Finding Peace in India

This is a post from UniversalGiving team member Janet Oh, about an experience on her recent trip to India.

“Ear clean?  Rickshaw?  Guesthouse?  Boat ride?”  After travelling in India for a week, I needed a break from being a tourist.  The constant offers for services and subsequent haggling was exhausting.  I soon developed a habit of avoiding eye contact, looking down, and just shaking my head “no.”  In trying to develop some street smarts, I had also lost my sense of humor.

On a flight from Udaipur to Varanasi I met another traveler, Tanya, from Switzerland.  Tanya caught my attention immediately.  She was smiling, laughing, and just generally having a great time.  She was the traveler I wanted to be.  My husband and I struck up a conversation with her and sure enough she loved everything about India.  “It’s so beautiful!” she said again and again.  She had been traveling in India for seven weeks.  What was her secret?

Tanya said the highlight of her trip was volunteering for a week in an orphanage.  She and a friend taught math classes and tutored kids.  She was clearly moved by the experience.  Unknowingly, she had planted a seed.

48 hours later I emailed Rashmi, the Director of the one orphanage I knew in India.  My husband and I ended up there two days later.  For the first time on our trip, we were out of a tourist area.  Even our rickshaw driver wasn’t familiar with the neighborhood and had to stop for directions multiple times.  It was on that village road that I started to feel more like myself – happy, carefree, curious, and open.

Janet pushing Arpeeta on the swing, in Haridwar, India

When we finally found Sri Ram Ashram, it felt like we had entered an idyllic paradise.  The orphanage was on 17 acres with its own wheat fields, dairy cows, and vegetable garden.  Immediately, the girls took my hand and the boys gave Graham a tour.  It was as if they were expecting us.  “Push me on the swing, didi!”  “Watch me hang from this tree!”

For three more days that’s basically what I did.  I got to know the kids, pushed the little ones on the swing, and learned the Indian version of hopscotch.  To say I was volunteering would definitely be a stretch since the kids had really taken me under their wings, welcoming me with total warmth, showering me with attention, and teaching me the ropes.  Not only did they seem happy and well-loved, but they were kind, generous, and playful.  They all asked me the same question, “How long are you staying and when are you coming back?”

Just as it was for Tanya, my visit to the orphanage was a highlight of my three week journey in India.  While there are many selfless reasons to volunteer abroad, there are also selfish ones.  My time at the orphanage was definitely the most authentic of all my interactions in India – a time when I could take a break from being a tourist, laugh, be open, and connect with others.

Explore volunteer opportunities abroad!

Contest Winners: Volunteering in Haiti, Article #4

This is another installment in our series of articles on volunteering in Haiti, selected from the articles written for our contest with Helium and GlobalPost.  Read our first article selection and more background here.


By James Mallon

The Non profit agency called UniversalGiving provides people the opportunity to use their skills to volunteer in countries where their expertise is urgently required. The organisation also accepts donations, but their real vision is to “Create a world where giving and volunteering are a natural part of everyday life”.  This is a practical and personalised form of making a donation; it also means the recipient receives 100% of what is possibly the greatest gift of all, your very own time and commitment.

Two years have passed since a catastrophic earthquake shook and reduced a large part of Haiti into a pile of debris. Most of this rubble still lies in the place where it fell today, as if in honour to the forces of nature and its merciless potency.  This disaster obviously attracted the attention of worldwide governments, charitable groups and relief agencies, including UniversalGiving who have several schemes in operation, to help rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure.  Some of the volunteering projects available include rebuilding Homes, summer camps for children, Medical supplies, clean water and teaching.

The projects are all equally important; they highlight the basic human needs that people are lacking in this country, with respect to community services and life saving supplies and equipment; items we simply take for granted.  Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and will need huge financial support and manpower just to resuscitate it back to its impoverished pre-earthquake lifestyle, which most of the population were originally accustomed to. Haiti has been in economic turmoil for years and the arrival of that natural disaster, complicated matters to the extreme.

