The joys of volunteering with children at the Butterfly Foundation in Nepal

Posted: December 29, 2010 in Nepal
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Muneeza and I decided to add a week onto our stay in Pokhara to volunteer at the Butterfly Foundation, a child day care centre set-up by Govinda, the owner of the Butterfly Lodge where we have been staying, to help disadvantaged families in the local area. We turned up on Wednesday 22nd December after our trek and had a chat with Govinda’s son Keshab who is the manager at the centre.

The moment we walked through the front gate we fell in love with the place. The children came running up to us shouting “hello” and grabbing our hands and leading us to play with them (no dodgy gags please!). They were excited to see new faces who they could exhaust with their endless energy. It was hard to shake the little tigers off and head up to the office to speak to Keshab. Luckily for us Keshab speaks fluent English having spent 7 years studying and working in London. Guess where? Right next to Ealing Broadway less than 5mins walk from my old flat. It’s a small world. After a few drinks on Christmas Eve we started exchanging stories of London drinking haunts as well as getting the low down on life in Nepal, a most enjoyable exchange.

Why child care support is essential in Nepal

Nepal doesn’t have a welfare system like the UK. If you are poor, you are poor. There is no money from the state. You have to find somewhere local that is willing to help. For the poorest of families who live in difficult circumstances, it is hard to find work to provide a stable income. That means money for food, clothes and essential supplies like medicine is scarce.

These families rely on charitable organisations and altruistic souls to help them. The Butterfly Foundation enables mothers to work for a few hours each day knowing that their children are being looked after. The goal is to break the poverty cycle by encouraging the parents to work and bring home a regular income so that their children will have a brighter future. It’s an essential and admirable goal.

Getting into a routine

We arrived at 10am on Thursday as suggested by Keshab only to find he wasn’t there because he was stuck in a meeting for the Lodge. The chap who works in the office doesn’t speak good English and our Nepali is “a li a li”, so with confusing gestures we took the hint and went to find the teachers, or “ama” as they are called here. Nobody seemed to know what we should be doing, so we took it upon ourselves to go and entertain the children.

The kids have playtime from 09.30 to 11.30 every morning. The are picked up from home by the team and let loose in the playground. The playground consists of a large open grassy space with swings, climbing frames, sandpit and slides. The children are all aged 2-5 and have attention spans like mine. Each kid has a different obsession; some are addicted to football, others like to idle on the swings, some stick to the slides, others create chaos in the sand and some of the girls, under the impressive leadership of Suhana, walk round with their favourite dolls.

After playtime, the ama call the children to the outdoor seating area. They line them up in 4 rows and each row takes it in turn to march round the seating area to the beat of a drum shouting “one-two” as they march. Getting them organised can be fun as some of the kids don’t pay any attention (my Mum would sympathise with that!) and others are easily distracted.

Next is the singing half hour. First the kids line-up and sing the national anthem with their hands held together in the praying position. Then the ama lead them in various English and Nepali songs including popular nursery rhymes like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. After the first day we joined in and helped the kids with the English words though I was clearly out of tune and strangling cats. Watching the children sing and dance was a wonderful and entertaining experience. The cute twin boys inevitably ended up breaking rank and running off to play before we were able to grab them and bring them back. They can be so mischievous but they are adorable and it’s impossible to get angry with a 2 year old with a cheeky smile.

At around 12.15 the children, reluctantly and with great difficulty, are put in the classrooms for some basic skills teaching. Here they learn the alphabet in both English and Nepali as well as key words which the ama get them to repeat from pictures and words painted on the walls.

Butterfly Foundation Nepal Classroom The lessons are quite chaotic because there is limited space within which to fit over 30 children and keeping the attention of 2-5 year olds is rather challenging. The ama do their best to give the children some basic education but they sometimes struggle to keep them focussed.

The difficulty flares when one or two of the children get distracted and stop listening or, even worse, start to shout and scream. Most of them are well behaved but distracting behaviour is contagious. Once one starts, a chain reaction kicks in and the others follow suit. It’s like a tidal wave building and waiting to break. Hopefully in the future if funds can be raised, the Butterfly Foundation can build a new classroom that enables the ama to teach the children in separate classes to reduce the noise distraction.

