A day in the life of a volunteer
January 1990
By Louise L. Reiver
Condensed from N.W Oxford Review

At 5 a.m. a very faint light is seeping into my room. The loud pulsing of the air conditioner has almost obscured the ring of the alarm clock. I step onto the concrete floor which, along with the walls, seems to be permanently damp. Washing in the tepid, brownish tap water, I dress in one of my all-purpose cotton dresses, take my vitamins with a few swallows from the thermos of boiled water the hotel provides, and I am as ready as I am going to be.

Leaving my room carefully locked, I make my way in the dim light through the hotel dining room, taking care as I move not to step on the hotel servants who sleep on the floor of the dining room and in the courtyard of the hotel. Once out on the street, I look carefully where I walk to avoid stepping on sleeping, street residents or stepping into the gutter, which is filled with garbage and sewage. I have plenty of time to walk to the motherhouse chapel for 5:45 Mass. Nodding to a handful of other
volunteers, who are coming out of the Salvation Army Hostel across the street, I make my solitary way to the convent. I prefer to walk alone to collect my thoughts before I begin another day by the side of the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.

The day is just awakening. The public pumps are busy as people wash themselves, from head to toe. Also, the streets are full of potholes, and in some places, huge cave-ins, too, the result of forgotten municipal efforts to repair broken water mains.

Most of the broken mains are left to run, causing the streets to flood, floating bits of unidentifiable garbage, and an occasional dead rat. But the sun is coming up now, and even the slums of Calcutta cannot deny the beauty of a dawning day.

By the time I cover the two miles to the motherhouse, I am soaked with sweat, and another airless and humid Calcutta scorcher has begun. Entering the convent from the alley, I remove my shoes and welcome the coolness of the spotless stone floor on my already hot feet. A shy postulant nods good morning. I quietly climb the stairs, savoring the silence as I near the chapel on the second floor.

The Sisters are already taking their places, and the only sound is the whisper of their bare feet as they file in. I bow low before the life-sized image on the cross, the only ornament on the cream-colored walls. Genuflecting, I take my place with the other volunteers on the floor. There are no benches or chairs.

A whisper off to the side lets me know without looking that Mother Teresa has come in. A few more minutes for meditation and a priest enters. The Sisters sing hymns and responses, and their pure, sweet notes weave above the loud clang of traffic in the hot street below. This long, unadorned room is full of the love of God. I watch Mother Teresa receive the Bread of Life. For a moment, her face loses its lines of care and age and she lifts her head with joy and welcome.

After Mass Mother leaves first, her hands still folded in prayer, her head bowed. The dozen or so volunteers are invited below to the parlor. We chat a bit and inquire after one another's health.

A little after 7 a.m. I commence the hot walk back to Sudder Street and my breakfast at the hotel. I've gotten into the habit of praying my way home after Mass, but as I walk along I still notice the activity around me. Herds of small goats are driven to the butcher shop, or to meager pastures. In the Muslim quarter, cows that look as though they could use a good feed are brought out of the owners' hovels and tied in the shade of the few trees on the street. All day long the Hindu children will pet the cows and bring them tidbits of grass pulled from somewhere. By this time in the morning Calcutta's dogs, a mangy and often rabid lot, emerge from the places where they sleep at night to the places where they sleep during the day.

The beggars have taken up their stations. Most are horribly crippled or mutilated; many are lepers. Each has a zealously guarded territory. Not far from my hotel I find, as usual, a hunched-up old woman who is blind, toothless, and crippled. I always press a rupee into her outstretched hand; from time to time I've given her water from my thermos, and an umbrella-all of which have been stolen from her before the day was over. I ask one of the hotel servants how old he thinks she is and he estimates 30 or 35 years old. The poorest of the poor do not live long in Calcutta.

Begging was hard for me to accept when I first arrived in India. When I asked Sister Superior Priscilla how to deal with the beggars, she said to respond to what God was telling me, and to give or not give accordingly. So I became selective, giving something each day at the same time and place to the same person. In so doing I found that the others left me alone.

In my hotel room I change my sweat-soaked cotton dress for the first of what will probably be two or three times today. Walking is the easiest way to get around Calcutta, but it is also the hottest. During the day the temperature will rise from a fairly cool 80 at 6 a.m. to 100° by noon. I often am very thirsty. Usually I carry my own thermos of boiled water to and from work so as not to impose on the supplies of the orphanage or the convent. For people here to keep themselves supplied -hauling water in buckets from the pump in the courtyard, boiling it the required 30 minutes, and storing it in the large clay jars on each floor- requires much time and effort.


Breakfast in my little hotel is served by turbaned and sashed servants. It is the full British colonial meal, complete with fruit, porridge, eggs, bacon, potato, toast, and tea. A bit too much for me, but I eat what I can and ask for coffee instead of tea, which marks me as an American. The hotel guests are for the most part Westerners working in missionary-type services.