If I was offered a volunteering opportunity from UniversalGiving, I would request a project teaching children for the reason they are the most vulnerable members of any society. Before the earthquake, there were approximately 380,000 children living in orphanages, which is nearly 10% of the child population in care.  After the tremor, it is not fully known how many additional children became orphans, or how many more should be in care, as a result of losing their parents in those tragic circumstances.  Irwin Redlener, a representative of Columbia University, said “I think we’ll be facing the most horrific disaster for children in memory.”  It was also stressed that rebuilding efforts in such circumstances, often focused too heavily on the infrastructure, instead of communities and schools.

In any disaster situation, what really matters is the stability and welfare of children.  The earthquake destroyed most schools in Port–au-Prince and the surrounding regions, so there is an urgent need to rebuild their schools.   Prior to the earthquake, only 2% of children completed their school education because they were forced out of the learning process through abject poverty.  In theory, elementary education is compulsory, but most children drop out before they reach the fifth grade. Education is meant to be free for children, but only 15% of schools are government controlled, with the remaining private institutions charging tuition fees.  Education is simply too costly for most families to support a population of children under the age of 18 years, which accounts for nearly half the population.

Many nations occasionally suffer a temporary form of amnesia, which prevents them remembering that their youth is the future of their country, and that the appropriate investment in their education system should be made.   Haiti suffers permanent memory loss, due to a poor political system, corrupt governments and poor administration that places little emphasis on important social community needs.  It is very unlikely that even with, or without future tragedies, that this country will pull itself out of the huge abyss of poverty it has been entrenched in for the last couple of centuries.

The latest tragic event has resulted in many children suffering from post traumatic stress; therefore any form of stability will bring an improvement to their lives.  Providing them an education will provide a modicum of human attention, which will hopefully bring them some normality while enriching their knowledge through schooling.   This would be a sufficient enough reason to provide some free time, which would be a very good cause; however it will take more than a couple of weeks to mend the pain and suffering that these children have endured over the last two years.

See the winners and read more articles on the Helium website!

Contest Winners: Volunteering in Haiti, Article #3

This is another installment in our series of articles on volunteering in Haiti, selected from the articles written for our contest with Helium and GlobalPost.  Read our first article selection and more background here.


By Benny Muiruri

The world watched in horror as the 2010 Jan, 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit one of the poorest countries in the world bringing the nation of Haiti to its knees. Buildings were reduced to pieces and lives were lost. Many people were left homeless and children, orphans. It was estimated that the total damage was over US$ 3 billion and more than 300,000 lives perished.

Down the line, two years later, “All over Haiti, the atmosphere was and continues to be one of fear and uncertainty.” (UniversalGiving). According to the NGO – UniversalGiving – the country has suffered 15 major calamities in the past decade. This means the 2010 Jan disaster left the country poorer and the government overwhelmed.

Out of goodwill, many countries pledged money, NGOs rushed to help in whatever they could or areas they were specializing in; and individuals donated their money and others, time. However, even as the country receives aid in various forms to rebuild it, there is still more that needs to be done, especially volunteering.

Volunteering enables a volunteer to get at the need level – the heart of the affected person. The person who is helped will feel appreciated, cared for, loved and have hope for the future despite what happened and the consequences that followed. This is particularly true when it comes to children, since most of them lost their parents or guardians. Mother Teresa said while alive and which rings true when it comes to volunteering, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do,” and “We are all pencils in the hand of God.” How true it is when it comes to volunteering.

UniversalGiving, a non-profit organization mandated to vet NGOs that want to offer their services in Haiti has various volunteering opportunities. A volunteer can decide in which area to work in as UniversalGiving has given descriptions of the NGOs in its main site. It assures volunteers that they are working hard to ensure the NGOs wanting to offer their services in Haiti “…meet the highest standard of quality, transparency and trust.”

Among the volunteering opportunities offered by UniversalGiving is teaching children. God’s Children Ministry, a non-profit vetted by UniversalGiving offers opportunity in teaching children. The NGO was founded in 1989. Its mission is to help the people come out of poverty by providing the necessary aid. Therefore, “In recognition that poverty ravages many areas of Haiti, victimizing families, children and the elderly, we dedicate ourselves to a ministry of relief and development to aid the poorest of the poor. Wherever possible, our work is not to sustain the needy but rather to break the cycle of poverty that plagues them.” This, the NGO does by “providing educational opportunities and focusing on community development.”

