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Cormac Healy

Sustainable community development in Kerala

GVI Kerala has been working with local partners in Fort Kochi and the surrounding area for almost 10 years, and in that time we have built strong relationships within the community and with numerous partners. Whilst with us, volunteers joining the education program have the opportunity to contribute to sustainable projects that are run in collaboration with, and under the instruction of, local partners.

One example is a special needs school in Fort Kochi, a partner we have been working with for over 7 years. Recently, we were asked to work with some of the students who receive vocational training at the school. The goal is to give the students the support and guidance they need to develop certain skills required to make a paper bag, which could then be sold on to local hotels and restaurants, giving the student a small, yet emotionally significant income.

As with all our programs, we need to ask ourselves if this is sustainable, beneficial, or even necessary to the community. With this project, GVI is providing volunteers who are able to spend time with individual students, going over basic skills that are going to be used for an activity set by the project partner, providing the individual support which the school is not always able to do due to staffing shortages.

Quiet and Relaxing Weekly Sessions

The sessions are quiet and relaxing, with volunteers working one-on-one with students, slowly and steadily practicing the basic techniques of folding, gluing, and creasing that are required to make the perfect bag. The majority of the students are either non-verbal or speak no English, so the main form of communication is through basic gestures and visual demonstrations. Using a box template to wrap the paper around, the technique is similar to that of wrapping a present. Patience, perseverance, and practice are the names of the game.

The program has been running since January, and in that time GVI volunteers have worked with 30 different students, each time with that simple goal, empowering them to develop their skills to make the perfect paper bag.

To me, this small project represents so much about what GVI does right in community development. It is partner-led, and the initiative and idea came from the school, specifically the principal, who realised the potential behind the regular volunteers from GVI and the difference they could make.

It has a clear end goal, getting the students to develop their skills to the level where they can independently make bags to a standard high enough to be sold. Monitoring their progress towards this is relatively straightforward, and the program coordinator can keep organised notes on the progress of each individual student over the time we have been working with them.

Impact and Ethics: Making a Difference

This is just one example of the work that GVI does, both in Kerala and across the 13 countries that GVI works in around the world. Recently, our first Impact and Ethics report was published, showcasing stories from a variety of different hubs and a range of projects, from those that might seem familiar to the education and women’s empowerment programs here in Kerala to those that are completely different, like conservation.

Every volunteer who joins a GVI program hopes to make a difference, and occasionally it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Taking a step back and looking at the work being done by so many volunteers and staff members can help remind volunteers how that simple exercise of teaching a student how to fold a bag is contributing to the GVI mission.

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