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As I finish my time in India, I feel so lucky to have been a part of this amazing program. After returning home to the States, it seems like I am looking at my home city with a new set of eyes. There were so many things that I hadn’t noticed before, like how empty the streets seem or how the “spicy” food here is no match for the Indian cuisine we had on our program. Everything is relative! Also, settling back home has given me the time to reflect on all the experiences I have had over the past three weeks, halfway across the world. While I absorbed much more than I could ever give to the Indian community, I was happy with the work we did with the non-profit organization SPYM.

Along with two of my ACE teammates, I was assigned to work with SPYM, an NGO that has worked on community, healthcare, and socio-economic development in India over the past three decades. A large portion of the time we spent during this program was dedicated to volunteering for this special organization, so I want to share with you all some of the work we did.

Settling back home has given me the time to reflect on all the experiences I have had over the past three weeks, halfway across the world. While I absorbed much more than I could ever give to the Indian community, I was happy with the work we did with the non-profit organization SPYM.

It was not possible to directly observe every aspect of this multi-faceted organization. Instead, we spent all our time at their drug rehabilitation center for juvenile delinquents, which happens to be the only center of its kind in the entire country. Children who get involved with law enforcement and who are then determined to have an underlying substance abuse problem can undergo rehabilitation through SPYM instead of serving their sentence in juvenile detention centers. The program lasts between ninety days and one year, depending on the severity of the addiction and on the individual needs of each child.

Maddie, Cassidy, and I had the opportunity to speak with the director of our SPYM center, and he gave us really great information about the program. The center has a nearly 50% success rate, which is huge for drug rehabilitation centers. Their model for rehabilitation focuses on promoting literacy and teaching vocational skills for when the kids ultimately leave the center. Most importantly, their program focuses on treating children like children because as the director explained, “If you treat them like criminals, they will act like criminals.” The director further explained that in India, drug use is considered a moral wrong, so users can’t seek treatment without experiencing shame and stigma from others. A central goal of their organization is to educate parents, teachers, and police, that drug use is not an unchangeable character flaw, but a behavioral issue that can be altered and eradicated using scientifically-tested, therapeutic techniques rooted in psychology. Although the director only discussed India, I believe that many countries likely face this stigma, including our own.

After spending three weeks with the children of SPYM, my perception of drug users has been changed greatly. These truly were just children!

After spending three weeks with the children of SPYM, my perception of drug users has been changed greatly. These truly were just children! Over the course of my time volunteering, I could observe and interact with the youth in a variety of settings. I watched them improve their Hindi reading and writing skills and participate in group therapy sessions in classrooms. I also ran a lesson on nutrition and healthy sleeping habits and played fun games with them during their free time, among other things. We had a blast teaching them American games like Four Square, and they taught us some fun games too. One game that I hadn’t heard of before was called “Carrom,” and the kids had a blast laughing over how bad I was at their game. But perhaps the most fun we had together was on the days we would listen to music and dance. The children at the center loved to dance, and they loved Justin Bieber! We came to find out that he is very popular in India, especially with the younger generation. The concept of treating children like children, rather than criminals, really seemed to ring through when the group was busy belting out the words to “Baby.” The entire experience brought us all closer.

Most of the children only spoke Hindi, but there were a few who spoke English. We had the opportunity to talk with them and hear their stories and circumstances for how they came to be in the center. While it is certainly not my place as a foreign volunteer to judge their actions as right or wrong, I think that the most important lesson I learned from them was to always give others the chance to explain themselves and their backgrounds before rushing to conclusions. That is something that I will take with me moving forward. This has given me a different, broadened perspective, from which I can start thinking about the American incarceration process and the people detained by it.

I think that the most important lesson I learned from them was to always give others the chance to explain themselves and their backgrounds before rushing to conclusions. This has given me a different, broadened perspective, from which I can start thinking about the American incarceration process and the people detained by it.

Over the three weeks, we saw a few children leave the facility as they finished their rehabilitation, and I couldn’t help but be excited for them. While I will never know if the children I met will be clean for the rest of their lives, I know enough about SPYM’s model to know that they will have a fighting chance. SPYM taught me that we should treat people like people before we treat them like criminals, and I am so grateful that they allowed me to volunteer with them.

board game with round playing piecesI played Carrom, a traditional Indian game, with the kids one day during their free time. The rules were so simple that I could pick it up even when the boys only spoke in Hindi. That didn’t stop me from getting last place, and the boys laughing at me. All in good fun!

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