If I had 2 weeks of free time to volunteer and decided it would be in Haiti, it would be teaching the children at God’s Children Ministry. What should be noted is that many children are still traumatized by the 2010 Jan earthquake. They do not understand why this had to happen to them. They lost their parents or guardians. They feel hopeless, helpless and depressed. As a volunteering teacher I will be able to talk to them, encourage, inspire, uplift and motivate them. Then, they would know that disasters such as earthquakes are natural causes and there is not something they did bad to deserve it. The most important thing is to light hope even if it is a small one in their hearts.

Also, as a volunteering teacher I will be able to impact in their young minds the skills I have learnt and education gained through the years which among them includes teaching English, computer skills, soccer and enabling them to bring out the talents that are in them. This way, their talent will be nurtured which will be of great benefit in the coming years.

Knowledge is power and it is the key to unlock the future. Once they know this and gain the necessary education, not only from me, then they will be creative and innovative in finding ways of creating jobs and improving the economy of the country when they grow up. If a high percentage of people are literate then the poverty level will decrease at a high margin.

As a volunteering teacher, I will be able to empower them by “heightening their awareness of their rights and responsibilities, their abilities, and enhance their self-confidence to enable them improve their lives” (UNESCO).

“There are no great things, only small things with great love. Happy are those.” (Mother Teresa).

See the winners and read more articles on the Helium website!

Contest Winners: Volunteering in Haiti, Article #2

This is another installment in our series of articles on volunteering in Haiti, selected from the articles written for our contest with Helium and GlobalPost.  Read our first article selection and more background here.


By Paul Lines

Giving time on a voluntary basis is one positive way we can assist people, including children, to rebuild their families, lives and communities, and give them hope for the future. This gift of time, even as little as two weeks, is especially important for people in a country like Haiti where, over two years since its capital and surrounding areas were destroyed by a major earthquake and aftershocks, over one and a half million homeless still live in squalor in tent cities and the rubble of destroyed homes and communities.

UniversalGiving is a non-profit charity organisation, which focuses upon bringing together in one place projects that require volunteer help. In Haiti, these projects range from helping to educate children to becoming involved in the disaster relief and reconstruction projects that are still desperately needed for people in a ravaged country who often seem to be have been forgotten by the outside world.

Personally, in giving two weeks volunteer time I would focus upon the reconstruction projects. In particular, I would wish to participate in those projects related to the reconstruction of the country’s water, sanitation and sewage systems, and to provide the resources and information to enable the Haitian people to protect themselves by purifying the water they use and drink.

The reason I would choose this project to give my time to is that the population of Haiti, which witnessed approaching half a million deaths following the earthquake and aftershocks, and nearly three times that number being made homeless has, since October 2010, been in the grip of another potentially fatal catastrophe, this being an outbreak of Cholera. This outbreak is, according to Jon Andrus of the Pan American Health Organisation, “one of the largest cholera epidemics in modern history to affect a single country.”

To date, over half a million people in Haiti have contracted Cholera and around 200 new cases are being reported every day, a number which is likely to escalate during Haiti’s rainy season in April. Although the rate of deaths has been reduced through the efforts of aid agencies, the number of Cholera fatalities in Haiti is still continuing to rise. This means that yet more parents in Haiti are losing their children, or visa-versa, and families who have already suffered the loss of loved ones are being subjected to yet more grief. However, fatality is not the only consequence of Cholera. Cholera can result in low blood pressure and kidney damage.

It can also be passed easily by an infected person to others, especially in a country like Haiti where sanitation conditions remain a problem following the earthquake.

In western communities, we turn on taps with the assurance that comes with the knowledge that the water we drink has been purified. We are comforted by the fact that sanitation and sewage systems will eradicate water-borne disease that might be harmful to our health. Even when supplies are disrupted, we have the means and knowledge to purify our water supply in the home.

