In rural India, Donna Watson helped build a brick wall to keep goats out of a village school yard. On a two-week trip organized by the social enterprise Me to We, Watson also saw how a new well dug by its charity partner, Free the Children, helped bring more girls to the village school because they can now walk to class and fetch water in a single trip.
It’s a far cry from Watson’s own school, the Healthy Earth Bilingual nursery and kindergarten, where water comes from a tap and most domestic animals are dogs out for a stroll on Queen Street East.
But it’s because of Healthy Earth that Watson got to visit India.
Students and families at the school raised $5,000 to support the work Free the Children is doing in the village Watson visited, which is about two hours outside Udaipur, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. While most of Watson’s students are preschoolers, they have talked about the village, its school, and a little about India at large.
“It’s never too early,” she says.
In the same room where Healthy Earth students do yoga, Watson keeps a display showing photos from the village.
One shows the weathered anganwadi building where a doctor visits just once a month. Another shows the bright yellow noticeboard that tracks the 100 days of labour guaranteed to working-age people in the village under the local welfare system.
Still another shows an older man tasked with maintaining one of the village’s new water wells.
“I love the model,” Watson said, referring to the way Free the Children trains local people to handle long-term upkeep of any new infrastructure that the charity builds.
“I know there are an awful lot of other organizations that go in, do a quick fix, and leave,” she added.
Volunteering abroad has come under heavy media criticism lately as a growing number of companies offer short-term “voluntourism” trips that are often equal parts sightseeing and volunteer work.
Watson saw a recent documentary broadcast on CBC’s DocZone called Volunteers Unleashed, which she recommended for a view of what to avoid.
“You have to do your research,” she said.
Even with Me to We and Free the Children, organizations co-founded by Canadian activists Marc and Craig Kielburger, Watson felt some discomfort at having better lodging, food, and water during her trip than the villagers she was there to help.
“But then I really understood where it went,” she said, noting that much of the $4,000 paid for her own trip goes to charitable programs.
“Without those dollars, they couldn’t even begin to do the work that they’re doing.”