Thursday, 23 October 2014

Where I'm Volunteering (and What We Eat There)

If you've been wondering what I've been doing for the past (almost two!) months, besides eating...the answer is mostly eating. But! I've also been volunteering several times a week, since arriving in Kodaikanal, at Grace Kids Centre, a crèche (like a preschool, kids ages 3-5) run by the non-profit organization Help-Kids-India (p.s. to anyone who found this post through searching for Help-Kids-India, I apologize most deeply for the profanity in my blog title).

Help-Kids-India, an organization which runs Grace Kids Centre and 3 other preschools in and around Kodaikanal (which I hope to visit soon) provides education, as well as 3 meals a day, healthcare, uniforms, and lots of love, to kids ages 3-5. Each creche has a current enrollment cap of 50 kids--and all are full. These kids come from Dalit families—that is, what used to be known as "untouchables," the lowest caste in India’s caste system, systematically discriminated against for years. Although the caste system is "officially" no longer legal, people from these communities still face very real discrimination all over India. Parents from these communities are often financially unable to put their young kids in school. These parents are often working labour-intensive jobs, with long hours, for little pay. Not only do the crèches provide valuable education, nutrition, healthcare, and community for these children and their families, but having the younger kids in school often means that older siblings are able to attend school also, where before they might have been kept home to look after younger siblings while parents worked.

I've been helping out with daily activities--with kids this age it's important that there are lots of adults so that everyone gets plenty of attention--and sometimes leading crafts and activities: drawing pictures, teaching letters and numbers, and making paper chains, and handprint art. 

These kids (and their teachers) are pretty much the best:

morning activities...butterfly song? I follow along with the actions but I don't understand Tamil so I can only guess.
duck-duck-goose/dance. where the tagged person has to go in the middle and do a dance! This dancer is Leya, the daughter of Selvam, who is the caretaker of the house we're renting.
And now, of course, to stay on-theme of this blog, I'll tell you now about the completely delicious food at the crèche. The kids eat first (I always eat with the kids for some reason) and then the teachers eat while the kids take their nap. 

always rice, with veggies, proteins, and a sauce. Here it was cabbage, okra, potatoes, and chick peas.

Another thing that I have yet to mention on this blog is how Indians eat. I find it weird that I didn't know this before coming here, but maybe you all already do and I'm just ignorant (very possible). Anyway, in general, Indians eat entirely with their hands. With their right hang, specifically. Eating with the left hand is considered impolite and unclean, the right hand is used for all eating--and there is a technique so that you never actually have to stick your fingers in your mouth. All the pictures I'm about to post are of children, but I promise you adults manage to make this look pretty graceful. This method of eating is partly why every restaurant in India has a handwash station--even food stalls on the street will often have a bucket of water for this purpose. 

on my first day at the creche I felt pretty proud that I was at least less messy than the 5 year olds. 
At the crèche, kids get breakfast--usually a variation on porridge, and milk. One of my favourites is kesari, a sweet wheat (rava) based porridge made with cardamom and cashews. It's often considered a festival food, so we had it last Friday morning at the crèche as yesterday was Diwali (they had the week off).

in this highly flattering photo, I'm helping teachers Thilaga and Selvi (the head teacher, an amazing woman) distribute the breakfast--bowls of kesari. 
The meal plans for the crèche are clearly well-thought-out, and emphasize veggies and protein. No child is refused second helpings, and food never goes to waste. Some of the food they cook with comes from a garden in the backyard, tended by the same women who teach and cook. 

Different day, different meal: curry with potatoes and tomatoes, and a hard-boiled egg for each person. It's the rainy season now, so we often have to eat indoors.
right hand only! 
Hygiene and healthcare are also heavily emphasized at the crèche. The children are taken frequently on field-trips to the local hospital's medical centre, where each child is weighed, measured, and has an individual check-up with the doctor. Medicines are administered to the children at school by a nurse who works with the crèches. On a more day-to-day level, basic health and hygiene practices are taught: handwashing, brushing teeth after breakfast (I am now a pro at the dispensing-of-toothpaste-to-excited-children), coughing into a sleeve, etc.

After meals, some of the older kids help out with cleaning and putting away the dishes, as well as sweeping stray rice off the straw mats and the floor. 

If you'd like to read more about this incredible organization, or to donate to a very worthy cause, please visit! There's lots of great information on the website, including explanations of the other projects besides the creches (like the smokeless cookstove project--visit the website to learn what that is!).

COMING SOON: street food, rice noodle bowl recipe, and lots of pictures of animals eating!

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