The population of Haiti does not have these comforts and confidence. The earthquake in 2010 destroyed most of the country’s sanitation and sewage infrastructure. Even many people who live in the more rural areas are several miles from a clean water supply. The displaced and homeless, who remain in the supposedly temporary tented cities and rubble in areas like Port-au-Prince, once the jewel in Haiti’s crown, are forced to gather water from any available source, which often means puddles and other supplies of rain water that has been contaminated by sewage and other water-borne dangers. Many of these people do not have the funds or access to equipment and sanitary products to be able to cleanse the water they use for cooking, bathing and drinking.

Andrus’s report reveals that although efforts are being made to restore the sanitation infrastructure in Haiti, these are falling woefully short of what is needed, and that it will cost around $1.1 billion to construct and develop the plants and systems that will provide the people of Haiti with a clean water supply.

It is for these reasons that volunteering two weeks of time, or even longer, to assist with this area of reconstruction would be so important. If these two weeks reduce the rate of Cholera infection by ten people a day, ten volunteers would halve the current prevalence of the disease. Not only would this provide the people of Haiti with respite from the grief and suffering they have had to endure for over two years, but also give them hope for a healthy future. However, simply explaining what project to volunteer for is not enough. To make a material difference to Haiti’s sanitation and water supply problems, one has to make a positive commitment.

See the winners and read more articles on the Helium website!

Contest Winners – Volunteering In Haiti

UniversalGiving recently participated in a contest with Helium and GlobalPost, inviting writers in the Helium community to write articles about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.  The contest generated numerous wonderful articles, and we’re delighted to share a few of our favorites with you.  We selected our favorite articles focused on the situation in Haiti and on ways to volunteer, and will be posting them over the next two weeks.  Here is the first one today!


Helping Haiti – One Stitch at a Time

By Rachelle de Bretagne

If someone told you that you could spend the next two weeks of your life in substandard conditions with outside latrines, chances are that it would dissuade you. Every day, people learning a little more about humanitarian work spend their time in just such conditions, knowing the significance even a small contribution can have. These are the volunteers who take their place among thousands of other volunteers helping a cause. What potential volunteers may not appreciate from the offset is that the very people that they are there to help will teach them some of the most important and fundamental lessons of their lives. These are life changing opportunities for both volunteer and victim.

When non profit organizations such as UniversalGiving offer people the opportunity to help out in Haiti, the range of work volunteers can do is varied. For many, giving two weeks of their time to volunteer may appear to be an insignificant effort to help a problem of this magnitude. During the Haiti earthquake two years ago, up to 300,000 people lost their lives. The exact count is not known, though the scale of devastation is. Former President, Bill Clinton, used the catchphrase “build back better” although the reality for many inhabitants of Haiti is that it isn’t happening quickly enough.

In January of this year, The Christian Science Monitor reported that “520,000 people are still living in tents or under tarpaulins in 758 camps” waiting for temporary homes to be built. It’s a slow process. The work of UniversalGiving is valuable because each of the activities offered to volunteers falls into specific areas of immediate need. Their mantra is not that they give to the needy, but that they help the needy rebuild the structure of their communities so they are more capable of providing for themselves.

Looking at the opportunities available through UniversalGiving, if I had two weeks to spare, the area I would volunteer to would be to help with the work of Gods Children Ministries. Not being physically strong enough to move mountains and build homes, this would be a realistic job. My experience of working with children from underprivileged areas of society in the past, with a special emphasis on mentally and physically handicapped, means that I already have the groundwork needed to work in one of their homes for orphans. I speak their language which is also a huge advantage to communication and can share the music of my guitar, which has a universal language of its own.

Faced with disaster, the flow of millions of dollars being pushed into Haiti means nothing to a child. It’s lip service to suppose that it should although, of course, more funds are needed daily. What the child needs is to know that someone is there to wash their clothes, braid their hair for school and help them with their homework. They need to know that someone cares sufficiently to be there for them and volunteerism gives people that chance to prove that the world has not forgotten them. They need someone to patch their trousers, kiss their scratched elbows better and to help mend their fragile belief.

