Yale Alumni Service Corps Engages with India

Monday, September 8, 2014

“Namaste! And welcome to YASC Air,” was the first greeting that Puneet Batra ’02 MS, volunteer producer of the first Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) program in India, gave to the 170 participants flying from New Delhi to Jodhpur.

The group of 135 Yale alumni, family, and friends and 35 volunteers and staff from AFS India were headed to Kakelao, a community of about 4,000 people 40 minutes outside of Jodhpur. Volunteers for this trip ranged from age 11 to 78; the majority came from the United States, though New Zealand, Ethiopia, and Morocco were also represented in the corps, which worked in India from July 30 to August 14.

Located in rural Rajasthan, Kakelao is the newest site for the AYA initiative that calls alumni to service in projects ranging from public health classes and programs to school enrichment programs, construction, medical care, and micro-business consulting. Other work sites since YASC started in 2008 have been in the United States, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil, China, Nicaragua, and Ghana. The program supports alumni and friends who serve as “ambassadors for Yale” and who embody the university’s ideal of lifelong service to society.

According to Mark Dollhopf ’77, Executive Director of the Association of Yale Alumni, this holistic approach is what makes YASC unique. “We design volunteer projects based on community needs, allocating alumni skills and expertise where they would have the most impact,” says Dollhopf. “Our doctors and nurses spearhead clinics, our educators work in schools, even our youngest members organize activities and games.”

In addition to providing services, YASC focuses on building sustainable relationships with collaborating communities, working with local leadership and NGOs to ensure that efforts are responsive to community needs and productive both in the short- and long-term.

Months before the India trip’s start date, Batra and Senior Director for Global Travel Programs Kathy Edersheim ’87 began forming local partnerships. Building on the relationship with AFS International and AFS Ghana, they solidified AFS India as the primary partner to facilitate community relationship and logistics, and teamed up with a number of NGOs including the Maharaja’s Trust, Gravis, the Veerni Project and Pratham, an innovative learning organization and one of the largest NGOs in the country. Edersheim and Batra also met with the local Ayurvedic doctor and enlisted the assistance of the H.H Rajdadiji Badan Kanwar Medical Trust.

In another new concept for YASC, in the weeks preceding the trip, two undergraduate interns, Shona Hemmady ’16 and Hun Wong ’16, worked in the nearby city of Jodhpur to prepare for the arrival of the volunteers. During the hectic and exciting month, Shona and Hun met with all the partners to strengthen the relationships and ensure more effective programs that would ultimately benefit Kakelao. While working out of the Gravis offices in Jodhpur, they also had time to visit Kakelao, meeting stakeholders in the community, and be out and about in Jodhpur sourcing and buying supplies. Shona and Hun assisted in communications with the Rajdadiji hospital that provided 1 doctor, 3 lab technicians, 10 nursing college students and an ambulance during the group’s time in Kakelao. They also helped with the procurement of medications and diagnostic equipment needed by the medical group. Other local partners helped source supplies like lumber, power tools, paint supplies, sandals for distribution, as well as school and art supplies. Arranging all of this prior to the group’s arrival in Jodhpur was crucial.

After arriving in Jodhpur, the volunteers spent the first two days in orientation sessions culminating in a community-wide welcome celebration in Kakelao. The celebration included colorful dance performances by girls from Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls’ Public School and the Veerni Project, who also volunteered as translators and assistants for the week. The Maharaja and Maharani of Jodhpur offered gracious comments to a crowd of over one thousand in his first visit to Kakelao.

The welcome to the community continued with home visits by small groups of volunteers. Kakelao families shared stories with their guests and provided insight into some of the community traditions.

Over the course of the week, the medical clinic saw 550 patients, 492 pairs of shoes were distributed after six sessions of hookworm prevention and awareness classes, and around 500 students from the primary and secondary school participated in enrichments programs. By the end of the week, 780 Kakelao residents had been fitted with eyeglasses with the assistance of 25 YASC volunteers and two aanganwadis (pre-school and women’s care centers) had been painted with cheerful murals.

The construction team along with community members built desks and benches for the local schools. And while they succeeded in cutting and sanding the purchased wood, only a percentage of desks and chairs were ultimately assembled. In response, the school principal proposed two Kakelao residents to train with YASC and spearhead the completion of the project - within ten days of the groups’ departure.

There was no end to the excitement and challenges of the trip. Batra cites one example of the dedication of volunteers and community members alike. “The commitment everyone has shown has made the trip incredibly rewarding,” he says. “Even on the second to last day, when a monsoon hit and the village lost power, many of the volunteers remained. The perseverance and enthusiasm has been inspiring.”

On the last night, all joined for a farewell celebration, a talent show filled with performances and poem readings. It was a commemoration of teamwork and mutual learning, a way for the volunteers to say goodbye and thank you to the magic of Kakelao. Until next year!

- By Isadora Italia

See photos from the YASC trip to India >>