13 August, 2007

Revisiting Maleer Halt

So everyone agrees that they love Princeton more when they're away, but I was glad when some skills I'd learned at Princeton really came in handy this summer.

For nine years now, FESF has been organizing this summer camp for the kids at SOS: two intense weeks of fun activities, vocational workshops, excursions, movies, a games and barbecue night, and a final evening of performances and prizes. The kids wait for these two weeks all year round.

It was slightly daunting as our group of five sat in the air-conditioned living room on a searing hot June afternoon launching preparations for the 2007 camp with Mary Reik, the director and organizer of the annual camp at the SOS Village (an orphanage) in Karachi. A lot of our experienced volunteers had not been able to join us this year and, having volunteered at this camp for the last five years, I suddenly found myself in a central, responsible role. There would be a team of fifty volunteers and if ever teamwork was important, it was now. As we critiqued last year's camp and brainstormed ideas for this one, I became more confident and realized how important it was to be positive and focussed. Looking back more than a month later, I can say that it really was a splendid experience!

We had scheduled interviews for new volunteers: two of us interviewed each applicant; we had a list of questions and a form to write down responses and then our final impressions. Behind the very professional demeanor, I was absolutely thrilled to get to know so many new people, to get to ask them questions about their life and work, and to see how nervous some were. These were generally high school and college students (some had
heard of me - which was super flattering) and lets just say I wasn't the scariest interviewer around (which would result in an embarrassed silence when weeks later at the camp, someone would remark: Who interviewed this freak?). I learned that seemingly great interviewees can be deceptive losers and some uncertain candidates can turn out to be great team-workers - not a general rule though!

We would have deaf kids from the DRTC school coming for the summer camp again this year so the workshops included forty-five minutes of a sign language crash course everyday.

This was my second year so I felt much more comfortable with it. I learned that there exists a deaf culture around the world and deaf people in one region may relate better to deaf people in other regions than hearing people in their own countries. We learned the American Sign Language (ASL), one of many that exist. Richard (our teacher) told us that deaf kids are very expressive with their gestures and movement and can be restless, but that should not be considered offensive. He said that sign language is like any other language and because we were going to be surrounded by so many deaf kids at the camp, he was being nice and teaching us this talent so that we might feel better about ourselves. I loved the way he taught us to understand deafness, and that knowledge resulted in some truly amazing silent (but highly animated) conversations at the camp. The little kids gave me a name sign, a sign that can be used when referring to me - it is supposed to be characteristic of the person and all the deaf kids had one.

The workshops lasted for seven days and included special training by Mary (she uses a lot of this material for her teacher training workshops!) on teamwork, leadership, working with children and conflict resolution. We learned to define clear rules and have consistent rewards and consequences for the kids.

During the workshops we got to know the volunteers and made some very good friends. Tea was especially nice after long sessions of intensive work. Once we had assessed people's preferences about what age group of kids they wanted to work with (and also got to know them a little and ascertain where they would be "most needed") we put up a list of who would be where. There were some grievances to be addressed regarding this: A little bit of "We need your energy there most!" or "Yes we know you can work with her better but the whole idea is to make new friends!" did the trick.

Ayesha and I led some of the brainstorming sessions - like the one on excursions. It was really a lot of fun to break the sometimes serious mood of the discussion with something humorous or ironic - especially if it went unnoticed by the majority of the people. We managed to plan the camp quite well, if one is to compare with previous years.

I was in charge of the around twenty-five volunteers who would be working with the youngest children (four- to ten-year-olds). We had four smaller groups, Yellow A and B, and Orange A and B. So after assigning Team Leaders (some were naturally great - others became great by the time we were done) and Assistant Team Leaders, we realized that a lot of shifting needed to be done, to assure that each team was equally strong, and occasionally a few people were asked to step aside for a word (that meant trouble!). I got really good at this by the end and Mary started to rely on my ability to carry it out on my own, which was the whole point of having individuals overlooking large groups - so that one person didn't have to worry about everything. One of the greatest lessons I learned was that to make something very big happen, you have to rely on the power of team-work and trust your teammates - you cannot afford to micro-manage.

So for the youngest kids' groups we planned out each of the eight days of camp and reviewed and critiqued it all, and then planned some more. We tried to add themes and focus each day on a certain learning idea. Meanwhile sponsors and people at excursion venues had to be contacted and details had to be finalized.

We had special planning sessions for the games and barbecue night, which typically requires all hands on deck for planning and executing a very complicated, greatly tiring and extremely fun evening. Whatever was left out was now going to be ironed out at the camp itself. The preparations were done and the camp was about to begin.

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