you had the courage to walk away.

    1. Earl

      Thank you for sharing that link Peter and I have read as well the views of Christoper Hitchens, much of which I agree with.

      As the paragraph you mentioned stated, I too was confused by the poverty-loving practices. A constant topic of conversation among the new volunteers was ‘where is all the money going?’. For example, when it comes time each day to wash the residents’ clothes, volunteers throw the piles of clothes into a huge vat full of foul-smelling strong chemicals, beat them with wooden sticks, wrench them by hand and dry them on the roof top (which was quite dangerous as it requires volunteers to walk on a somewhat flimsy roof). Surely, one washing machine and dryer would be a low-cost, effective and safer way to wash the clothes, while freeing up the volunteers to interact with and assist the residents in a more meaningful way.

      Just because it’s India doesn’t mean the conditions inside must reflect the general level of poverty, especially when there are millions of dollars available and the organization’s aim is supposedly fueled by compassion.

      It was tough to walk away but something wasn’t right and as a result, I couldn’t continue.

  82. [email protected]

    I’m stunned by your account of what really goes on at such an otherwise (naively?) esteemed organization. And I genuinely applaud your efforts there. I’m honestly not at all sure I could have lasted a week.

    That said, I believe the culprit in such situations might well (as @jill says) be simple “burn out”. A malady that few under such conditions can expect to avoid in the long run. That of course IN NO WAY EXCUSES such utter disrespect for the precious human beings (no less deserving of simple human dignity than the long-term volunteers themselves) they are entrusted to care COMPASSIONATELY for.

    But as “burn out” in such cases is likely unavoidable (we are all imperfect, weak human beings at best, after all), then it seems that there should be some sort of mechanism built into the Mother Teresa org’s care system, that includes a mandatory limitation on how long a volunteer can continue and/or continue without a goodly break (i.e. weeks or even months before they can return.)

    More importantly (and this, imho is the crux of the matter) – the Mother Theresa organization is DERELICT in not better monitoring such morally reprehensible behavior on the part of its long-term volunteers, and ensuring – no – make that GUARANTEEING that such behavior will NOT BE TOLERATED.

    In short, thank you for posting this incredible eye-opener. An excellent example of why each of us best carefully research the organizations we (sincerely benevolently) toss our rubles at.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dyanne – I absolutely agree with you about the burnout factor as I simply cannot imagine anyone starting off as a volunteer, and lasting more than a couple of days, if their initial intentions were not full of compassion and a desire to do some good. Your idea about there being a limitation on the length of service sounds like an excellent solution to me as I also believe that many of these long-term volunteers were not even aware of their own transformation. The problem is that the organization itself didn’t seem organized enough (or interested enough) in how the volunteers spent their time. After I signed up at the orientation, I never again interacted with anyone from the organization except for a few polite greetings with the sisters at Kalighat.

      And the fact that there is no monitoring system is, as you mentioned, the most shocking aspect. It just seemed that it was a ‘we provide beds, food and a roof’ mentality, without any desire to do more or ensure that the conditions are improved beyond their most basic level.

      Thank you for your comment and for joining this discussion!

  83. jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World

    Ah, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I used to volunteer at an animal rescue group and noticed myself the difference between those who’ve worked there for a long time (very business, efficient, yet had little time to soothe and comfort) and the newbies like me (who cried at the littlest thing). I had to leave because I was getting burned out and wasn’t quite ready to see myself becoming one of the them.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jill – Your experience is quite similar indeed. The longer one volunteers, the more business-like they become and when it comes to dealing with people, or animals, especially those that are in poor condition, business without compassion just doesn’t work. And unfortunately, this proves to be a turnoff for new volunteers who arrive full of positive intentions, ready to dedicate time to helping those in need. As a result, the organizations end up losing those who they need the most.

  84. johnny

    i was in calcutta last year mate and although i didnt volunteer (wish i had had the time) i thought it was an eminently spiritual place – i’m shocked to find out the truth from your eyes mate, that’s awful. No one can doubt your intentions but this is really awful and something should be done :S

    1. Earl

      Hey Johnny – I won’t even go into the spirituality aspect of my experience. That was a different issue which I mostly avoided by constantly repeating that I’m Jewish (which I am). But to be honest, I felt the same way as you during my previous two visits to Calcutta (which is why I wanted to return for 2 months of volunteering), that this was a dedicated organization doing everything possible to attain their lofty goals. I’m still glad I volunteered even though it left me quite frustrated in the end…

  85. Ozzy

    Here’s a little insight. At one point I actually was and technically still am an EMT-I (can start IV’s, give all types of drugs except narcotics, put tubes down peoples throat, etc). When you are working in that field you see horrible things and death constantly. You either make light of it, joke about it, and not take any of this to heart or it will destroy you. After saying that I have to say that the EMT you described in this post was a horrible EMT. Just because you don’t internalize any of it and joke about it (away from the patients) it doesn’t mean you take out any of your frustrations out on any patient, ever. They are still people who deserve the best care you can possibly give them.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ozzy – I agree with you completely and appreciate you sharing your own experiences. Trust me, even us short-term volunteers would sit around at some cafe, eating lunch and making light about what we’d seen that day. We needed to do this in order to remain sane, and of course, we weren’t at all trying to be disrespectful. The EMT clearly had no outlet and so, after a year, I can only imagine what must have gone through his head every day. And if the result is a lack of respect for the lives of those he’s chosen to serve, then it was definitely time for his to take a long break.

  86. Kirsten (@dodgylodgey)

    I used to work in aged care in Australia and unfortunately, even in expensive care facilities you get individuals who aren’t fit to be carers. I often witnessed staff being rough with people who were just so frail. I eventually got sacked because I was taking too long showering 8 terrified residents in 2 hours. It appalled me that I had 15 mins to coerce someone into a shower, dress them, talk to them and make them a cup of tea. Thank god that place closed down. My hat goes off to you for volunteering at all… But especially in an environment like that!

    1. Earl

      Hey Kirsten – Your experience in Australia seems quite similar and I agree that the conditions and behavior I described can be found all over the place unfortunately. Any organization with rules that force us to value time or business goals over human life is not an organization I want any part of!

  87. Gillian @OneGiantStep

    Thank you for the honest portrayal. I wonder what takes those long term volunteers to that place of seeming uncaring? I have to think that they started with the same intentions as you did…what happened and how could they not see that they had changed? An interesting experience all around for sure.

    1. Earl

      Hey Gillian – I too feel that the long-term volunteers must have started out with the best of intentions. And I can also see how so much death and illness (the deformities and diseases that some of these residents suffered from were simply devastating) can change a person. However, I don’t have an answer as to how the volunteers themselves were not aware of the change, and even worse, how nobody of authority thought to step in when they noticed such behavior. If nobody steps in, then the volunteers will continue with their behavior and that lack of a monitoring system (which seems like common sense to me in such an environment) is what really confuses me.

    1. Earl

      @TravelingAlex: Absolutely. You’d think that when the goal is to serve those most in need, such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated at all.

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