After breakfast I gather the American-donated toys I will use at the orphanage with the sick and handicapped children during the next several hours. The orphanage is just three blocks from the motherhouse and occupies almost half the block. Out on the street again, and laden with my "Santa" sack, I don't even look around before my "ricky" pulls up to the narrow curb and takes my sack to help me into the rickshaw.

By midmorning the streets are impossibly crowded. Buses are picking up the children who are lucky enough to go to school. Ragged and tattered youngsters (who will probably never get any education) run in and out through the traffic. The street stalls and markets are open, and coolies balancing baskets loaded with produce on their heads weave adroitly through the crowds. Long, two-wheeled carts packed with firewood and coal are pulled through the congested streets, and cars and motor scooters beep their horns in frustration. Mayhem. I pray that my ricky won't stumble or break his back trying to halt as a car nearly mashes his bare feet.

At the orphanage I step down to the road and almost land in the sewage that flows by the curb. With my sack of toys over my shoulder, I force my way through 60 to 70 tattered, hungry people; they are holding containers for the rice and vegetable mixture and powdered milk that the Sisters will distribute all day, or until they run out. These people are not beggars; they are simply out of work or ill and needy.

The guardian of the door is a stout local woman who knows everyone in the line and has something to say to each. She is called "Auntie" (as are all of us helpers) and she does not hesitate to use her strong arms to remove a double dipper. We greet each other, and as I enter I can hear the children calling, "Auntie, Auntie!" to me from the second-floor windows. They wave excitedly.

Happy pandemonium erupts as I greet Sister Olga, the director of this section of the orphanage, and respond to the enveloping little arms and sweet faces.

The children here are sick, and many are severely handicapped as well. Some are on the mend, but all bear the physical or mental scars of extreme malnutrition. A few may have been victims of mutilation, or untreated polio, or birth deformities. There is not a child at the orphanage who has not had or does not currently have tuberculosis. Almost all the children are true orphans, but a few have been brought in by parents so malnourished that they can no longer care for their sick child.

Despite the loving and attentive care given these children by the Sisters, sometimes the struggle to live is too much. Whenever one of the little souls is called to God, we all grieve, though we know that, at the last, they were loved and treasured and held in warm and gentle arms.

My children vary in age from toddlers to pre-teens. I have my hands full keeping the bigger and more capable ones occupied with the learning toys and teaching tools, which improve their eye-hand coordination, and I instruct them in English and arithmetic. The sicker and younger ones I set to simple tasks with blocks of three- or four-piece puzzles. But the younger children will always try to disrupt the proceedings.

Sister Olga and her staff have turned the children entirely over to me for the morning while they distribute medications and attend to the constant housekeeping chores.

If I'm lucky, and another volunteer also is available, I can take 30 minutes to work with the bedridden children. In the back wing of the seven large rooms that house the orphans are 15 and sometimes more cribs with children lying in them who cannot even sit up. Often there are two in a bed, not so much for lack of space as to provide each other warmth. I have brought some plastic toys that are brightly colored and easy to grasp.

For the children unable to hold anything, or even to move, I move the toys back and forth hoping they will follow the movement with their eyes. Some do quite well: I have succeeded after much practice in getting Samuel, 11, whose body is twisted and paralyzed, to reach for a toy, hold it, and hand it back. (Only someone who has worked day after day with a child such as Samuel can know how triumphant we all feel when he succeeds.)

In 20 or more little cots next to the nursing station lie the most seriously ill children. Either Sister Olga, a nurse, or one of the Sisters in nurses' training keeps an eye on these youngsters all the time. There are no fancy electronic systems to beep when one of them slips into a coma or cardiac arrest. Only dedicated vigilance and a loving eye can ward off such a crisis-if it can be warded off.

Yet miracles of survival do happen here, perhaps because every day brings with it many miracles of care. Sister Olga's round, gentle face lights up the room when she smiles down at the children or looks up quickly with a smile of unspoken thanks at a helper. She is in charge here; every decision rests on her shoulders. She rejoices when the ill recover, and the children's liveliness and even their naughtiness never fail to delight her. Only once did she ever admit to me that she was weary. And then she said that her moments of prayer were her only rest. Even then, though, her prayers are said for the children.

At 11:45 the youngsters and I start to put the toys away in my big canvas sack. But prying a toddler who is beginning to feel healthy and energetic away from a favorite toy can mean war, and so Sister Olga must intervene as children howl about their rights of possession. With a firm grip on the offender's upper arm, and with a twinkle in her eye, Sister Olga restores order in just a short time.

Each of my children is special in a different way. Some are little villains of mischief and will do their level best to disrupt. I can't get very angry at them, though, because their mischievousness means they are getting better. Others, such as Mary, whose lungs are riddled with tuberculosis, or Joya, with her leg braces, are models of cooperation. Between these extremes are the many children who tire easily and fuss, sometimes noisily, sometimes in whimpers.

Joya is the eldest of this group. She wears heavy braces for her polio-damaged legs, but gets around with amazing agility. On a recent outing at a zoo, Joya walked the whole way. I was carrying one of the crippled children, and by the end of the day my little burden felt like 100 pounds.
But I only had to look at Joya gamely heaving herself along beside me to find that my burden wasn't so heavy after all.

After clean-up each day, we sing and dance a bit, acting out the songs with exaggerated pantomime. London Bridge and Pop! Goes the Weasel are always favorites. If other regular volunteers are on hand, we carry the crippled children from their beds and give them a chance to dance and sing in their special ways.

By lunchtime we are all hungry and tired. After a meal of rice, vegetables, fruit, and milk, it is time for me to head home. I say good-bye amid hugs and kisses and calls of "Tomorrow, Auntie?"

"Yes," I reassure them, "tomorrow." Sister Olga asks if I will return when the doctor comes for rounds. I tell her I will try. Josefina, one of the older helpers, touches me softly on the arm. "Thank you, Auntie," she murmurs. I descend the stairs happily; I have been of some help to someone today.

Back on the street it is boiling hot and the humidity makes it difficult to breathe. I blame the humidity for the close air, but equally at fault are the smoke from charcoal and dung cooking fires, and the automobile exhaust fumes. Pervasive, too, is the smell of rotting garbage and human waste.

In the Muslim quarter I note that the little goats and some of the cows I saw earlier are now mere hunks of fly-covered meat hanging from hooks in the butcher stalls. It is so hot that the fat from the raw meat drips into pools on the sidewalk.

Back in my room with a glass of cool water, I go over my lesson plan for the afternoon.

Every day but Thursday, I teach a class in English and a class in what I call (with tongue in cheek) "Western Culture 101" to a group of senior Tertians. My students are a bright, eager lot aged 25 to 28; They have been Sisters for six or seven years and will make their final vows in about a year.

My only teaching tools are a small globe and a blackboard. My classroom is the Tertians' refectory and workroom. Sister Priscilla cautions me to give no homework; there simply is no time to complete it. I have to teach entirely by lecturing; they take notes.

With my small backpack of books and class outlines, I walk for the second time today to the convent. By now I (and everyone else in Calcutta) absolutely pray for the afternoon monsoon rain. I arrive sweaty as usual, but once inside, the coolness, or maybe the quiet, or maybe the peacefulness, combine to dry me off. Leaving my shoes outside, I bow before the picture of Christ once again and pause in the doorway of the chapel to thank God for letting me be in this place at this time. I move on to my classroom, and all my students murmur, "Good afternoon, Miz," with a warm smile. No matter how tired they are-and their day is very long-I am always greeted with warmth and love.

Sister Mary Pierre, the unofficial' class leader, places the convent fan at my back and we set to work. Today we discuss law, starting with Mosaic law, and moving on to Roman law, the Code of Justinian, and English common law. Upon the last, the law of India, is based. Then, as the bell for afternoon prayer rings, we stop and bow our heads in silence.

At 4 p.m. my charges leave for the hour of religious study that comes next, and I go back to the orphanage to join the children for afternoon devotions.

We sit on the floor. Three or four of my toddlers snuggle into my lap; the others gather as close as they can. All thoughts of the heat and the humidity vanish as these warm little bodies settle close to me.

After prayers I have a few minutes to sit with the doctor and Sister Olga as they continue my education in the treatment of pediatric malnutrition. Dr. Kundu works out of the Calcutta Medical College. He receives no fee for his services at the orphanage.

Back with my students, we continue looking at Western law. Just as we are beginning the last half-hour of class, the rains which threatened all afternoon come down in a torrent. And then, predictably, the electricity goes off. We are not unhappy. Because we can't see anything, we sing a bit. The class asks me to sing an American song and I oblige with Red River Valley and Clementine, and then we do some hymns and end with Onward Christian Soldiers, a favorite. It is 7 p.m. and my fervent Tertians have other duties to tend to before their day is over. In soft voices they thank me: "Good evening, Miz."

I enter the chapel on my way out. It is dark, and evening devotions are almost over. I find a place against the wall and bow my head in thanks to Almighty God for this moment of calm in a world filled with poverty and turmoil.

Refreshed, I leave the convent and, opening my umbrella against the continuing downpour, I look around for a ricky who will get me home safely.

Back in my hotel I find that the air conditioning has been turned on. I have a chance to dry out and get cool. I bathe with hot water in the old claw-footed, rust-stained bathtub, and now I change for the last time today. In the dining room I am so tired that at first I have no appetite. But a few big swallows of ice water and the livening conversation of my table companions renew me for a while.

Nevertheless, I soon find my eyes closing involuntarily. I return to my room and begin a letter to my husband, who at this moment is so very far away in America. I am too tired, though, even to finish the letter. It is 10 p.m., after all, and time to put down the burdens of the day and go to sleep.