Each child placed into a home run by Gods Children Ministries is a child saved from potential rape, child trafficking or a life of hardship and abuse. In August of last year, a report by Rolling Stone quotes Julie Sell of the Red Cross as stating “We are ramping up recovery, but we are still out there digging ditches . . .” and that still holds true today as witnessed in the footage shown on The Christian Science Monitor video. Everything moves slowly.

To get things into perspective, Nicolette Grams of The Atlantic describes what is happening to children in Haiti and the very graphic truth is that they are being failed by their own broken society, with many being used as prostitutes who are thrown out on the street if they get pregnant. To these kids, money isn’t what seems important. What is more meaningful lies in the motto of Gods Children Ministries:

“Medicine and bread for sick and hungry bodies.
Literacy for hungry minds.
Love for hungry hearts.
Christ for Hungry souls.”

No one needs love and stability more than the children who have suffered such huge loss within their young lives. Teach one of these forgotten children that someone cares, and in return they will teach you why you volunteered. Children in these situations never cease to astound volunteers. Humbled by what they teach you about yourself, rather than what you teach them, the effort will have been very worthwhile. If I ended up in a home for children sewing up old clothing or mending that which needed it, then that contribution would have been meaningful. Given that opportunity, volunteers are actively helping put Haiti back together, even if it is only one stitch at a time.

See the winners and read more articles on the Helium website!

UniversalGiving Partners with SOCAP

UniversalGiving is thrilled to be working with SOCAP!  They’re preparing for their conference this May in Sweden, and we’re happy to help spread the word.  Here’s information on this exciting event:

On May 8-10th, 2012 join the world’s leading social impact innovators for SOCAP: Designing the Future in Malmö, Sweden (a short 20 minute train ride from the Copenhagen airport). Designing the Future gathers the world’s pioneering impact investors, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, government and civic leaders, and innovators to design a world that’s better for all.

What makes SOCAP different? SOCAP brings together more world-changing individuals than any other conference. SOCAP’s collaborative format includes keynotes, in-depth conversations, problem-solving sessions and explorations of new models mixed with practical lessons from the field on what’s working and what’s not.

Space is limited – Register Today!
>>> Register here

New Website Tells Stories of Nonprofits Who Inspire

This is a guest post from the BCBSNC Foundation.

Everyone has a story.  Stories of courage.  Of hope.  Of perseverance.  Stories of people who are changing lives.

Stories that make you inspired.

At the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) Foundation we have the great fortune to work with inspiring people every day. Recently, we launched an online effort ( to share these stories with others in the hopes of bringing them inspiration too.

From a program aimed at getting children outdoors, to dentists committing their careers to caring for the underserved and doctors that still make house calls, these stories – and others – are the stories of Inspired.

We have the privilege to see so much compassion and humanity in our work that we decided to give people the opportunity to hear and see these stories themselves. And what better way than to have them told first-person? The videos on characterize the personal and emotional nature of someone’s life work.

We wanted to focus on humanity as a central theme to the website design and welcome visitors with the faces of the Inspired grantees on the homepages. One click and two minutes later – inspiration has been passed on, from person to person, from a grantee in North Carolina to someone sitting at a computer screen anywhere in the world.

Finding and telling stories is one challenge; figuring out how to share them with as many people as possible became quite another. We knew that each featured grantee would have their own community of supporters, but these stories deserve a broader audience. After all, a good story should not be limited in who can experience it. And so, with 800 million people on Facebook and 200 million tweets taking flight each day, we thought surely there was a space in the social sphere for folks to be inspired.

As such, prominently features a content bar that reads “Share this story and we’ll invest $1 in a healthier North Carolina” along with direct links to Twitter, Facebook and email. Click a button and you get an auto-generated message with a link and a note to your friends and followers that they, too, can help invest in a healthier North Carolina simply by sharing a story. Each time a button is hit, each time a story is told, we put $1 into a fund to be distributed among the organizations featured on the site.

So what will success ultimately look like? It is hard to tell at this point. The site is generating a fair amount of traffic, shares are starting to accumulate and the stories of nine North Carolina nonprofits are reaching parts of the globe not imagined just a couple of months ago.

We invite you to see and share for yourself.

Author: Amon Marstiller, Director of Communications for Leadership Positioning and Corporate Citizenship for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation