The experience of volunteering of Archanaa Seker

Before I visited Adaikalam for the first time, I didn't know what to expect. Deep down I was nervous, anxious and a little afraid, but I was determined to not display these emotions. The sight of the residents, oblivious to their surrounding, unconcerned about their appearance and childlike in their behavior, instantly opened up a new world for me.

As I stood there looking at them, I decided that I wanted to enter each of those make-believe worlds and create a difference in their lives. With this goal in mind I put my foot forward, when Sylvia came up to me and said, "Take this Dear, a small gift from me. Don't be afraid." thrusting a chocolate into my palm. I was elated to be accepted so quickly and smiled at her, when she said, "Oh, so you like chocolates? Tomorrow I'll give you a bigger one!"

After this I met several other residents of Adaikalam. I read out an invitation to Subbu, which she followed word by word. Once we got done, she proudly announced her accomplishment to the other women around. Then there is Vasuki, who wants to go back home to her family as soon as possible, and Kalaichelvi, a very sharp girl who spent a good three hours talking to me about books, college, and her future. Malathi, who joyfully calls all the residents her sisters, Devaki , who wants to go on a field trip with everyone once in a while, and Bhavani, who was just content holding my hands, all wanted to come back to my house with me. But Adaikalam is in every sense their home, where they all live together as sisters, as one big Banyan family.

I have been to Adaikalam few times now, and each time I dread having to start all over again. But no one there has forgotten me which makes me want to see them all more. I am friends with all of them now. All of them lovingly call me "sister" and keep asking me to eat with them. Thamizhrani, Lakshmidevi, and Sonia never fail to say hello and talk to me. Visalakshi is with me throughout the time I spend at Adaikalam, sitting beside me wherever I am. Sylvia and Rajalakshmi talk to me about their families.

Everytime I leave Adaikalam, they enquire when I'll come back. Sometimes they have small requests for me, which I happily yield to. One day I took them all sweets and I haven't seen more jubilant people before. It is truly stunning how the smallest of gifts leaves them completely satisfied. A box of crayons, a pair of bangles, a packet of bindhis, is all it takes to see them jump up in joy. Their gratitude for these tiny offerings depict in greater magnitude our selfish needs and wishes. My respect for these women, who yearn for nothing more than love, has increased tenfold. Yes, it is difficult to understand them. But all it takes is a little patience, a little effort, a little care, little time and lots of HOPE.

Julia Holle, Chennai

"He is suffering from depression, for years.but I can't tell him, he doesn't want to hear": while travelling in India last year an Indian psychologist told me about her father and his suffering. Moreover she emphasised a lack of institutions that care for people with mental health problems. This aroused my interest. As a psychologist from Germany, I have been confronted many times with an unawareness of mental illness; it could even be described as a social taboo. I started searching for more information about psychology in India and came across the homepage of 'The Banyan'. This NGO seemed to work exactly in the area that the Indian psychologist had not been able to find: offering a variety of services for people with mental health problems catering for their individual needs, as well as a platform for discussion, public relations and research.

I didn't want to miss the chance to get to know the Banyan; to learn about their way of dealing with the difficulties in this area and to contribute some of my knowledge, acquired in research and practical work in the field of community-projects and psychiatry in Germany.

Volunteering for the Banyan has been more enriching than I ever expected. I have not only broadened my knowledge by reviewing literature in different fields but have also been able to see how pragmatic research can be. The everyday contact with the staff and dialogues and discussions I have had and heard, have helped me gain a deeper insight into what working in Indian mental health means and looks like. In addition I received a lot of input from the colleagues that surrounded me; their amazing energy and sticking power in fulfilling the task of spreading awareness of mental health problems, their determination to enlarge the services for their clients and their political activity and advocacy are just a few of the things that impressed me and that I will take back home.

I appreciate all the experiences I have had and hope to stay in contact with all the wonderful people I have met, be it personally and professionally.

Anne-Sophie Cuq, France

Volunteering with the Banyan is a story of sharing and friendship which started when I offered to join Adaikalam to help for three and a half months; the first step in a wonderful adventure. I am a French student of Psychology and during a break in my studies I wanted to do something meaningful for the cause of people with mental illness. For this, The Banyan was the perfect organisation to support. Before I arrived in India I was already impressed by the concept of this innovative organization and the more I have discovered, the more my regard grows.

I was involved in Adaikalam, the Transit Care Home, where I happily lived and worked amongst 250 women with mental illness. This place is not only a shelter but also a haven of peace where everybody is working hard to help these people to regain the life they deserve so much. I had the pleasure of being involved in the Psychology Department: a fantastic team of professional and staff who are wholeheartedly committed to the needs of the residents and achieve outstanding work with devotion, generosity and bravery.

At Adaikalam, most of the women have lost almost everything but are still able to give you so much. The smiles of these amazing persons who daily fight against unbearable suffering is an extraordinary experience. I wish everybody as much happiness as I have received in offering my heart and time to the women of The Banyan.

Vinay Paulose

I have spent many a holiday working at The Banyan over the last few years, and given the sheer variety of ongoing projects at any point of time, I can always find something new and challenging to work on. The whole structure of the organisation makes it rather volunteer friendly. Right from when I was in school I had been given responsibilities to shoulder at The Banyan and a free hand in meeting goals the way I wanted to. And whenever I needed help, the whole team has been there to back me up.

The most recent project that I worked on is the 'Breadwinners' cafe. This is a cafe at the Lady Andal school started by The Banyan in order to provide employment to men and women who have overcome their mental illness. Along with Mirjam, Chaitali and others at The Banyan, I tutored the residents who were going to run the cafe. We conducted sessions on various departments like spoken english, cleanliness, accounts, stock taking, public relations, etiquette etc. After giving them a basic foundation, they interned at the 'Give Life Cafe' in Loyola college before starting work in Lady Andal. We started the cafe on 13th July 2009. It has been a week now and it is going great guns.

Needless to say, it is an excellent feeling to know that I have put my summer vacation to good use. And credit is due to the Banyan team that facilitated that. Kudos on another job well done guys!

Mr. R. Santhanum

'A man who goes quietly about his work' is how Mr. Santhanum was described to me. And this is exactly what I found when I met this volunteer at Adaikalam where he comes on whichever mornings he is free to help out: be it in the Pharmacy or on reception - wherever he is needed he is there. His relationships with the other staff members are respectfully friendly, and the affection from both sides is evident in the brief exchanges that punctuated our meeting.

After 38 years of service to the Government offices of India, Mr. Santhanum took well-earned retirement and is now comfortably living with his wife near Anna Nagar. It wasn't always so contented for the family; during the early years of his marriage, when his children were born, Mr. Santhanum struggled financially with his meager Government salary (Rs. 75 per month). The growing family lived in a mud hut in Chennai struggling for supplies and school fees. These years of dedication and hardship, combined with the rigor of a Government job, cemented Mr. Santhanum's desire to work with those less fortunate than himself.

It is this positive, inclusive attitude that is so valuable to The Banyan. His enjoyment of this 'human service', as he calls it, is essential and infectious. His values and principals ensure that he propagates what he stands for: a lack of segregation and quality patient treatment. And this is why he has chosen The Banyan to voluntarily spend his time.

'They don't want medicine' he posits, 'they want love'; Mr. Santhanum's smiles show this in abundance. The Banyan is lucky to have such a strong man as part of the team.