Why You Should Beware When Accepting A Volunteer Placement

I mentioned in a previous post that I volunteered at Sabala for a couple of months. I mentioned that this is a wonderful organisation, dedicated to empowering women and assisting with other socially and economically disadvantaged groups of society including local tribes.

It was an opportunity that is sure to have been a fantastic experience where I could have positively contributed to the cause if the company was ready to accept volunteers/interns, but sadly they were not and I learnt the hard way that I was their first.

It was a placement that was arranged for me by World Fair Trade Organisation, which is why I thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity to take. Actually before I complete this post, I do want to say that aside from my disappointment with the lack of support I received, I have to emphasise that the women (and men) who work at Sabala are the most wonderful people I have ever met. We couldn’t communicate with each other due to our language barriers, yet we always greeted each other, sat outside together and shared food with each other, laughed together, they welcomed me as I walked around the center trying to learn more about what they do and the incredible artistic skills they demonstrated. I couldn’t have ever dreamed of meeting people with such beautiful, selfless souls.

My disappointment with the placement merely came from the lack of contact I had with the person who was supposed to be assisting me throughout the placement.
I mentioned in my previous post that I had waited for three hours at the center for her to even show up to meet me, which ended up being a frequent occurrence throughout my time there. On that first day, when she did finally arrive, she simply told me that she didn’t exactly know what I should be doing, although that my “task” was to design 12 garments for my chosen Indian target market. The meeting was brief and after 30 minutes I was left to my own devices again, clueless about what I was supposed to be doing, so I spent the rest of my time looking through the products and fabrics at my own pace trying to think of how I could positively contribute to this organisation.

At the end of my first day I had gone back to our accommodation not knowing what to expect from this experience and feeling like I had spent most of the day just waiting around for people, and not having much explained to me, however I was more optimistic for the next day. But by the end of the first week I still felt like I was just a presence at the center. My point-of-contact was absent for the majority of the time despite World Fair Trade Organisation promising “regular consultation, advance and guidance, necessary orientation and a workshop/training to ensure that [I] have adequate information to assist [me] in performing [my] duties”. Despite loving Sabala craft centre and the people working there, the promise was not fulfilled by the person who was supposed to be my point-of-contact.

Even when I designed some items, I couldn’t have them approved/critiqued because she wasn’t ever there. So sometimes I took it upon myself to ask the pattern cutter to help me start making some items that I thought would fit into Sabala’s vision. However, it was a understandably difficult to explain to him due to not having an English-speaker around to translate what I was trying to create and so naturally, the products didn’t often turn out as planned.

I guess I expected that the person who was supposed to be my contact, would take an interest in what I was doing, not necessarily for me but for her company – ensuring that the items are within the interest of the company, that fabric was not being wasted unnecessarily due to bad measurements/styles, etc. I guess I also expected that I might have been shown the process from design to production at least once before being told to “create 12 garments” and then leaving me to my own devices, hoping for the best. Perhaps she could have designed a garment with me and let me see the development to finished article. I guess I also hoped she would teach me about the fair trade industry.

Having made the train journey from Rajasthan to Bijapur and having been so excited about this experience, my first week I felt frustrated at the management and felt like she was uninterested in anything I was doing. And honestly, if she was, that is totally acceptable. However, they then need to re-evaluate the idea of accepting any volunteers/interns at the center. Failing that, the reason this person was my point-of-contact was because her mother, the owner, was away for the week on a conference. Perhaps things would have been different if my placement had been delayed by a week.

I remember on the Saturday I was supposed to have spent the free day with Brendan, but my contact had told me she’d meet me at 10:00am to get Tanaji the pattern cutter to cut my fabrics. At 11:00am she finally decided to answer my call to tell me that she’s not coming in. She failed to see that a simple text before I left the apartment would have been a polite/respectfful thing to do. But to be honest, throughout the months i was there, she did this to me so often I eventually stopped believing any of the meeting times. So many times I considered leaving Bijapur and cancelling the whole experience because of these incidences and this individual. However, I didn’t want to let this challenging situation get the better of me and honestly, the people working there were the reason I stayed.

I want to reaffirm that the ladies and the men who work at Sabala are absolutely wonderful and despite the management’s lack of support/respect for me, I still maintain that the organisation itself is wonderful. The women who work there come from under-privileged, difficult backgrounds. Many are very poor and there are a couple of people with disabilities working there, who find it extremely difficult to walk. making them unable to walk. For them, Sabala has provided a 3-wheeled arm-powered wheelchair making it possible to travel independently to and from work with the rest of the women. Some of the women come from ethnic tribes and live in remote villages. Others are either divorced or widowed. They all specialise in a particular area of the  production unit, whether it’s in embroidery, Banjara craft, making jewellery, using the sewing machine, or creating bag linings. This is what makes Sabala is a great organisation, even if management weren’t yet ready to take a volunteer/intern/foreigner.

However, what I learned from my experience is that it’s important to do research about the organisation you plan to work for..

Have they had volunteers/interns before? If so, check references from people to check if their placement was valuable.
Is it a new organisation, or is it well-established?
Can anyone speak your language? Have they worked with foreigners before?
Will there be someone you can contact on a regular basis if you need assistance?

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