After lessons comes messy time. Messy time involves feeding and watering the children. This, as the parents amongst you will attest to, is easier said than done. Not all children like to eat and not all can eat. Invariable we had to help the smaller children whose eating habits ranged from messy to chaotic. One small girl was the messiest eater we have ever seen; though she needed no help, every day she covered herself from head to toe with food and water. I helped one of the smallest boys every day because he was easily distracted and played with his food instead of eating (remind you of anyone Mum?). It was difficult but after asking for some local vocab, the word “kanyo” seemed to pay dividends and gradually he improved. We both loved messy time because it is entertaining, though less so when you have to clear up afterwards.

After food comes sleep time where the kids bed down for 2 hours before they are taken home. It’s a wonderful sight to see the children calm and snoozing after all the hectic activities of the morning. It’s also a nice time for the ama to relax and get their energy back.

Individual personalities shining through

It was inevitable that after a week we would get to know the children individually and it’s amazing how distinct their personalities are. There were a few annoying children who always wanted attention, who wanted to have their favourite toys and refused to share with the others. It took patience and a bit of strong mindedness to make them listen and play nicely with the other kids.

We also had our favourites. Muneeza loved the daughter of our friendly local barber, Sunkar. Ankita is incredibly cute and very gentle natured with a beautiful smile. Initially shy, she warmed to us over the week. My jani’s attention switched after a few days to the endlessly entertaining and incredibly cute twins. They come from one of the poorest families and when they arrived at the centre they were trouble, always soiling themselves all over the floor. Now, after some training and affection, they are better controlled and a lot of fun.

My favourites from the start were the deadly duo of Kem Kumani and Isha. These two girls are adorable and absolutely crazy. The have boundless energy and tear up the playground. They insisted on me swinging them around whilst shouting “monkey” – something I regret doing on the first day which went down a storm and ever since all the children demand I do it. Rather tiring as you know how repetitive kids can be. I loved the fact that the girls wanted me to pick them up and walk around the playground with them whilst they grabbed my beard and shouted “dunga” (Nepali for beard). I would happily have taken them home with me, so I’ve already told Muneeza she needs to squire me a daughter!

Sad to say goodbye but we’ll be back

After 1 week of helping out we had to say goodbye because the centre was closed for 5 days during the Annual Pokhara Street Festival. It was a strange moment; I always find goodbyes anti-climatic as you want to say so much but know that it is overdoing it. We took a last look at the children as they settled to sleep, said fond farewells to the ama and then walked back to the Lodge.

Words can’t adequately describe how enjoyable the week has been. It has definitely been emotional and we grew attached to the children and developed respect for the ama who really care for all of them. The Butterfly Foundation is a fantastic organisation and we are glad to have helped in some small way. What’s even better is that this volunteer opportunity was free, so we have been able to make a donation to the Butterfly Foundation to help with their projects instead of paying money to an agency.

We will definitely come back to Pokhara, our favourite place on the travels so far, to visit Keshab and his family and spend some more time at the centre catching up with the progress the kids are making.

I’ve also enjoyed seeing how natural Muneeza is with the children. She has much more patience than I and is fantastic at looking after them and keeping them entertained. It’s a nice experience to see your fiancee so comfortable around children and so natural and looking after them and giving them affection.

Take a peek behind the scenes

I spent 2 days with Keshab helping him understand how to improve the Butterfly Foundation website. As a result, I have created a Flickr photostream with lots of pics of the children and the various aspects of daily life. Please drop by and have a look at the Butterfly Foundation Flickr album.

From East to West, Altruism is best

I couldn’t finish this blog without nudging people to consider supporting Keshab in his aims to fundraise. Each year the Butterfly Foundation attempts to find kind people to help with child sponsorship in Nepal as well those with some spare time that the are willing to use to volunteer in Nepal. We would love it if our friends and family could spare some money or time, so if you are interested take a peek at the Butterfly Foundation website and do whatever you can. All support hugely appreciated.

love james & muneeza x

Butterfly Foundation Charity Nepal

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